A Guide to the Perplexed: How to Identify Pseudo-Linguistic Articles in the Media

Nov 8, 2015 by

[The title of this post is inspired by the title of a famous work by one of my favorite scholars of all time, Moshe ben Maimon, aka Maimonides, an extremely influential Jewish philosopher, astronomer, Torah scholar, and physician. His Guide to the Perplexed, a philosophical work tying together Aristotle’s philosophy and Jewish theology, was written in Judeo-Arabic between 1186 and 1190. Many thanks to Elena Zusmanovich for inspiring discussions of Maimonides and to Martin Lewis for editing the draft of this post.]


media_logosIn this past week I was asked to comment on not one, not two, but three articles in the mainstream media concerning issues of language. First came a call to reflect on an article in The Age, an Australian newspaper, written by an Australian academic Dean Frenkel. The gist of his proposal is that “our [Australians’] forefathers regularly got drunk together and through their frequent interactions unknowingly added an alcoholic slur to our national speech patterns”. Insulting to English speakers “Down Under”? No doubt. Any truth to his claims? Not a shred.

The second article was published in The Guardian, arguably Britain’s newspaper of record. Published in the “Language” column of the Science section, this piece is also written by academics (Paul Ibbotson and Michael Tomasello) rather than by a science journalist reformulating what he or she has read in an academic article. The title of The Guardian piece, “The roots of language: what makes us different from other animals?”, further suggests that the content would reveal some deep understanding of what language is and how it works. But it doesn’t.

The third article appeared in Newsweek, another respectable and widely read publication. Titled “Differences of Human Languages Driven by Climate and Environment”, it too promises to tell the readers everything they’ve wanted to know about language or at least about linguistic diversity. (I was actually asked to comment on a piece summarizing the Newsweek article on the Russian-language news site, Lenta.ru. Its title, translating as “The main reason for differences among languages has been named”, is even more grandiose.) The content of the article, as you might have guessed, also falls short on the title’s promise. What it does is review a study that correlated the content of sound inventories and syllable structures to environmental factors (temperature, humidity, vegetation and the like). Earlier analyses along the same lines relating sound inventories to geographical factors such as altitude and distance from Africa have been proposed by Caleb Everett and Quentin Atkinson, respectively.

Rather than post detailed rebuttals to each of those pieces, I decided to enlighten my readers by providing them with three telltale signs for identifying pseudo-linguistic rubbish, which is, unfortunately, all too common in the media. While none of the conditions listed below are sufficient by themselves, each of them provides a good indication that the article is not worth the paper it is printed on. (Readers who are interested in more detailed critiques of these three articles can check out the following: Mark Liberman’s comments on Frenkel’s article in the LanguageLog, Rob Pensalfini’s comments in the article on ABC News and the critique in the bottom portion of this Mashable piece; David Adger’s comment posted under Ibbotson and Tomasello’s article, as ID7628616; and an earlier post of mine, written in collaboration with Martin W. Lewis of GeoCurrents, offering some critique of similarly geographically deterministic proposal by Caleb Everett.)

1. Who is it by? While it is true that in science ideas are more important than authority, scholars are still expected to get some training in, or at least know a fair amount about, their subject. Thus, physicists generally limit their scholarly writings to physics, evolutionary biologists to biological evolution, and economists to economics—but everyone, it often seems, somehow feels qualified to write about language (Murray Gell-Mann, Mark Pagel, and Keith Chen come immediately to mind). Like any other scholarly subject, language presents a multifaceted, intricate and sometimes convoluted set of problems, the understanding of which requires a certain amount of intellectual immersion, disciplined study, and terminological precision. In the words of Dennis Ott (commenting on a Facebook post about The Guardian article), “our subject matter isn’t one that anybody can just have an opinion on”. Despite what many non-linguists think, speaking a language is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for being able to study it scientifically or even talk about it rigorously and cogently. Yet opining about linguistics issues, and making whimsical and unsubstantiated claims about them in the process, is a popular, even fashionable, pursuit among many scholars in other fields as well as lay persons.

In addition to the above-mentioned scholars, all talented in their own disciplines but not particularly knowledgeable about linguistics, consider the authors of the three articles under consideration: two were written by academics who are not linguists and the third was produced by a journalist whose grasp of linguistics is lacking, to put it mildly. Dean Frenkel describes himself as “a lecturer in public speaking and communications at Victoria University”, Paul Ibbotson is a lecturer in developmental psychology at the Open University, and Michael Tomasello is a developmental and comparative psychologist (and co‑director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology*). The Newsweek piece is penned by Zoë Schlanger, a reporter whose main interests, according to her bio website, arein the intersection of health and environment”, not language; even during her time at NYU, she was more interested in “university infighting” than in linguistics (a shame since NYU has one of the best linguistics departments in the country). Sadly, journalists reporting on language rarely have adequate knowledge of the subject (see here and here, for further discussion).

