Don’t Go Down the Google Books Garden Path

When Google’s Ngram Viewer was the topic of a post on Science-Based Medice, I knew it was becoming mainstream. No longer happy to only be toyed with by linguists killing time, the Ngram Viewer had entranced people from other walks of life. And I can understand why. Google’s Ngram Viewer is an impressive service that allows you to quickly and easily search for the frequency of words and phrases in millions of books. But I want to warn you about Google’s Ngram Viewer. As a corpus linguist, I think it’s important to explain just what Ngram Viewer is, what it can be used to do, how I feel about it, and the praise it has been receiving since its inception. I’ll start out simple: despite all its power and what it seems to be capable of, looks can be deceiving.

Have we learned nothing?

Jann Bellamy wrote a post at Science-Based Medicine about using Google’s Ngram Viewer (GNV) to research some terms used to describe the very unscientific practice of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). Although an article of this type is unusual for the SBM site, it does show how intriguing GNV can be. And Ms. Bellamy does a good job by explaining a few of the caveats of GVN:

The database only goes through 2008, so searches have to end there. Also, the searches have to assume that the word or phrase has only one definition, or perhaps one definition that dominates all others. We also have to remember that only books were scanned, not, for example, academic journals or popular magazines. Or blog posts, for that matter.

Ms. Bellamy then goes on the search for some CAM terms. After noting the which terms are more common and when they started to rise in usage, she does a very good job at explaining the reasons that certain terms have a higher frequency than others. At the end, however, she is left with more questions than answers. Although she discovered that alternative medicine appears more frequently than complementary medicine in the Google Books database, and although she did further research (outside of Google Books) to explain why, she is still left right where she started. Just looking at the numbers from GNV, she can’t say what kind of impact CAM has had on our (English-speaking) world or culture. So what was the point of looking as GNV at all (besides the pretty colors)?

In her post, Ms. Bellamy links to an article in the New York Times by Natasha Singer. In what is essentially a exposition of GNV, with quotes from two of its founders, Ms. Singer places a lot more stock in the value and capability of the program. But from a corpus linguist’s perspective, she leaps a bit too far to her conclusions.

Ms. Singer’s article begins with the phrase “Data is the new oil” and then goes on to explain the comparison between these two words offered by GNV. She writes:

I started my data-versus-oil quest with casual one-gram queries about the two words. The tool produced a chart showing that the word “data” appeared more often than “oil” in English-language texts as far back as 1953, and that its frequency followed a steep upward trajectory into the late 1980s. Of course, in the world of actual commerce, oil may have greater value than raw data. But in terms of book mentions, at least, the word-use graph suggests that data isn’t simply the new oil. It’s more like a decades-old front-runner.

But with the Google Books corpus (the set of texts that GNV analyzes), we need to remember what the corpus contains, i.e. what “book mentions” means. This lets us know how representative both the corpus and our analysis is. The Google Books corpus does not contain speech, newspapers, tweets, magazine articles, business letters, or financial reports. Sure, oil is important to our culture, and certainly to global and political history, but do people write books about it? We can not directly extrapolate the findings from Google Books to Culture any more than we can tell people about the world of 16th Century England by studying the plays of Shakespeare. With GNV we can merely study the culture of books (or the culture of publishing). And there are many ways that GNV can mislead you. For example, are the hits in Ms. Singer’s search talking about crude oil, olive oil, or oil paintings? Google Ngrams will not tell you. Just for fun, here’s Ms. Singer’s search redone with some other terms. Feel free to draw your own conclusions.

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Search for “data, oil, chocolate, love” on GNV. (Just to be clear, searching for oil_NOUN doesn’t change things much; oil as a verb is almost non-existent in the corpus. Take that as you will)

Research casual

The second article I want to talk about comes from Ben Zimmer. While I don’t think Mr. Zimmer needs to be told anything that’s in this post, his article in The Atlantic gets to the heart of my frustration with GNV. It features a more complex search on GNV to find out which nouns modify the word mogul and how they have changed over the last 100 years. In the following passage, he alludes to the reality of GNV without coming right out and saying it.

It’s possible to answer these questions using the publicly available corpora compiled by Mark Davies at Brigham Young University, but the peculiar interface can be off-putting to casual users. With the Ngram Viewer, you just need to enter a search like “*_NOUN mogul” or “ragtag *_NOUN” and select a year range. It turns out that in 20th-century sources, media moguls are joined by movie moguls, real estate moguls, and Hollywood moguls, while the most likely things to be ragtag are armies, groups, and bands.

There are a few points to make about this. First, the interface of the publicly available corpora compiled by Mark Davies could be described as “peculiar”, but that’s only because it’s not the lowest common denominator. And there’s the rub because researchers are capable of so much more using Mark Davies’ corpora. While the interface isn’t immediately intuitive, it certainly isn’t hard to learn. As a bad comparison, think about the differences between Windows, OSX, and a Linux OS. Windows is the lowest common denominator – easiest to use and most intuitive. OSX and Linux, on the other hand, take a bit of getting used to. But how many of us have learned OSX or Linux and willingly gone back to Windows?

The second point is not so much about casual users as it is about casual searches. I think Mr. Zimmer is right to talk about casual users since it’s probable that most of the people who use GNV will be looking for a quick and easy stroll down the cultural garden path. But more to the point, I think he’s right to offer different types of moguls as a search example because that’s about as far as GNV will take you. Can you see which types of moguls people are talking about? No. How about which types of moguls are being used in magazines? Nope. Newspapers? Nuh-uh. You have to turn to one of Mark Davies’ corpora for that. In fact, less casual users are even able to access Google Books (and other corpora) via Mark Davies’ site, and this allows them to conduct more complex searches (For a much more detailed comparison of GNV and some of the corpora offered on Mark Davies’ site, see here). So again the question is what’s the point of looking at GNV at all?

Final thoughts – Almost right but not quite

All this picking on GNV is not without reason. Even though what the people at Google have done is truly impressive, we have seen that the practical use GNV is limited. As the saying in corpus linguistics goes “Compiling is only half the battle”. GNV does not offer users a way to really measure what they are (usually) looking for. As an example, a quote from Ms. Singer’s article will suffice:

The system can also conduct quantitative checks on popular perceptions. Consider our current notion that we live in a time when technology is evolving faster than ever. Mr. Aiden and Mr. Michel [two of GNV’s creators] tested this belief by comparing the dates of invention of 147 technologies with the rates at which those innovations spread through English texts. They found that early 19th-century inventions, for instance, took 65 years to begin making a cultural impact, while turn-of-the-20th-century innovations took only 26 years. Their conclusion: the time it takes for society to learn about an invention has been shrinking by about 2.5 years every decade.

While this may be true, it’s not proven by looking at Google Books. For example, ask yourself these questions: what was the rate of literacy in the early 19th-century? How many books did people read (or have read to them) in the early 19th-century compared to the turn of the 20th century? What was the difference between the rate of dissemination of information in the two time periods? How about the rate of publishing? And what exactly qualifies as technology – farm equipment or fMRI machines? Or does it have to be more closely related to culture and Culturomics – like Facebook?

And most importantly, are books the best way to measure the cultural impact of an idea or technology? The fact is that the system can not really conduct quantitative checks on popular perceptions. But it can make you think it can.

So GNV has a long way to go. I hesitate to say that they will get there because Google does not really have an interest in offering this kind of service to the public (I didn’t see any ads on the GNV page, did you?). While it may be fun to play around with GNV, I would advise against drawing any (serious) conclusions from what it spits out. Below are some other searches I ran. Again, feel free to draw your own conclusions about how these terms and the things they describe relate to human culture.

