09 January 2014

A plug or a polemic?

Whenever a book on language is released, it is traditional for the author to try to get a column in a newspaper raising some pertinent language issue, then launching into what is little more than a sales pitch for his book, describing how it addresses the problem.

It was refreshing then, to see an article in the Guardian where an author decided that the best way to use his 15-minutes of fame was not to plug his wares, but instead to pull out a polemic on the state of linguistics in general.

Harry Ritchie started off with a pertinent language issue, as is tradition. His issue was the often overlooked problem that our culture of "talking properly" in schools is actively disengaging children from their learning. (Most language experts agree on this fact, by the way; it's just the political and school systems that reject this.) His book, as far as I can gather, is simply an attempt to explain real language patterns in a clear and engaging way (I have not read it, so cannot comment on the success or otherwise of this) and he could have continued in the typical manner by throwing up multiple examples drawn straight from his book, slowly pushing the reader into wanting to know more.

But he didn't. Instead he went tangential to the content of the book, delivering a finely-tuned polemic about the state of the linguistics world, and pinning the blame on the door of Noam Chomsky.

And he is right to do so.

I was twice introduced to the world of linguistics: once through the Introduction to Machine Language unit in the University of Edinburgh's artificial intelligence department, and once through the Open University module The English Language: Past, Present and Future.

Both courses were very good, which should be no surprise giving the academic stature of Edinburgh's AI department and the OU's English department. However, both started by looking at structural grammar through the view of Noam Chomsky's generative grammars.

Given the research and refinement in the half-century since Chomsky, it should be no surprise to find that his model is primitive and of little use, and yet it is still taught as the sina qua non of modern linguistics. I've written my own little piece about this before, so I'll not repeat myself too much, but I'll say this:

Chomsky wrote a model of grammar that was based almost entirely on reading language one-dimensionally and sequentially, a model that so badly fits real language that it allows the generation of meaninglessness such as colourless green ideas sleep furiously, and then extrapolated from that nonsense that meaning and grammaticality were entirely separate things.

He wrote a demonstrably broken model, then used the brokenness to try to draw conclusions about the real world. And people treat him like some kind of genius for  it...!

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