This does not mean that non-linguists can never write well on language-related questions. I am, for example, a great admirer of archeologist David Anthony’s work that incorporates solid discussions of linguistics issues. I have collaborated with non-linguists and have co-authored two publications with them: a monograph The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics with historical geographer Martin Lewis, and an article in Science with engineer Rory van Tuyl.

But a lack of linguistic credentials by all the authors of a given piece on language does raise red flags. After all, if you have a leaking faucet, you call a plumber, not an electrician—so why not learn about language from people who have dedicated their professional careers to studying it?


2. Conflating concepts and misrepresenting theories. Like cardsharps who cheat at poker, authors of pseudo-linguistic articles often perform tricks to take advantage of less-informed readers. Among the most popular sleights of hand are conflating fundamental—and fundamentally distinct—concepts and misrepresenting theories, both those of their opponents and their own. Perhaps the most frequently confused notions are “language” and “words”; any credible linguist would tell you that language is not reducible to words, grammar being as important, if not more so (see discussion of this problem in my earlier post).

Language is also commonly conflated by pseudo-linguists with sound systems or sound inventories. This is exactly what the Newsweek article and its Russian version on Lenta.ru do. For example, Schlanger writes: “the characteristics of languages have a lot to do with the environment”. This is not true: while characteristics of sound inventories may have something to do with the environment (which I am not at all convinced of; see below), a sound inventory is just one of many characteristics of a language. Other aspects of a given language, such as agglutinative morphology, the presence of vowel harmony, verb-final order, or the presence of differential object marking (all of which are characteristics of both Turkish and Sakha, spoken in very different environments) clearly cannot be ascribed to the environment. Moreover, the distinction between language and sounds is clear from sign languages, which do not use a vocal apparatus at all, yet have all the hallmarks of a natural language (see Sandler & Lillo-Martin 2001 for a detailed discussion).

Yet another telltale sign of pseudo-linguistics is a conflation of sounds and letters. Sometime in elementary school it was drilled into me and my classmates that “Звуки — это то, что мы говорим и слышим, а буквы — это то, что мы читаем и пишем” (“Sounds is what we say and hear, letters is what we read and write”). But all too many journalists penning pieces on language are not clear on this distinction. For example, as Frenkel writes about the origins of the Australian accent: “The Australian alphabet cocktail was spiked by alcohol”—yet “alphabet” refers to letters, not sounds, and Australians use the exact same alphabet as the British and the Americans.

Another way in which pseudo-linguists are often less than honest is misrepresentation: making the theories of their opponents sound silly while making their own seem more promising than they actually are. Let’s consider the article in The Guardian arguing for an alternative to the generative theory of Universal Grammar. According to Ibbotson and Tomasello, the theory of Universal Grammar has not done “justice to the sheer diversity of human languages”, a claim that is patently untrue as this theory is designed specifically to account for the diversity of human languages, and linguistics working in this framework have made great progress in accounting for patterns of diversity and variation across languages. (See David Pesetsky’s plenary talk at the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, delivered in January 2013 and available online, for a good summary.) On the other hand, Ibbotson and Tomasello claim that their alternative theory explains how children, whose speech begins with short memorized chunks, “gradually build their grammar on these patterns, from the ‘bottom up’”. However, neither The Guardian article, nor the book by Tomasello to which it links, explains how children learn to recognize that some of their earlier chunks are grammatical (in adult language) while others are not. As David Pesetsky notes in one of his comments in a Facebook discussion of Ibbotson and Tomasello’s article, it remains unclear

“how [Tomasello’s] ‘prefabricated phrases’ proposal could scale up so these kids end up speaking a verb-second language (when and how do they learn a structure-dependent rule that moves a particular verb and something else to designated positions) — and how he [Tomasello] would explain the frequent appearance of verb-second vs. the non-existence of obligatory verb-third crosslinguistically.”