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Search for “blood, sugar, sex, magik”. Click here to see the results on GNV.
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Search for “Booby Fischer, Jay Z”. Click here to see the results on GNV.
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Search for “Bobby Fischer, Jay Z, Eminem, Dr Dre, Run DMC, Noam Chomsky”. Click here to see the results on GNV.
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Search for “Johnny Carson, Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Big Bird, Saturday Night Live” (from the year 1950). Click here and then “Search lots of books” to see the results on GNV.
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Search for “Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Buffy, King Arthur, Robin Hood, Hercules, Sherlock Holmes, Pele”. Click here to see the results on GNV.

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Search for “Barack Obama, George Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, John * Kennedy, Dwight * Eisenhower, Harry * Truman, Franklin * Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Beatles”. Click here to see the results on GNV.

Notice how the middle initial of some presidents complicates things in the above search. It would be nice to be able to combine the frequencies for “John Fitzgerald Kennedy”, “John F Kennedy”, “John Kennedy”, and “JFK” into one line, and exclude hits like “John S Kennedy” from the results completely, but that’s not possible. You could, however, search GNV for the different ways to refer to President Kennedy and see the differences, for whatever that will tell you.
 
 
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Search for “Brad Pitt, Audrey Hepburn, Noam Chomsky, Bob Marley”. Click here to see the result on GNV.

Noam Chomsky has had a bigger effect on our culture than Audrey Hepburn, Bob Marley, and Brad Pitt? You be the judge!

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Unsurprisingly, corpus linguists have already answered your question

This post is a response to a corpus search done on another blog. Over on What You’re Doing Is Rather Desperate, Neil Saunders wanted to research how adverbs are used in academic articles, specifically the sentence adverb, or as he says, adverbs which are used “with a comma to make a point at the start of a sentence”. I’m not trying to pick on Mr. Saunders (because what he did was pretty great for a non-linguist), but I think his post, and the media reports on it, makes a great excuse to write about the really, really awesome corpus linguistics resources available to the public. I’ll go through what Mr. Saunders did, and list what he could have done had he known about corpus linguistics.

Mr. Saunders wanted to know about sentence adverbs in academic texts so he wrote a script to download abstracts from PubMed Central. Right off the bat, he could have gone looking for either (1) articles on sentence adverbs or (2) already available corpora. As I pointed out in a comment on his post (which has mysteriously disappeared, probably due to the URLs I in it), there are corpora with science texts from as far back as the 1375 AD. There are also modern alternatives, such as the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and the British National Corpus (BNC), both of which (and much, much more) are available through Mark Davies’ awesome site.

I bring this up because there are several benefits of using these corpora instead of compiling your own, especially if you’re not a linguist. The first is time and space. Saunders says that his uncompressed corpus of abstracts is 47 GB (!) and that it took “overnight” (double !) for his script to comb through the abstracts. Using an online corpus drops the space required on your home machine down to 0 GB. And running searches on COCA, which contains 450 million words, takes a matter of seconds.

The second benefit is a pretty major one for linguists. After noting that his search only looks for words ending in -ly, Saunders says:

There will of course be false positives – words ending with “ly,” that are not adverbs. Some of these include: the month of July, the country of Italy, surnames such as Whitely, medical conditions such as renomegaly and typographical errors such as “Findingsinitially“. These examples are uncommon and I just ignore them where they occur.

This is a big deal. First of all, the idea of using “ly” as a way to search for adverbs is profoundly misguided. Saunders seems to realize this, since he notes that not all words that end in -ly are adverbs. But where he really goes wrong, as we’ll soon see, is in disregarding all of the adverbs that do not end in -ly. If Saunders had used a corpus that already had each word tagged for its part of speech (POS), or if he had ran a POS-tagger on his own corpus, he could have had an accurate measurement of the use of adverbs in academic articles. This is because POS-tagging allows researchers to find adverbs, adjectives, nouns, etc., as well as searching for words that end in -ly – or even just adverbs that end in -ly. And remember, it can all be done in a matter of moments (even the POS tagging). You won’t even have time to make a cup of coffee, although consumption of caffeinated beverages is highly recommended when doing linguistics (unless you’re at a conference, in which case you should substitute alcohol for caffeine).

Here is where I break from following Saunders’ method. I want like to show you what’s possible with some of the publicly available corpora online, or how a linguist would conduct an inquiry into the use of adverbs in academia.

Looking for sentence-initial adverbs in academic texts, I went to COCA. I know the COCA interface can seem a bit daunting to the uninitiated, but there are very clear instructions (with examples) of how to do everything. Just remember: if confusion persists for more than four hours, consult your local linguist.

On the COCA page, I searched for adverbs coming after a period, or sentence initial adverbs, in the Medical and Science/Technology texts in the Academic section (Click here to rerun my exact search on COCA. Just hit “Search” on the left when you get there). Here’s what I came up with:

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Top ten sentence initial adverbs in medical and science academic texts in COCA.

You’ll notice that only one of the adverbs on this list (“finally”) ends in “ly”. That word is also coincidentally the top word on Saunders’ list. Notice also that the list above includes the kind of sentence adverbs that Saunders’ search deliberately does not, or those not ending in -ly, such as “for” and “in”, despite the examples of such given on the Wikipedia page that Saunders linked to in his post. (For those wondering, the POS-tagger treated these as parts of adverbial phrases, hence the “REX21” and “RR21” tags)

Searching for only those sentence initial adverbs that end in -ly, we find a list similar to Saunders’, but with only five of the same words on it. (Saunders’ top ten are: finally, additionally, interestingly, recently, importantly, similarly, surprisingly, specifically, conversely, consequentially)

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Top ten sentence initial adverbs ending in -ly in medical and science academic texts in COCA.

So what does this tell us? Well, for starters, my shooting-from-the-hip research is insufficient to draw any great conclusions from, even if it is more systematic than Saunders’. Seeing what adverbs are used to start sentences doesn’t really tell us much about, for example, what the journals, authors, or results of the papers are like. This is the mistake that Mr. Saunders makes in his conclusions. After ranking the usage frequencies of surprising by journal, he writes:

The message seems clear: go with a Nature or specialist PLoS journal if your results are surprising.

Unfortunately for Mr. Saunders, a linguist would find the message anything but clear. For starters, the realtive use of surprising in a journal does not tell us that the results in the articles are actually surprising, but rather that the authors wish to present their results as surprising. That is, if the word surprising in the articles is not preceded by Our results are not. This is another problem with Mr. Saunders’ conclusions – not placing his results in context – and it is something that linguists would research, perhaps by scrolling through the concordances using corpus linguistics software, or software designed exactly for the type of research that Mr. Saunders wished to do.

The second thing to notice about my results is that they probably look a whole lot more boring than Saunders’. Such is the nature of researching things that people think matter (like those nasty little adverbs), but professionals know really don’t. So it goes.

Finally, what we really should be looking at is how scientists use adverbs in comparison to other writers. I chose to contrast the frequencies of sentence-initial adverbs in the medical and science/technology articles with the frequencies found in academic articles from the (oft-disparaged) humanities. (Here is the link to that search.)

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Top ten sentence initial adverbs in humanities academic texts in COCA.

Six of the top ten sentence initial adverbs in the humanities texts are also on the list for the (hard) science texts. What does this tell us? Again, not much. But we can get an idea that either the styles in the two subjects are not that different, or that sentence initial adverbs might be similar across other genres as well (since the words on these lists look rather pedestrian). We won’t know, of course, until we do more research. And if you really want to know, I suggest you do some corpus searches of your own because the end of this blog post is long overdue.

