Beatriz (L), 7, from Rio de Janeiro speaks with an indigenous girl at the Kari-Oca village as part of the ‘Rio+20’ United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Photo by Ricardo Moraes/Reuters
Much of linguistic theory is so abstract and dependent on theoretical apparatus that it might be impossible to explain
Science is a messy business, but just like everything with loose ends and ragged edges, we tend to understand it by resorting to ideal types. On the one hand, there’s the archetype of the scientific method: a means of accounting for observations, generating precise, testable predictions, and yielding new discoveries about the natural consequences of natural laws. On the other, there’s our ever-replenishing font of story archetypes: the accidental event that results in a sudden clarifying insight; the hero who pursues the truth in the face of resistance or even danger; the surprising fact that challenges the dominant theory and brings it toppling to the ground.
The interplay of these archetypes has produced a spirited, long-running controversy about the nature and origins of language. Recently, it’s been flung back into public awareness following the publication of Tom Wolfe’s book The Kingdom of Speech (2016).
In Wolfe’s breathless re-telling, the dominant scientific theory is Noam Chomsky’s concept of a ‘universal grammar’ – the idea that all languages share a deep underlying structure that’s almost certainly baked into our biology by evolution. The crucial hypothesis is that its core, essential feature is recursion, the capacity to embed phrases within phrases ad infinitum, and so express complex relations between ideas (such as ‘Tom says that Dan claims that Noam believes that…’). And the challenging fact is the discovery of an Amazonian language, Pirahã, that does not have recursion. The scientific debate plays out as a classic David-and-Goliath story, with Chomsky as a famous, ivory-tower intellectual whose grand armchair proclamations are challenged by a rugged, lowly field linguist and former Christian missionary named Daniel Everett.
Stories this ripe for dramatisation come along rarely in any branch of science, much less the relatively obscure field of theoretical linguistics. But the truth will always be more complicated than the idealisations we use to understand it. In this case, the details lend themselves so well to juicy, edifice-crumbling story arcs that a deeper, more consequential point tends to be overlooked. It concerns not Everett’s challenge to Chomsky’s theory, but Chomsky’s challenge to the scientific method itself.
This counter-attack takes the form of the Chomskyans’ response to Everett. They say that even if Pirahã has no recursion, it matters not one bit for the theory of universal grammar. The capacity is intrinsic, even if it’s not always exploited. As Chomsky and his colleagues put it in a co-authored paper, ‘our language faculty provides us with a toolkit for building languages, but not all languages use all the tools’. This looks suspiciously like defiance of a central feature of the scientific archetype, one first put forward by the philosopher Karl Popper: theories are not scientific unless they have the potential to be falsified. If you claim that recursion is the essential feature of language, and if the existence of a recursionless language does not debunk your claim, then what could possibly invalidate it?
In an interview with Edge.org in 2007, Everett said he emailed Chomsky: ‘What is a single prediction that universal grammar makes that I could falsify? How could I test it?’ According to Everett, Chomsky replied to say that universal grammar doesn’t make any predictions; it’s a field of study, like biology.
The nub of the disagreement here boils down to what exactly linguistics says about the world, and the appropriate archetypes we should apply to make it effective. So just what kinds of questions does linguistics want to answer? What counts as evidence? Is universal grammar in particular – and theoretical linguistics in general – a science at all?…