3. Not engaging with linguistic data. A third common symptom of an ill-conceived and badly written piece on language is the authors’ avoidance of actual linguistic data, as noted also in Pesetsky’s plenary talk. Such articles almost always offer only meager (if any!) examples illustrating linguistic phenomena or patterns under discussion. For example, Schlanger’s Newsweek article offers not a single example of the 633 languages analyzed in Maddieson’s study and supporting the alleged correlation between sound inventories and syllable structures of the language and environmental factors such as “the average annual precipitation, average annual temperature, vegetation density and ‘rugosity’ (or mountainousness) of a region, as well as its elevation”. Unfortunately, the abstract of the study to which Schlanger links is password-protected and cannot be accessed, and I have been unable to locate a first-hand report of this study anywhere else, so I am unable to examine the list of the 633 languages studied. Yet, counterexamples to the proposed correlation are easy to find. Consider Ubykh, a recently extinct language whose homeland was in the area near Sochi in northwest Caucasus. This language was thus once spoken in a subtropical area featuring both lush vegetation and rugged mountains (think about the concerns surrounding the recent Sochi Olympics!), both of which are supposed to promote “languages with fewer consonants and simpler syllables”, according to Maddieson’s study as reported in Newsweek. Yet Ubykh is a prime example of a language with an extremely high consonant-to-vowel ratio in its sound inventory (84 consonants and only 2 phonemic vowels, according to the Wikipedia; though John Colarusso states that it had 81 consonants, cf. Colarusso 1992: 145-55.) (Note that the demise of Ubykh had nothing to do with its sound inventory but everything to do with the expulsion of the Ubykh people from their homeland by the Russian Empire in 1864 and their subsequent acculturation in Turkey.)

To make matters worse, when pseudo-linguists do offer specific linguistic data, their examples are more often than not seriously bungled. Take Frenkel’s claims about Australian accent; he writes: “The average Australian speaks to just two thirds capacity – with one third of our articulator muscles always sedentary as if lying on the couch”. Let’s set aside for the moment the well-established fact that a great many historical sound changes across the world’s languages have been driven exactly by the general human propensity to keep “our articulatory muscles … sedentary” (I speak, of course, of lenition). But this propensity to replace sounds that are “harder to pronounce” by those “easier to pronounce” has a very particular articulatory definition: for example, with consonants lenition may amount to spirantization (i.e. a change from a stop consonant to a fricative) or debuccalization (i.e. loss of the oral place of articulation). What then does this alleged tendency of Australian speakers to keep “articulator muscles … sedentary” amount to, specifically when the articulation of vowels is concerned? As one of the main components of vowel articulation is the height (i.e. the relative position of the tongue/lower jaw), which height is to be considered “as if lying on the couch”? Frenkel’s answer is self-contradictory: one of his examples of “many of our vowels … lazily transformed into other vowels”—[ɛ] instead of [æ], as in standing—involves raising the tongue, while another—[aj] instead of [ej], as in New South Wales— involves exactly the opposite articulation, that is lowering rather than raising the tongue.

Similar misunderstanding by pseudo-linguists of the linguistic data used to elucidate their points can be found in the opening paragraph of Schlanger’s Newsweek article. Consider her example illustrating the statement that “… words with lots of consonants and complicated syllables would likely get garbled, swallowed up by the noise around you, blocked by the throng of bodies and kiosks and other objects in your way” while words with fewer consonants (and more vowels!) and simpler syllable structure are likely to get across better despite blocking environmental objects, such as buildings or trees. Schlanger exemplifies the former sort of word by unequivocally and the latter by yeah. However, the only real relevant difference between these words is their length: both words actually have the exact same 1:1 consonant-to-vowel ratio (6 consonant and 6 vowel sounds in unequivocally, and one of each in yeah) and roughly the same types of syllables (unequivocally features one onset-less syllable, and one with a consonant-glide sequence in an onset, but both words have only coda-less syllables). In fact, had she chosen yes rather than yeah, it would have a higher consonant-vowel ratio (2:1) and a more complex syllable structure despite being shorter than unequivocally. But length is typically seen as beneficial (in a noisy environment) in that it introduces additional redundancy. A good example is the French word aujourd’hui ‘today’, literally ‘on the day of today’, discussed by Trask (2010: 24-25): the original word for ‘today’, from the Latin phrase *hoc die (literally ‘on this day’) got reduced to a mere “ui” in pronunciation (“by the time of the first Roman emperor, no Latin speaker was pronouncing aitches any more”, Trask writes) and so it had to be augmented to create “a more substantial way of expressing that concept”. Moreover, languages that restrict possible syllable structures to coda-less syllables tend to have longer words, exactly to increase redundancy and therefore improve safe transmission in noisy environments (my favorite example is Hawaiian’s humuhumunukunukuapua’a, the official state fish of Hawaii).