I also think I’ve picked on Mr. Saunders enough. After all, it’s not really his fault if he didn’t do as I have suggested. How was he supposed to know all these corpora are available? He’s a bioinformatician, not a corpus linguist. And yet, sadly, he’s the one who gets written up in the Smithsonian’s blog, even though linguists have been publishing about these matters since at least the late 1980s.

Before I end, though, I want to offer a word of warning. Although I said that anyone who knows where to look can and should do their own corpus linguistic research, and although I tried to keep my searches as simple as possible, I couldn’t have done them without my background in linguistics. Doing linguistic research on Big Data is tempting. But doing linguistic research on a corpora, especially one that you compiled, can be misleading at best and flat out wrong at worst if you don’t know what you’re doing. The problem is that Mr. Saunders isn’t alone. I’ve seen other non-linguists try this type of research. My message here is similar to the one in my previous post, which was directed to marketers: linguistic research is interesting and it can tell you a lot about the subject of your interest, but only if you do it right. So get a linguist to do it or see if a linguist has already done it. If either of these is not possible, then feel free to do your own research, but tread lightly, young padawans.

If you’re wondering whether academia overuses adverbs (hint: it doesn’t) or just how much adverbs get tossed into academic articles, I recommend reading papers written by Douglas Biber and/or Susan Conrad. They have published extensively on the linguistic nature of many different writing genres. Here’s a link to a Google Scholar search to get you started. You can also have a look at the Longman Grammar, which is probably available at your library.

How Linguistics Can Improve Your Marketing

This post is intended to show what linguistics can offer marketing. I’ll be using corpus linguistics tools to analyze a few pieces of advice about how to write better marketing copy. The idea is to empirically test the ideas of what makes for more profitable marketing. But first, a quick note to the marketers. Linguists, please leave the room.

Note to marketers: Corpus linguistics works by annotating texts according to the linguistic features that one wishes to study. One of the most common ways is to tag each word for its part of speech (noun, verb, etc.) and that is what I’ve done here. Corpus linguistics generally works better on longer texts or larger banks of texts, since the results of the analysis become more accurate with more data. In this post I’m going to do a surface analysis of email marketing texts, which are each 250-300 words long, using corpus linguistic methods. If you’re interested in knowing more, please feel free to contact me (joseph.mcveigh@gmail.com). In fact, I really hope you’ll get in touch because I’ve tried again and again to get email marketers to work with me and come up with bupkis. I’m writing this post to show you exactly what I have to offer, which is something you won’t find anywhere else.

Welcome back, linguists. So what I’ve done is gathered ten email marketing texts and ranked them based on how well they performed. That means I divided the number of units sold by the number of emails sent. I then ran each text through a part-of-speech tagger (CLAWS7). Now we’re ready for action.

Let’s start with a few pieces of advice about how to write good marketing copy. I want to see if the successful and unsuccessful marketing texts show whether the advice really translates into better sales.

1. Don’t BE yourself

The first piece of advice goes like this: Don’t use BE verbs in your writing. This means copywriters should avoid is, are, was, were, etc. because it apparently promotes insanity (test results pending) and because “we never can reduce ourselves to single concepts”. If it sounds crazy, that’s because it is. And even the people who promote this advice can’t follow it (three guesses as to what the fourth word in the section on that page introducing this advice is). But let’s see what the marketing texts tell us. Who knows, maybe “to be or not to be” is actually the most memorable literary phrase in English because it’s actually really, really bad writing.

In the chart below, the percentage of BE verbs used in each texts are listed (1 = most successful text). The differences seem pretty staggering, right?

Chart showing the percentage of be verbs in the marketing texts

Well, they would be staggering if I didn’t tell you that each horizontal axis line represents a half of a percentage point, or 0.5%. Now we can see that the differences between the texts, and especially between the best and worst texts, is practically non-existent. So much for being BE-free.

2. You can’t keep a good part of speech down

The second piece of advice is about the misuse of adjectives. According to some marketing/writing experts, copywriters should avoid using adjectives at all because “They are, in fact one of the worst [sic] elements of speech and even make a listener or reader lose trust”. Sounds serious. Except for the fact that linguists have long known that avoiding adjectives is not only bad advice but impossible to do, especially in marketing. How’s that? Well, first, this is another piece of advice which is given by people who can’t seem to follow it. But let’s say you’re trying to sell a t-shirt (or a car or a sofa or whatever). Now try to tell me what color it is without using an adjective. The fact is that different writing styles (sometimes called genres or text types), such as academic writing, fiction, or journalism, use adjectives to a different extent. Some styles use more adjectives, some use less, but all of them use adjectives because (and I can’t stress this enough) adjectives are a natural and necessary part of language. So writers should use neither too many or too few adjectives, depending on the style they are writing in.

But we’re here to run some tests. Let’s take the advice at face value and see if using less (or no) adjectives really means sales will increase.

Chart showing the percentage of adjectives in the marketing texts

Again, the differences in the results look drastic and again looks can be deceiving. In this case, the horizontal axis lines represents two percentage points (2%). The percentage of adjectives used in the three most successful and three least successful marketing texts are nearly identical. In fact, they are within two percentage points of each other. Another one bites the dust.

UPDATE August 22, 2013 – I’d like to mention that the use of modifiers, such as adjectives, is a good way of showing the depth of my research and what it can really offer marketers. While we saw that adjectives in general, or as a class, do not tell us much about which marketing texts will perform better, there are other ways to look into this. For example, there may be certain types of adjectives common to the successful marketing texts, but not found in the unsuccessful ones. Likewise, the placement of an adjective and whether it is preceded by, say, a determiner (the, an, etc.), may also be indicitave of more successful texts. And in a similar fashion, texts which use nouns as modifiers instead of adjectives may be more successful than those that do not. The important thing for marketers reading this to know is that I can research all of these aspects and more. It’s what I do.

3. It’s not all about you, you, you

The final piece of advice concerns the use of the word you, which is apparently one of the most persuasive words in the English language (see #24 on that page). Forget about the details on this one because I don’t feel like getting into why this is shady advice. Let’s just get right to the results.

Chart showing the percentage of the word you in the marketing texts

Does this chart look familiar? This time the horizontal axis lines once again represent a half of a percentage point. And once again, less than two percentage points separate the best and the worst marketing texts. In fact, the largest difference in the use of you between texts is 1.5%. That means that each one of the marketing texts I looked at – the good, the bad, and the in between – uses the word you practically the same as the others. It would behoove you to disregard this piece of advice.

So what?

I’ll admit that I picked some low hanging fruit for this post. But the point was not to shoot down marketing tips. The point was to show email marketers what corpus linguists (like me!) have to offer. Looking for specific words or adjectives is not the only thing that corpus linguistics can do. What if I could analyze your marketing and find a pattern among your more successful texts? Wouldn’t you like to know what it was so you could apply when creating copy in the future? On the other hand, what if there wasn’t any specific pattern among the more successful (or less successful) texts? What if something besides your copy predicted your sales? Wouldn’t you like to know that as well so you could save time poring over your copy in the future?

Really, if you’re an email marketer, I think you should get in touch with me (joseph.mcveigh@gmail.com). I’m about to start my PhD studies, which means that all my knowledge and all that corpus linguistics has to offer could be yours.

How about letting me analyze – and probably finding an innovative way to improve – your marketing? Sound like a good deal? If so, contact me here: joseph.mcveigh@gmail.com.

Book review: Cross-cultural Pragmatics by Anna Wierzbicka

If you study linguistics, you will probably come across Anna Wierzbicka’s Cross-Cultural Pragmatics, perhaps as an undergrad, but definitely if you go into the fields of pragmatics or semantics. It’s a seminal work for reasons I will get into soon. The problem is that most of the data used to draw the conclusions are oversimplifications. This review is written for people who encounter this book in their early, impressionable semesters.