This failure by pseudo-linguists to offer cogent linguistic data and to describe it in a coherent way has much to do with their poor understanding of what language is and how it works, and ultimately with their lack of intellectual preparation for writing about language. The moral has been summarized nicely by Russian writer Ivan Krylov (1769–1844), in his fable “The Pike and the Cat” (English translation from the StudyEnglishWords website):

“When cobblers take to making pies,

And Cook his hand at cobbling tries,

You’ll look for useful work in vain;

A hundred times it has been plain,

There’s no more hardened fool nor more inane

Than he who leaves his trade, his neighbor’s job to spoil.

He’d rather squander all his toil,

He’d rather live

A laughing-stock on earth,

Than go to men of sense and worth

And ask or hear the counsel they can give.”




*Curiously, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig used to have a linguistics department (led by a renown linguist Bernard Comrie), whose main focus was on “the diversity of human language and the historical processes underlying this diversity” (as its website states). Since 2015, this department no longer exists, for reasons I won’t discuss here.



Additional sources:

Colarusso, John (1992) “How many consonants does Ubykh have?” In: George Hewitt (ed.) Caucasian perspectives. Unterschleissheim: Lincom Europa.

Sandler, Wendy & Dianne Lillo-Martin (2001) Natural Sign Languages. In: Mark Aronoff & Janie Rees-Miller (eds.) The Handbook of Linguistics. Blackwell. Pp. 533-562.

Trask, R. L. (2010) Why Do Languages Change? Cambridge University Press.

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  • John Cowan

    It is unjust, monstrously unjust of you to conflate the middle article with the other two in this post. The first and third articles are journalistic trash. The third article presents a view of language acquisition which disagrees with Chomskyan orthodoxy, but as you well know, the field of linguistics is not and never has been monolithically Chomskyan. To imply that non-Chomskyan theories are pseudo-science is factionalism, not science.

    Furthermore, the personal attack on Tomasello is done chiefly by concealing facts (or in the most charitable interpretation, failing to learn facts that a moment’s investigation would determine). He is a specialist in language acquisition, something even Wikipedia knows. And it is not Tomasello’s theories, but the content of his research (in peer-reviewed journals) that threaten Chomskyan orthodoxy. In science, publishing facts that falsify a theory is always important, whether or not you have another theory that explains more facts than the old one. Lastly, Tomasello may be right or he may be wrong, as any scientist may, but he has never engaged in a smear campaign against anybody.

    You’ve done a lot of good work in popularization, Asya. I had thought better of your character than this.

    • I am not offering a complete overview of Tomasello’s career or the entire body of his writings. I consider one specific article, which suffers from drawbacks that I point out. They happen to be the same drawbacks that trashy journalistic pieces suffer from. Just because he has written better pieces elsewhere doesn’t mean he can get away with these problems, not in my book anyway.

      Moreover, I absolutely see this piece as a smear campaign. I am perfectly happy to see reasonable arguments again generative syntax or UG but not “in the 50 years since some of these ideas were laid out, history has not been kind” or that UG doesn’t do “justice to the sheer diversity of human languages”. That’s either ignorant or ideology aimed to mislead readers. I don’t condone either.

      I am not arguing that linguistics should be monolithically Chomskian (against I’ve argued elsewhere against the use of the term “Chomskian” in the first place). But this article offers no justification for the alternative theory, and the “data” pointed
      out (that little kids speak in memorized chunks) is not disputed by
      anyone and so is not particularly insightful. Nor is conflating ungrammatical and grammatical chunks very useful either, as I point out in the post. So to say that “the content of his research (in peer-reviewed journals) that threaten Chomskyan orthodoxy” is quite generous. I don’t see how it can even begin to threaten the UG framework if it doesn’t explain the facts that UG does explain.

      But what such articles (and others I have criticized on this blog) do achieve is pander to broader public’s preconceived notions and sympathies (or antipathies, to Chomsky in this case) and promote ignorance. This book will be of interest to you: http://www.amazon.com/Agnotology-Unmaking-Ignorance-Robert-Proctor/dp/0804759014/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1447035261&sr=1-1&keywords=agnotology

      • John Cowan

        I don’t think you understand what smear means.

        • Perhaps. The dictionary lists it as “damage the reputation of (someone) by false accusations; slander.” and I think that’s exactly what this article does, purposefully (unless it’s written in total cluelessness, which you said isn’t the case!).

          • John Cowan

            Yes, that’s correct, but I was talking about your article. By associating Tomasello with people who write lies for public consumption, and by suppressing the facts of his research, it is you who have slandered him.

            And that’s all I have to say on this subject.

          • As I’ve written about this one article of his pointing out specific problems with it and sources where a reader can read more on this, while he and his co-author wrote explicitly untrue statements about an entire framework (hundreds of people working for 50 years!), and you accuse me of slandering?

            Good luck!

          • closetothetruth

            i agree completely with John Cowan. Whatever you think of Tomasello, classifying his work as “pseudo-linguistics” in the context of the other two articles is deeply biased and misleading. It is fair to criticize his works on scholarly grounds, but that is completely different from framing it as pseudo-linguistics. You have to be aware that within the field, many who are more sympathetic to non-Chomskyan views consider Chomsky a kind of “pseudo-linguist,” but even they–people like Paul Postal and Daniel Everett–would hardly want to see Chomsky lumped in with the kind of journalistic obfuscation in articles 2 and 3.

            indeed, it’s ironic that your 3rd point, “failing to engage with linguistic data,” occurs in this context at all. from the perspective of Tomassello and many other practicing linguists who don’t accept one or another of Chomsky’s paradigms and who do a great deal of empirical testing, it is generativsts who refuse to engage with the data. After all, it is Chomsky who famously makes statements challenging empirical, statistical, and experimental approaches to linguistics in general and his own theories in particular.

            it is a smear. if you feel what Tomassello does in his scholarship is smearing and that makes it fair, I’ll be happy to point you to hundreds of examples of writing b linguists in the generative tradition doing exactly the same thing at those who don’t buy into it.

            in my opinion, those are deep, interesting, and also at times vicious scholarly disagreements. they are not “pseudo-science” and you do a great disservice to the field and to Prof. Thomassello by saying otherwise.

          • I don’t know why you speak for Everett — he actually posted a comment on FB implying that I’ve been unfair to all three articles in the same way and that they are all equally good…

          • closetothetruth

            and, frankly, you are doing exactly what the bulk of the article cautions against: making a hash of scholarship for the sake of public excitement.

            this is offensive enough that I honestly believe the article should be corrected and the parts about Thomassello removed, or placed in another article where you explain why you disagree with his views from a scholarly perspective.

          • Actually, it is done for the sake of educating “the ordinary reader” (as mentioned in earlier comments here), not “public excitement”. You are welcome to post a rebuttal about Tomasello or anything else I wrote in your blog.

            Let me also point out that all the linguists who wrote in defense of my post here used their proper full names, while at least some of those who made attacks on me that they can’t substantiate used silly nicks. What does that tell you?

          • OK. One with full name and picture here. I do not agree with Tomasello and Goldberg on the question of whether the end state of language acquisition is something containing phrasal patterns. I think that what is actually learned are dependencies and that his views can be translated into lexical views as they are common in Minimalist theories and in other frameworks. I wrote several papers about this (for instance 2006 and 2013 in Language and 2010 in the Journal of Linguistics) but although I sometimes use rather strong words, I would never call other scientist work rubbish. By the way: I studied computer science. Does this disqualify me to write about language? Linguistics is a truly interdisciplinary subject where a lot of people contribute. There is computational linguistics, which can be helpful in checking the consistency of theories, there is psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics and so on. We need to collaborate with people coming from these areas. Tomasello did so for years and knows what linguists are talking about. So you have to admit that people who studied other subjects may contribute to linguistics.

            What is needed are events where we talk to each other, not a continuation of linguistic wars. For instance, the next SLE meeting has a workshop on features run by members of different theoretical camps. This is what we need. In the end the positions of Chomsky/Hauser/Fitch and Tomasello are not as far away from each other as many may think.

          • “So you have to admit that people who studied other subjects may contribute to linguistics.” — Have you actually read the post? Your point is answered in 3rd para under “1. Who is it by?”

          • Yes, I read it. Memorized the gist of it and read other replies and comments and then wrote my answer. You say: XY is not a linguist, non-linguists could be OK, but these are not experts and hence making the point with the general suspicion against non-linguists is justified. Correct? I have nine articles by Tomasello in my (incomplete) database that are dealing with language. Six in peer-reviewd established journals. Does this count? My Minimalist colleague Guido Mensching and I invited him because of his views on language and language acquisition: http://hpsg.fu-berlin.de/Events/ring2009.html He was a guest in a lecture series with Kayne and Gereon Müller (Chomskyan theoretical syntacticians), Meisel (Chomskyan language acquisition expert). And I can assure you that many of the linguists in the Berlin, Potsdam area were there. As I said in another reply: I do not share all his views but claiming he does not have the right to write about linguistics (or at least laypeople should be suspicious) is rather strange.