What’s it all about?

With Cross-cultural pragmatics, Wierzbicka was able to change the field of pragmatics for the better. Her basic argument runs like this: the previous “universal” rules of politeness that govern speech acts are wrong. The rules behind speech acts should instead be formulated in terms of cultural-specific conversational strategies. Also, the mechanisms of speech acts are culture-specific, meaning that they reflect the norms and assumptions of a culture. Wierzbicka argues that language-specific norms of interaction should be linked to specific cultural values.

At the time Cross-cultural pragmatics was written, this needed to be said. There was more involved in speech acts than scholars were acknowledging. And the explanations used for speech acts in English were not entirely appropriate to explain speech acts in other languages or even other English-speaking cultures, although they were being used to. So Wierzbicka gets credit for helping to advance the field of linguistics.

So what’s wrong with that?

The problem I have with this book is that Wierzbicka lays out a research method designed to avoid oversimplifications, but then oversimplifies her data to reach conclusions. Wierzbicka’s method in Cross-cultural pragmatics is what can be seen as a step in the development of semantic primes, which aims to explain all of the words in a language using a set of terms or concepts (do, say, want, etc.) that can not be simplified, their meanings being innately understood and their existence being cross-cultural.

For example, Wierzbicka analyzes self-assertion in Japanese and English. She says that Japanese speakers DO NOT say “I want/think/like X”, while English speakers DO. She then translates the Japanese term enryo (restraint) like this:

X thinks: I can’t say “I want/think/like this” or “I don’t want/think/like this”
   Someone could feel bad because of this
X doesn’t say it because of this
X doesn’t do some things because of this

This is all fine and good, but you can probably see how such an analysis has the potential to unravel. Just taking polysemy and context into account means that each and every term must be thoroughly explained using the above system.

But whatever. Let’s just say that it’s possible to do so. Semantic primes are still discussed in academia and I’m not here to debate their usefulness. What I want to talk about is how Wierzbicka oversimplifies the language and cultures that she compares. Although there are many examples to choose from, I’ll only list a few that come in quick succession.

cross-cultural pragmatics - wierzbicka

Those manly Aussies

In describing Australian culture, Wierzbicka says that “Shouting is a specifically Australian concept” (173). And yet she doesn’t explain how it is any different from buying a round or why this concept is “specifically Australian” She then describes the Australian term dob in but does not tell us how it differs from snitch. Finally, she notes that the Australians use the term whinge an awful lot. Whinge is used to bolster Wierzbicka’s claim that Australians value “tough masculinity, gameness, and resilience” and that they refer to British people as whingers .

First of all, how Wierzbicka misses the obviously similarities between whinging and whining is beyond me. She instead compares whinge to complain. Second, British people refer to other British people as “whingers”, so how exactly is whinge “marginal” in “other parts of the English-speaking world”? (180) Finally, wouldn’t using a negative term like whinge show more about the strained relations between the Australians and British than it would about any sort of heightened “masculine” Australian identity? Does stunad prove that Italian-Americans have a particular or peculiar dislike of morons compared to other cultures?

We should have used a corpus

In other parts of Cross-cultural pragmatics, Wierzbicka seems to be cherry-picking the speech acts that she uses to evaluate the norms and values of the cultures she compares. This can be seen from the following passage on the differences between (white) Anglo-American culture and Jewish or black American culture:

The expansion of such expressions [Nice to have met you, Lovely to see you, etc.] fits in logically with the modern Anglo-American constraints on direct confrontation, direct clashes, direct criticisms, direct ‘personal remarks’ – features which are allowed and promoted in other cultures, for example, in Jewish culture or in Black American culture, in the interest of cultural values such as ‘closeness’, ‘sponteneity’, ‘animation’, or ‘emotional intensity’, which are given in these cultures priority over ‘social harmony’.
This is why, for example, one doesn’t say freely in (white) English, ‘You are wrong’, as one does in Hebrew or ‘You’re crazy’, as one does in Black English. Of course some ‘Anglos’ do say fairly freely things like Rubbish! or even Bullshit!. In particular, Bullshit! (as well as You bastard!) is widely used in conversational Australian English. Phrases of this kind, however, derive their social force and their popularity partly from the sense that one is violating a social constraint. In using phrases of this kind, the speaker defies a social constraint, and exploits it for an expressive purpose, indirectly, therefore, he (sometimes, she) acknowledges the existence of this constraint in the society at large. (pp. 118–9)

Do we know whites Anglo-Americans don’t say “You are wrong” or that they say it less than Jewish people? I heard a white person say it today, but that is just anecdotal evidence. Obviously, large representative corpora were not around to consult when Wierzbicka wrote Cross-cultural pragmatics, but it would be nice to see at least some empirical data points. Instead we’re left with just the assertion that black Americans” “You’re crazy” and Anglo-Americans” “Bullshit!” are not equal, which to me is confusing and misguided. Also, aren’t black people violating a social norm by saying “you’re crazy”?

Wierzbicka’s inability to consult a corpus (because there wasn’t one available at the time, granted) is why I am not consulting one right now, but just off the top of my head, I can think of other (common) expressions from both cultures that would say the exact opposite of what Wierzbicka claims. For example, as Pryor (1979) pointed out, whites have been known to say things like “Cut the shit!” How is this different from Black English’s “You’re crazy!”?

This leads me to the final major problem I have with Cross-cultural pragmatics: While classifications of speech acts based on “directness,” etc. were insufficient for the reasons that Wierzbicka points out, her classifications suffer from not being able to group similar constructions together, which is one of the goal in describing a large system such as language. They are too simplistic and specific to each construction. There are always certain constructions that don’t fit the mold that Wierzbicka lays out, which seems to me a similar problem to the one she’s trying to solve. So the problem gets shifted instead of solved.

Still, I think Wierzbicka was justified in changing the ways that researchers talked about speech acts. I also think she was right in shattering the Anglo-American and English language bias which was prevalent at the time. It’s those points that make Cross-cultural pragmatics an important work. The lack of empirical data and the over-generalizations are unfortunate, but so are lots of other things. Welcome to academia, folks.

 

 

 

Up next: Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye

Meta Book Review: Reviews of Sampson’s The Language Instinct Debate

When I last left you*, we had just talked about how Geoffrey Sampson’s The Language Instinct Debate is a remarkable take-down of Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct and the nativist argument, or the idea that language is genetic. I came down pretty hard on the nativists, who I termed “Chomskers” (CHOMsky + PinKER + otherS) and rightly so since their theory amounts to a bunch of smoke and mirrors. For this post, I’m going to review the reviews of Sampson’s book. It’ll be like what scholars call a meta-analysis, except nowhere near as lengthy or peer-reviewed. For the absence of those, I promise more swear words. For those just joining us, here are my reviews of Pinker’s The Language Instinct and Sampson’s The Language Instinct Debate, the first two parts of this three-part series of posts. If you’re new to the subject matter (linguistic nativism), they’ll help you understand what this post is all about. If you already know all about Universal Grammar (and have read my totally bitchin’ reviews of the aforementioned books), then let’s get on with the show.

I know you are, but what am I?

Victor M. Longa’s review of The Language Instinct Debate

Longa’s review would be impressive if it wasn’t written in classic Chomskers’ style. He seems to address Sampson’s book in a thoughtful and step-by-step process, but his arguments boil down to nothing but “Sampson’s wrong because language is innate.” I know this sounds bad, but it’s the truth. A good example of Longa’s typical nativist style can be found here:

To sum up, S[ampson] tries, with difficulty, to explain the convergence between different languages by resorting only to the cultural nature of language. (Longa 1999: 338)

The disregard for other explanations is something to expect from the linguistic nativists. “You’re not considering that language is innate!” they protest. But innateness is all they consider. We must remember that linguistic nativism (or UG) is the unfalsifiable hypothesis. Any attempts to engage the theory in a logical way, such as Sampson has done, should be praised because of how much harm the proponents of the Universal Grammar Hypothesis (UGH) have done to the field of linguistics.