          • I didn’t say that he has no right to write about linguistics but I absolutely think that as a principle laypeople should be suspicious. Some non-linguists do good work on linguistics but most don’t. So as a guideline, I think it absolutely works. If a layperson wants to investigate a particular writer and see what they’ve done (assuming the layperson can evaluate their work), that’s fine. But most can’t and won’t bother. So as a general guideline, yes absolutely go with credential-ed linguists or check what such linguists think of the work of a given non-linguist. I would give the exact same guideline about any other branch of science too, by the way.

          • OK. The let’s apply this to Tomasello. Ask Adele Goldberg what she thinks of him. She is the most cited female linguist with linguistic papers in all high ranked journals. And lots of them. She won several prices and had an Einstein Professorship at the Freie Universität Berlin paying for her visits and a PhD student. She frequentl is invited as a keynote speaker to important conferences. By that criterion you cannot get Tomasello out of the game, either.

          • They might ask Adele Goldberg. (BTW, do you have stats on how cited different linguists are, male and female? If so, can you please provide a link or reference? I am looking to see gender balance in this matter.)

            Or they might ask me. Or David Pesetsky. Or you. Or someone else. Of course, the most proper procedure would be to ask a large and representative sample of scholars in the field and see what the overall response going to be. I am 99.99% sure that no layperson would do that, though. Do you disagree?

          • Hi Asya (if I may),

            This is a link to citations with the subject of linguistics: https://scholar.google.com/citations?view_op=search_authors&hl=de&mauthors=label:linguistics&after_author=dCcAAMSr__8J&astart=10

            I have to correct me, Anna Wierzbicka is the most cited female linguist. But there is an age difference between her and Adele Goldberg of 25 years. If we assume that the citations continue in the way it was, Adele will be way above the number of citations that Anna Wierzbicka has today.

            “I am 99.99% sure that no layperson would do that, though.”
            OK. But then we are stuck. What is left from your suggestion then is: Check the webpage and if you see something that does not have the subject under consideration in it, ignore the scientist. I think people can shortcut the asking of a large and representative sample of scholars by looking at the publication record and checking whether there are publications on the subject under consideration in highly ranked journals. These publications in peer-reviewed journals were reviewed by us and hence are some guarantee that the author is not completely nuts. Of course there are mistakes in the reviewing process, but if there are several high profile publications in different journals, the chances are good that the person under consideration really has to say something about the subject.

            Best wishes


          • Thanks for the link, Stefan — it’ll be useful if I decide to pursue my little agenda item about gender balance. Or I might pass it along to a colleague who’s been doing work on this. As it so happens, I am quite familiar with the work of Anna Wierzbicka: she does have some interesting observation but a lot of what she says about Russian in plain wrong. So I am not sure what the number of citations really tells us.

            “But then we are stuck.” — indeed. I am not sure what your level of familiarity with the knowledge of linguistics by “ordinary readers” is, but I am quite familiar with it (you can read my other comments in this thread to see why I am saying so). So based on my knowledge, I am trying to do a part to “unstuck” us. I am very sad to see that other scholars, while talking all the time about how linguistics needs to be “taken to the masses”, do nothing about it and in fact sabotage the efforts of those of us who do our (small) part.

            “people can shortcut the asking of a large and representative sample of
            scholars by looking at the publication record and checking whether there
            are publications on the subject under consideration in highly ranked
            journals.” — well, the problem is exactly that they cannot and do not. They don’t know where and how to check someone’s record, nor is it always evident from, say, Google scholar searches what’s behind the findings, and as for “highly ranked journals”, how on earth would non-specialists know which are high-ranking journals?! And if you’ve read enough of my blog, you’ll know how many of language-related articles in Science, Nature, PNAS, and the like are deeply flawed. Would non-linguists know to look in NLLT, LI, Lingua?

            “These publications in peer-reviewed journals were reviewed by us and
            hence are some guarantee that the author is not completely nuts.” — that’s not true. Publications in Science are not necessarily reviewed by area specialists, language-related pieces rarely are, and their reviews are often ignored. That process I’ve been personally involved in so I would know. There’s no guarantees. Which is why I have so much fodder for my blog and especially for the “bad linguistics” category!