The belief that language is innate has become something more than an assumption to the nativists. This can be seen from Longa’s conclusion:

What is more, as I pointed out at the beginning of the paper, from the common-sense point of view, it is perfectly possible to conceive of a capacity such as language having been fixed in our species as a genetic endowment… (Longa 1999: 340)

It’s common-sense, godammit! What’s wrong with you people?! Why can’t everyone just see that something we have no evidence for is real? How many times do we have to say it? Language is innate. Never mind that it’s perfectly possible to conceive of just about anything (it’s called, you know, imagination), or that the arguments for linguistic nativism fall down easier than a elephant on ice skates, just trust us when we say that language is innate. OK?

Longa goes on about the innateness of language:

To deny this possibility a priori, claiming that is sounds almost mad, suggests a biased perspective that has little to offer to the scientific study of language.

Know what else has little to offer the scientific study of language (or the scientific study of anything, for that matter)? Unfalsifiable theories. That’s why linguistic nativism has been denied. Scientific hypotheses are accepted only so long as they stand up to the tests meant to falsify them. But first (and I can’t stress this enough) they have to falsifiable or they’re not scientific theories. Linguistic nativism has been considered for so long only because Chomskers won’t stop writing bullshit books about it and forcing it down students’ throats. My fellow budding scholars who had to write about UGH, I feel for you.

Longa’s review is followed by a reply from Sampson, which offers a simple way to see how unfalsifiable nativism is. Sampson quite rightly points out that the speed-of-acquisition argument made by Chomskers, which says that language is innate because children learn language remarkably fast, is ridiculous because Chomskers have never claimed how long it should take children to learn language in the absence of an innate UGH. They just say it’s innate and that kids learn language, like, really fast bro, and we’re supposed to take these claims as common-sense truth. This is par for the nativist course.

What he said

Stephen J. Cowley’s review of both books

Cowley review of both Pinker’s The Language Instinct and Sampson’s The Language Instinct Debate is a wonderful read and I want to quote the whole damn thing. While Cowley agrees that Sampson successfully refutes linguistic nativism, and that Pinker’s argument is akin to “saying that, because angels exist, miracles happen” (75), he rejects Sampson’s alternative to the origin of language, a topic I have not addressed in these reviews. Fortunately, I don’t have to quote the whole paper because it’s available online. And you should go read it here:
http://www.psy.herts.ac.uk/pub/sjcowley/docs/baby%26bathwater.pdf (PDF).

John H. Whorter’s review in Language

Like, Cowley, McWhorter writes that Sampson successfully refutes Chomsker’s theory, saying that he “makes a powerful case that linguistic nativism […] has been grievously underargued, and risks looking to scientists in a hundred years like the search for phlogiston does to us now” (434). That’s putting it nicely, I think.

McWhorter raises concerns with some of Sampson’s methods, such as his discussion of hypotaxis and complexity, his refutation of Berlin and Kay’s classic color-term study, and WH-movement. McWhorter also worries that since Sampson only covers Chomsky’s writings up to 1980, his take-down of linguistic nativism may not be as strong as could be hoped because of the post-1980 development of the Principle and Parameters theory and minimalism (two theories which are meant to deal with, you guessed it, problems with linguistic nativism. Surprise!). While I agree that it would have been nice to see Sampson discuss these theories (since they have their own typical nativism problems), I don’t believe its absence is as critical as McWhorter claims, who questions Sampson’s decision to stop at 1980 because there’s nothing “solider to be pulled out of the bag.” (Sampson 2005: 165) McWhorter presumes that “certainly we would question a refutation of physics that used that justification to stop before string theory” (436). While I can get where he’s coming from, I think the bad analogy (which is something I’m pretty good at too) is particularly problematic here. Physics is founded on testable and falsifiable theories. Thanks to the contagious nature of nativism, linguistics these days is not.

What I especially like about McWhorter’s review is his acknowledgment that nativism has become something of a religion in linguistics. Commenting on the suspicious lack of response to Samspon’s book by nativists, McWhorter writes:

It may well be that Chomsyans harbor an argumentational firepower that would leave S[ampson] conclusively out-debated just as Chomsky’s detractors were in the 1960s and 1970s. But if such engagement is not even ventured, then claims that linguistic nativism is less a theory than a cult start looking plausible. (McWhorter 2008: 237)

Further Reading

This series of posts is by no means a review of all that has been said about UG or linguistic nativism. For those who wish to learn more, I suggest the following books.

The cultural origins of human cognition by Michael Tomasello

Tomasello’s book is a wonderful explanation of how children learn to speak and how human cognition does not need any innate language faculty. The theory he lays out has been called the Theory of Mind, which is an awful name, but it makes much more sense than anything I have ever read by nativists. Tomasello even has a few words for the nativists:

It is very telling that there are essentially no people who call themselves biologists who also call themselves nativists. When developmental biologists look at the developing embryo, they have no use for the concept of innateness. This is not because they underestimate the influence of genes – the essential role of the genome is assumed as a matter of course – but rather because the categorical judgment that a characteristic is innate simply does not help in understanding the process. (Tomasello 2000: 49)

If Chomskers’ theory left you shaking your head, and Sampson’s didn’t quite measure up, I highly recommend checking out Tomasello. As a bonus, this book is very much aimed at a wide audience, so three years of linguistics courses are not required.

What counts as evidence in linguistics, ed. by Martina Penke and Anette Rosenbach

This book is a collection of essays which address how the opposing fields in linguistics, formalism (or UG proponents) and functionalism, treat evidence in their research. The papers are excellent, not only because the authors are preeminent scholars in their fields, but also because each paper is followed by a response from an author of the opposing field. Even better, the responses are followed by replies from the author(s). It’s definitely on the hard-core linguistics side, so dabblers in this debate beware. As a example of what it contains, however, here is a link to a response to one of the articles by Michael Tomasello: http://www.eva.mpg.de/psycho/pdf/Publications_2004_PDF/what_kind_of_evidence_04.pdf (PDF). Not to toot his own horn, but it really lays bare what scholars are up against when they attempt to engage nativists.

 

 

References

Cowley, Stephen J. 2001. “The baby, the bathwater and the ‘language instinct’ debate”. Language Sciences 23: 69–91. http://www.psy.herts.ac.uk/pub/sjcowley/docs/baby%26bathwater.pdf

Longa, Victor M. 1999. “Review article”. Linguistics 37(2): 325–343. http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/ling.37.2.325 (requires access to Linguistics).

McWhorter, John H. 2008. “The ‘language instinct’ debate (review)”. Language 84(2): 434–437. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40071054 http://dx.doi.org/10.1353/lan.0.0008 (requires access to either JSTOR or Project MUSE).

Penke, Martina and Anette Rosenbach (eds.). 2007. What counts as evidence in linguistics: The case of innateness. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins. http://benjamins.com/#catalog/books/bct.7/main

Sampson, Geoffrey. 1999. “Reply to Longa”. Linguistics 37(2): 345–350. http://dx.doi.org/10.1515/ling.37.2.345 (requires access to Linguistics, but a “submitted” online version can be found on Sampson’s site here: http://www.grsampson.net/ARtl.html)

Tomasello, Michael. 2000. The cultural origins of human cognition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. On Amazon. On Abe Books. On Barnes&Noble.

 

 

Up next: Punctuation..? by User design.

 

 

* A long, long time ago, I know. But I decided to focus all my powers on writing my Master’s thesis, which meant this blog got the shaft. Now that’s done and we’re back in business, baby. Go back up for the sweet, sweet linguistic goodness.

Book Review: The Language Instinct Debate by Geoffrey Sampson

The following is a book review and the second post in a series. The first post discussed Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct . This post discusses Geoffrey Sampson’s The Language Instinct Debate, which is a critique of Pinker’s book. The third post will discuss some of the critics and reviews of Sampson’s book.

In a comment on the first post in this series, linguischtick (who has an awesome gravatar, by the way) pointed out that I didn’t mention two key points of the Chomskers (Chomsky + Pinker + their followers. Nom.) theory. As this post is about a book which is a direct “response to Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct and Noam Chomsky’s nativism,” it would be good to remind ourselves of the claims that nativists make. Below are the claims along with some comments on them.

1. Speed of acquisition

Chomskyian linguists claim that kids learn language remarkably fast, so fast that it must be innate. But fast compared to what? How do we know kids don’t learn language very slowly? Chomskers has no answer. Sampson says this and then very cleverly points out that Chomsky has never supplied an amount of time it should take kids to learn language because “he argues that the data available to a language learner are so poor that accurate language learning would be impossible without innate knowledge – that is, no amount of time would suffice” (37, emphasis his).

2. Age dependence

Chomskers claim that the language instinct theory is supported by how our ability to learn a language diminishes greatly around puberty. Sampson quickly refutes this claim by showing how the evidence on which Chomskers based his claim fails “to distinguish language learning from any other case of learning” and that it is “perfectly compatible with the view that learning as a general process is for biological reasons far more rapid before puberty than later.” (41, emphasis his) So we see that leap of faith again. The evidence doesn’t suggest a language instinct, but that doesn’t stop Chomskers from jumping to that conclusion.

3. Poverty of the Stimulus

This is a major part of the Chomskers argument (and the only one that can be shortened into a perfectly applicable acronym – POS). Put simply, it goes like this: kids are not supplied with enough language info by their community to enable them to learn to speak. This is what Pinker was talking about when he snidely called Motherese – the style adults use when speaking to children – “folklore”. The poverty of the stimulus is a crazy idea, but don’t worry, it’s completely wrong. First, once linguists started researching Motherese, they found that it was much more “proper” than anyone had assumed. Sampson references one study that found “only one utterance out of 1500 spoken to the children was a disfluency.” (43) Chomskers also claim that some linguistic features never occur in spoken language and yet children learn the rules for them anyway. But wait a minute, has Chomskers ever looked for these mysterious linguistic features that never occur? Of course not. That’s not how they roll.

Sampson gives them a taste of their own medicine by writing

‘Hang on a minute,’ I hear the reader say. ‘You seem to be telling us that this man [Chomsky] who is by common consent the world’s leading living intellectual, according to Cambridge University a second Plato, is basing his radical reassessment of human nature largely on the claim that a certain thing never happens; he tells us that it strains his credulity to think that this might happen, but he has never looked, and people who have looked find that it happens a lot.’
Yes, that’s about the size of it. Funny old world, isn’t it! (47)

Another aspect of this piece of shit poverty of the stimulus argument is the so-called lack of negative evidence. This idea claims that kids aren’t given evidence of which types of constructions are not possible in language. It leads one to wonder how children could possibly learn which sentences to exclude as non-language? Sounds pretty interesting, huh? There must be a language instinct then, right? Sampson bursts Chomskers bubble:

The trouble with this argument is that, if it worked, it would not just show that language learning without innate knowledge is impossible: it would show that scientific discovery is impossible. We can argue about whether or not children get negative evidence from their elders’ language; but a scientist certainly gets no negative evidence from the natural world. When a heavy body is released near the surface of the Earth, it never remains stationary or floats upwards, displaying an asterisk or broadcasting a message ‘This is not how Nature works – devise a theory which excludes this possibility!’ (90)

4. Convergence of grammars

This claim wonders how both smart and dumb people grow up speaking essentially the same language.
Except they don’t, so forget it. Other linguists – the kind that like evidence and observable data – have proven that people don’t speak the same.

5. Language universals

This is the idea that there are some structural properties which are found across every language in the world, even though there is no reason why they should be (since they’re not necessary to language). This is where Universal Grammar comes in. Sampson devotes a chapter to this broad argument and in one of the many parts that make this book an excellent read, he very cleverly takes the argument down by pointing out that universals are better evidence of the cultural development of language than they are of the biological innate theory of language. Using a theory developed by Herbert Simon, Sampson shows that, basically, the structural dependencies that Chomskers is so fond of arose out of normal evolutionary development because evolution favors hierarchical structure. Complex evolutionary systems – something Sampson argues language is – are hierarchically structured for a reason, they do not have to be innate.

If this is the crux of the language instinct argument, it’s almost laughable how easily it falls. As Sampson notes, even Chomskers doesn’t think it carries weight.

Steven Pinker himself has suggested that nativist arguments do not amount to much. In a posting on the electronic LINGUIST List (posting 9.1209, 1 September 1998), he wrote: ‘I agree that U[niversal G[rammar] has been poorly defended and documented in the linguistics literature.’ Yet that literature comprises the only grounds we are given for believing in the language universals theory. If the theory is more a matter of faith than evidence and reasoned argument even for its best-known advocate, why should anyone take it seriously? If it were not that students have to deal with this stuff in order to get their degrees, how many takers would there be for it? (166)

Even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes

The really sad thing is that Universal Grammar is the crux of the Chomskers argument. Sampson writes that “at heart linguistic nativism is a theory about grammatical structure.” (71) More importantly, it’s a theory that gathers all the “evidence” it thinks support its beliefs and dismisses any that do not. It is Confirmation Bias 101.

But don’t take my word for it. Just before he knocks down the innatist belief that tree structures prove there’s a language instinct, Sampson points out that Chomskers don’t even know how to follow through with their own thoughts. He writes

Ironically, though, having been the first to realize that tree structure in human grammar is a universal feature that is telling us something about how human beings universally function, Chomsky failed to grasp what it is telling us. The universality of tree structuring tells us that languages are systems which human beings develop in the their gradual, guess-and-test style by which, according to Karl Popper, all knowledge is brought into being. Tree structuring is the hallmark of gradual evolution. (141)

Hey-o!

So don’t violate or you’ll get violated

OK, right now the reader might think I’ve been too hard on Chomskers. Let me assuage your concerns. I’m a firm believer in treating people with the respect they deserve. So when I say that Chomskers have their heads stuck firmly up their own asses, it’s because saying “the facts don’t support their claims” is not what they deserve. A group of scientists that hates facts deserves derision. Researchers in every field use observable data to come to conclusions. Their publications are part of an ongoing debate among other researchers, who can support or refute their claims based on more data. Everyone plays by these rules because they are in everyone’s best interest. All infamous academic quarrels aside, Chomskers would prefer not to back up their claims with observable data nor engage in any kind of debate with scientists. The bum on the street shouting that the world is going to end has the advantage of being bat-shit crazy. What’s Chomskers excuse?