      • I hesitate to say anything here, as I haven’t read anything by Tomasello (and, indeed, because of that, I have no comment on his work, or your response to it). Coming up through academic linguistics, though, I have seen a lot of argumentation regarding UG. It’s tough for me to accept without qualification that there are facts about language that UG explains better than other serious models. For example, I could pose an alternate theory—something along the lines of “Children learn language because God makes it so”. That is a full explanation of how children learn language. It’s not a very scientific one, but it is rather complete. Does that make it better than a theory that doesn’t answer all the questions, but is, perhaps, moving in the right direction?

        I have one specific example (if this one has been explained, I haven’t yet seen it, so please forgive me if it has). UG seems to predict (correct me if this is out of date) that children learning English don’t contract where they oughtn’t, and that this is something they couldn’t learn. That is, children know this is okay:

        He is going away. > He’s going away.

        But they also know this is not okay, despite not getting direct evidence that it isn’t:

        I know where he is. > *I know where he’s.

        The evidence for the latter is negative evidence—i.e. no one seems to know of examples where children do this. But, in fact, they do. I’ve seen children do it. I imagine if it were more publicized that children “never” do this, others would turn up examples as well. It’s not common, to be sure, but it absolutely is possible for children to mess up the contraction rule and produce this kind of datum spontaneously. I certainly appreciate that a question can be dismissed if it’s been settled before (in which case, the appropriate response is to offer the literature where the question has been discussed), but I certainly am familiar with UG theorists dismissing claims because they are inconvenient. That experience can be quite frustrating.

        • As I said elsewhere in my comments, I am not interested in debating the issue of UG or any content of anyone’s theory. Nor am I an expert on the acquisition of contraction in English, so I don’t know what the state-of-the-art in the area is. (Funny how the only linguistic argument to support Tomasello’s claim that the UG framework doesn’t do justice to crosslinguistic variation comes from… English, what with all the mud-slinging at Chomsky for having studied only English…)

          But when it comes to the scholarly process, what I don’t understand is this: You claim to have some novel empirical observation, one that is so monumental as possibly being able to disprove the UG framework (i.e. that kids are actually doing what they are not supposed to, according to some account, though I am not sure that UG-based acquisition theories necessarily rule it out, you’d have to take it up with acquisition folks). If you have that observation, have you published it? If so, take it up with acquisitionists in the UG framework. If not, if all you have is just “I’ve seen children do it”, which nobody can check or replicate, then what do you expect? That people working the UG framework will drop whatever they are doing to look for evidence to support your claim against what they are doing? That’s just silly. How many anti-UG folks do you know who look for arguments to support rather than disprove UG? I know exactly zero. So if you expect others to do your homework for you, I am not surprised if it’s been met with a dismissive attitude. And if you don’t have a worked out empirical observation, you don’t have an argument. Nor do I understand your claim that “I imagine if it were more publicized that children “never” do this, others would turn up examples as well.” — but anyone is allowed to look for data anywhere they please!

          • If this was in reference to my datum…

            (Funny how the only linguistic argument to support Tomasello’s claim that the UG framework doesn’t do justice to crosslinguistic variation comes from… English, what with all the mud-slinging at Chomsky for having studied only English…)

            …I’d repeat (as I mentioned explicitly in my previous comment) that I don’t know anything about Tomasello’s claims at all, and I was not trying to support them. I certainly don’t know anything about what he’s said about UG and what it’s done or hasn’t with crosslinguistic variation. I would never try to defend someone’s work that I hadn’t read a single word of. If, however, you were using your response to my comment to respond to someone else, then never mind.

            With my point regarding contraction, I was a little miffed that the point about children not being able to contract where UG doesn’t permit was being taught as fact to undergraduates in the class on first and second language acquisition I was a TA for back at UCSD for a few years. I was miffed because I had direct evidence against the claim that it never happened. Even so, your point is well made: I hadn’t published anything on it, and though it’s hard to design an experiment to elicit spontaneous errors, I’m sure it could be done. And it certainly does make sense not to investigate a claim that could be detrimental to one’s theory when there are so many other things to be done. The burden of proof undoubtedly lies with those making the counter claim.

            Thanks for the response!