I suppose they could say that they are well-established. But in my mind that just points out the reasons for their unscientific actions. What’s going to happen to those grants and faculty positions if people stop believing in Chomskers’ witchcraft? Sampson writes

“Nativist linguistics is now the basis of so many careers and so many university departments that it feels itself entitled to a degree of reverence. Someone who disagrees is expected to pull his punches, to couch his dissent in circumspect and opaquely academic terms – and of course, provided he does that, the nativist community is adept at verbally glossing over the critique in such a way that, for the general reader, not a ripple is left disturbing the public face of nativism. But reverence is out of place in science. The more widespread and influential a false theory has become, the more urgent it is to puncture its pretensions. Taxpayers who maintain the expensive establishment of nativist linguistics do not understand themselves to be paying for shrines of a cult: they suppose that they are supporting research based on objective data and logical argument.” (129)

Chomskers have been selling you snake oil for 60 years, they can’t give it up now. They have to double-down. Now’s the time to really push the limits of decency in academia. Take a look:

“Paul Postal discusses in his Foreword the fact that my critique of linguistic nativism has been left unanswered by advocates of the theory. I am not alone there: various stories go the rounds about refusals by leading figures of the movement to engage with their intellectual opponents in the normal academic fashion, for fear that giving the oxygen of publicity to people who reject nativist theory might encourage the public to read those people and find themselves agreeing. […] This interesting point here is a different one. Nowhere in Words and Rules does Pinker say that he is responding to my objection. My book introduced the particular examples of Blackfoot and pinkfoot into this debate, and they are such unusual words that Pinker’s use of the same examples cannot be coincidence. He is replying to my book; but he does not mention me.” (127-8)

I don’t think I need to point out the shamefulness of such actions.

I read Steven Pinker and all I got was this lowsy blog post

Reading Sampson after reading Pinker is a lesson in frustration, but not because of any problems with Sampson’s book. On the contrary, The Language Instinct Debate is very well written. Sampson not only clearly points out why Chomsky and Pinker’s theories are wrong, but he does so in a seemingly effortless way. Sometimes this is obvious because Chomskers didn’t even look at the evidence, they just made something up and held out their hands. Sometimes this is frustrating because I wasted time reading Pinker’s 450-page sand castle that Sampson crumbled in less than half of that. The Language Instinct Debate may leave you wondering how you ever thought Chomskers was on to something when Sampson makes the counter-evidence seems so blatantly obvious.

In the next and final post of this series, I’ll talk about some of the reviews and critics of Sampson’s book. For now, I’ll leave you with how Chomskers’ refusal to check the evidence or believe anyone who has, along with their outstretched hand and their demand that you believe them, has inspired me to write a book of my own. It’s called Paris is the Capital of Germany, China is in South America, and Other Reasons Why I Hate Maps.

It’s due out at the end of never because ugh.

 

 

References

Sampson, Geoffrey. 2005. The Language Instinct Debate. London & New York: Continuum.

Book Review: The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

The following is a book review and the first post in a series. This post discusses Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct. The second post discusses Geoffrey Sampson’s The Language Instinct Debate, which is a critique of Pinker’s book. The third post will discuss some of the critics and reviews of Sampson’s book.

In order to talk about Steven Pinker and linguistics, I first have to explain a bit about Noam Chomsky and linguistics. Chomsky started writing about linguistics in the 1950s and through sheer force became a major player in the field. This did not, however, mean that any of Chomsky’s theories carried weight. On the contrary, they were highly speculative and devoid of empirical evidence. Chomsky is the armchair linguist extraordinaire. The audacity of his theory, however, was that it proposed humans are born with something called Universal Grammar, an innate genetic trait that interprets the common underlying structure of all languages and allows us to effortlessly learn our first language. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, but it’s been over 50 years and the evidence has never come. On top of that, the linguist John McWhorter (who partly inspired this series of posts) has said that “There is an extent to which any scientific movement is partly a religion and that is definitely true of the Chomskyans.” As we’ll see, the analogy runs much deeper than that.

What you need to know for this review is that Steven Pinker is a Chomskyan. Therefore, this post will discuss not only The Language Instinct, but also the general theories behind it, since Pinker’s book is at the forefront of carrying on the (misguided) notions of Chomskyan linguistics. It’s not going to be pretty, but trust me, I know what I’m doing. To make things a bit easier on us all, instead of referring to Chomsky and Pinker and their cult followers separately, I’m going to call them Chomskers. (LOLcat says “meow”?).

Steven Pinker has got a bridge to sell you

On page 18, Pinker contrasts an innate origin of language with a cultural origin to define what he means by a language “instinct”:

Language is not a cultural artifact that we learn the way we learn to tell time or how the federal government works. Instead, it is a distinct piece of biological makeup of our brains. Language is a complex, specialized skill, which develops in the child spontaneously without conscious effort or formal instruction, is deployed without awareness of its underlying logic, is qualitatively the same in every individual, and is distinct from more general abilities to process information or behave intelligently. For these reasons some cognitive scientists have described language as a psychological faculty, a mental organ, a neural system, and a computational module. But I prefer the admittedly quaint term ‘instinct.’ It conveys the idea that people know how to talk in more or less the sense that spiders know how to spin webs.

It’s possible to deconstruct the incongruities of that passage, but that’s a job for another post (specifically, the one right after this, Sampson’s critique of Pinker). For now, just replace “language” in that passage with “making a sandwich” because to most linguists, the idea that our ability to make a sandwich is a “distinct piece of biological makeup of our brains” makes just as much sense as Pinker’s notion about language. So… Great argument, let’s eat!

Instead of focusing on the logical arguments that refute Pinker’s theory, what I want to discuss here is the frustration that comes from reading The Language Instinct and Chomskers literature when you know there are other more tenable theories out there.

Don’t drink the Kool-Aid

The first problem has to do with what I’ll call the Chomskers’ Leap of Faith. This involves the theory that there is an underlying structure common to all languages and that its form and reasoning is innate to the human brain. It is called Universal Grammar. In a sense, our brains give us a basic language structure that we can then extrapolate to our mother tongue, whatever that may be. To Chomskers, that is how people learn how to speak so quickly – they already have the fundamental tool, or language instinct, needed to develop language.

How did Chomskers arrive at such a theory, you ask? Simple, they made it up. Universal Grammar was conjured out of thin air (i.e. Chomsky’s mind) and after five decades there is still no solid evidence of its existence. This is the leap of faith I’m talking about. A good example of it comes from two bullet points on page 409:

  • Under the microscope, the babel of languages no longer appear to vary in arbitrary ways and without limit. One now sees a common design to the machinery underlying the world’s languages, a Universal Grammar.
  • Unless this basic design is built in to the mechanism that learns a particular grammar, learning would be impossible. There are many possible ways of generalizing from parents’ speech to the language as a whole, and children home in on the right ones, fast.

These ideas are completely speculative (also known as – “pure bullshit”), but they illustrate Pinker’s leap of faith and circular logic. He thinks that because kids speak, they must have Universal Grammar and because they have Universal Grammar, they must speak. Chomskers love circular logic. It’s what their temple is built on. Pinker’s The Language Instinct is 450 pages of that kind of reasoning. Nothing in the 400 pages leading up to those bullets requires a belief in Universal Grammar. It’s just cherry-picked, misleading, or outright refuted studies.

And the Lord said unto Chomskers…

Another infuriating aspect of reading Chomskers is the pretentiousness of their prose. One gets the feeling that they are reading the Word of God (Noam Chomsky, to the Chomskers) sent down from on high. Instead of taking other theories into account, or even trying to prove why other theories are wrong, they simply dismiss them presumptuously. And they lead unsuspecting readers to do the same. Take this quote from page 39:

First, let’s do away with the folklore that parents teach their children language. No one supposes that parents provide explicit grammar lessons, of course, but many parents (and some child psychologists who should know better) think that mothers provide children with implicit lessons […] called Motherese.

Calling “Motherese” – which is a seriously studied and empirically proven phenomenon – “folklore” doesn’t make it so. Why Pinker would do such a thing seems strange at first, but you have to realize that that’s what Chomskers do. That is how they deal with other solid linguistic studies that have the possibility of refuting their claims (which, remember, have no empirical evidence). The attitude of contempt didn’t work for Noam Chomsky and it’s not going to work for Steven Pinker.

So why does he do it? As the linguist Pieter A. Seuren wrote in Western Linguistics: An Historical Inroduction:

Frequently one finds [Chomsky] use the term ‘exotic’ when referring to proposals or theories that he wishes to reject, whereas anything proposed by himself or his followers is ‘natural’ or ‘standard’. […]
One further, particularly striking feature of the Chomsky school must be mentioned in this context, the curious habit of referring to and quoting only members of the same school, ignoring all other linguists except when they have been long dead. The fact that the Chomsky school forms a close and entirely inward looking citation community has made some authors compare it to a religious sect or, less damningly, a village parish. No doubt there is a point to this kind of comparison, but one should realize that political considerations probably play a larger part in Chomskyan linguistics than is customary in either sects or village parishes. (525)

The problem again lays in Chomskers’ impression that only their theory exists. The bored, novice, or uncritical reader – and, you know, anyone being tested on this book – is liable to take Pinker at face value. In Chapter 8, aptly titled “The Tower of Babel,” Pinker really lays on the God-given truth of Universal Grammar. He writes

What is most striking of all is that we can look at a randomly picked language and find things that can sensibly be called subjects, objects, and verbs to begin with. After all, if we were asked to look for the order of subject, object, and verb in musical notation, or in the computer programming language FORTRAN, or in Morse code, or in arithmetic, we would protest that the very idea is nonsensical. It would be like assembling a representative collection of the world’s cultures from the six continents and trying to survey the colors of their hockey team jerseys or the form of their harakiri rituals. We should be impressed, first and foremost, that research on universals of grammar is even possible!

Except we shouldn’t. Chomskers have been pulling their “theories” out of your collective asses for decades now. Why would anyone be impressed that “research” on something they made up is “possible?” Are you impressed with people in tin foil hats researching UFO landings? That’s not to mention the fact that we invented the concepts of “subject” and “verb” to apply to language, just like we invented “base 10” and “base 60” to apply to arithmetic. Looking for those in language would be nonsensical. But looking for something that could sensibly be called a base in any randomly picked counting system would be – shock! awe! – possible and completely unimpressive. Pinker does a disservice to the reader by equating the existence of something like nouns in all of the world’s languages to the “existence” of Universal Grammar. There is evidence for one, not the other. The Bible tells us that the world was created. That is a fact. The Bible also tells us that God created the world. That is a statement of belief.

In a footnote, Seuren quotes Pinker’s admiration for Chomsky and then says “It seems that Pinker forgot to take into account the possibility that there may also be valid professional reasons for uttering severe criticisms vis-à-vis Chomsky.” (526) In the same way that a Catholic priest is unlikely to quote from the Koran in his sermon, Chomskers will not address any other theories in their writing. That’s alright for a parish, it’s not alright for academia.

At this point you may be wondering how the Chomskers’ theories have survived for so long. It has to do with their outlandishness and their unwillingness to engage with critics. As Seuren notes, “And since no other school of linguistics would be prepared to venture into areas of theorizing so far removed from verifiable facts and possible falsification, the Chomskyan proposals could be made to appear unchallenged.” (284) By the time other linguists took note of what the Chomskers were up to, it was too late. They had already established their old boys club. What’s interesting is that linguists need not bother trying to tear down the Chomskers, since books like The Language Instinct demonstrate that the closer Chomskers try to bring their theory to verifiable facts, the more they falsify it. I don’t know if Pinker realized this, but writing about shit as if it were Shinola has never been a problem for Chomskers. In a subsection titled No arguments were produced, just rhetoric Seuren writes,

Despite twenty-odd years of disparagement from the side of Chomsky and his followers, one has to face the astonishing fact that not a single actual argument was produced during that period to support the attitude of dismissal and even contempt that one finds expressed, as a matter of routine, in the relevant Chomsky-inspired literature. Quasi-arguments, on the contrary, abounded. (514)

Linguistics does not work that way. Good night!

I told you the religion analogy was going to be more appropriate than it seemed at first. Belief in Universal Grammar is very much like belief in a god – you can’t see it, but it’s there. But that’s not science! To some people, the sunrise is proof that god exists. To astronomers, the sun does not actually “rise”. To Chomskers, speech is proof that Universal Gammar exists. To linguists, speech does not require such a leap of faith.

With his hawkish proclamations of the existence of Universal Grammar and his complete dismissal of any criticism, Noam Chomsky has done more harm than good to linguistics. Seuren says that “this behavior on Chomsky’s part has caused great harm to linguistics. Largely as a result of Chomsky’s actions, linguistics is now sociologically in a very unhealthy state. It has, moreover, lost most of the prestige and appeal it commanded forty years ago.” (526)

In an ironic turn of events considering his liberal political leanings, Chomsky and his ilk have become the Fox News of linguistics – they pull their theories out of thin air, shout them at the top of their lungs, and ridicule any who say otherwise. And just like the scare tactics of Fox News, the idea of a language instinct sells. McWhorter quite politely explains the Chomskers’ zealotry by saying “they want to find [a language instinct], they’re stimulated by this idea – as far as the counter evidence, most of them are too busy writing grants to pay much attention.” But that’s being too kind. If you ask me, bullshitting is their business… and business is good.

All this is unfortunate

To sum up, is there a language instinct? Maybe. Does Steven Pinker present a valid case for a language instinct? No.

To return to our religious analogy, you can believe in the Christian god, or in Buddha, or in the Flying Spaghetti Monster and there’s nothing wrong with that. But you can’t prove any of these gods exist (apologies to the Pastafarians, who have presented some very compelling evidence). Neither can Chomskers prove that a language instinct exists. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with believing it does, but you better have some facts to back up your theory if you want others to follow. Smoke and mirrors are interesting when used in magic shows, but infuriating when used in academic prose.

With a sly patronizing of those who cannot put up with Chomsky’s dense prose and a crafty acknowledgement of Chomsky’s intellectual superiority, Pinker writes

And who can blame the grammarphobe, when a typical passage from one of Chomsky’s technical works reads as follows? […quotes some mumbo jumbo from Chomksy…] All this is unfortunate […] Chomsky’s theory […] is a set of discoveries about the design of language that can be appreciated intuitively if one first understands the problems to which the theory provides solutions. (104)

Pinker complains about others who seem to have not read Chomsky, but I get the sense that Chomsky is the only linguist Pinker has ever read. Because either Pinker knows of other linguistic theories and he’s not telling (i.e., he’s being deceptive) or he doesn’t know of them at all (i.e., he’s hasn’t done his research). Either way, it’s poor scholarship. As we’ll see in the next post, Pinker knows of Sampson’s theory and he uses examples from Sampson’s book without acknowledgment. That’s also poor scholarship, but of the kind that is common to Chomskers.

References

McWhorter, John. 2004. “When Language Began”. The Story of Human Language. The Great Courses: The Teaching Company. Course No. 1600.

Pinker, Steven. 1994. The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind. Penguin Group: London.

Seuren, Pieter A. M. 2004 (1998). Western Linguistics: an Historical Introduction. Oxford; Malden (MA): Blackwell.

 

 

 

Up next: A review of The Language Instinct Debate by Geoffrey Sampson.

 
[Update – This post originally had Noam Chomsky’s name written as “Chompsky”. Oops. Hehe. A word to the wise: Before adding words to your word processor’s dictionary, make sure they’re spelled correctly. Hat tip to Angela for pointing out the mistake.]