          • David, my comment about English was in response to your comment, as well as a more general observation: of all the crowd of Tomasello’s supporters (or UG-detractors), you were the only one that offered some sort of linguistic observation not just name calling and the like. I thought you were trying to support Tomasello’s claim in the Guardian article, which I mentioned in my post which you responded to. I assumed you at least read my post to which you commented and in which I cited the relevant quote verbatim. If you are simply venting some frustration with the UG framework or some specific people working in it, this may not be the best forum to do so. If you are unhappy about something a lecturer in a class you TAed for said, why not taking it up with him/her? Why comment on my blog, especially if it’s not in response to either the Guardian article or my critique of it? I am surprised that so many people understood this post to be an invitation to do mud-slinging and name-calling and frustration-venting that has nothing to do with the post. (That’s a comment that is directed at most comments here, although the response of FB has been quite different, I’m not sure why.)

            But since we are having an orthogonal discussion here in relation to your point about contraction in acquisition, let me clarify my earlier comment. It’s not whether you published it per se, or where it’s published and the like, but is it something that could potentially be published? Or is it just a vague observation that something like that happens, maybe? What are the specific examples? At what age? in what contexts? how often? There’s tons more one has to do before it’s a verifiable/replicable empirical observation. You are right that one can’t elicit spontaneous errors, but one can elicit non-spontaneous errors, one can examine child corpora (even as a non-acquisitionist, I’ve heard of CHILDES, but there may be more corpora to look at), one can even do judgment tests with children. They are rather cleverly designed experiments where a puppet says something and the child has to either give them candy or not… or something like that, thus providing judgments on what is being said. Anyway, there’s tons of work done using different methods and I am sure some of them can be used for this issue. But again you will be better off consulting an acquisitionist on this.

          • Why comment on my blog, especially if it’s not in response to either the Guardian article or my critique of it?

            Well, if you must know, it was this comment from you (my emphasis):

            I don’t see how it can even begin to threaten the UG framework if it doesn’t explain the facts that UG does explain.

            The way this is presented as an implicit fact that, of necessity, everyone must accept as true is something I’ve seen done a lot, and I find it troubling. It was a bit churlish of me to draw attention to it, though, as it wasn’t at issue. This wasn’t the place for it. My apologies.

            If you are unhappy about something a lecturer in a class you TAed for said, why not taking it up with him/her?

            I did. The response was, “Well, the exception proves the rule,” and that was that. Ancient history, though.

            Thanks for the reference to that database! I didn’t know about it. That may prove fruitful to look through. I mean, if it’s still bugging me ten years later, I owe it to myself to at least look into it on my own.

          • “Ancient history, though.” — but you felt compelled to spill this beef you have with someone else whom I don’t even know on me…

            “if it’s still bugging me ten years later, I owe it to myself to at least look into it on my own.” — Right. Then you can tell us what we’ve been doing wrong for 50 years. If your claim pans out. Good luck with it.

          • Again, my sincere apologies, and thank you so much for your kind words! I appreciate it.

  • Ekaterina Lyutikova

    Well done, Asya! Great paper. It reminds me on Zaliznyak’s papers and lectures on amateurish linguistics (http://elementy.ru/lib/430720), which you discussed earlier in your blog (http://www.languagesoftheworld.info/uncategorized/amateurish-linguistics-why.html).

    • Thanks, Katya! I can’t say what I am more pleased of: having some of the supporters chime in here (and not just on FB, where the support has been overwhelming, I am happy to say) or being compared to Zaliznyak… No, definitely the latter — I admire him greatly, and not just for his linguistic work but for his tireless fighting against “amateurish linguistics”. He’s really my hero in this respect. Thank you!

      • Ekaterina Lyutikova

        Well, you know I highly appreciate you as a scientist, and I can say you make wonderful lemonade out of lemons life gives to you — your experience of teaching to non-professionals made you a real “illuminator”.

        • Thank you, Katya! That’s an amazing thing to say. I like being an “illuminator” 🙂

  • Fermín Moscoso del Prado

    There are valid points in this article. However, I think that presenting Michael Tomasello as “just a psychologist” without any professional specialized knowledge of language is a wild –and I suspect
    intentional– mischaracterization of somebody a great part of whose work (including his own PhD dissertation) is actually in a subfield of linguistics (yes, psycholinguistics and language acquisition are as much part of linguistics as they are of psychology), who regularly teaches at top linguistic venues, such as the Linguistic Society of America summer institutes, the Dutch national graduate school of Linguistics (LOT), etc., and who –most crucially– wrote a newspaper article actually talking about his own main area of work (not as some kind of intruder as the article misleadingly suggests), to which he’s dedicated decades of career, and who has trained quite a few professors of linguistics, including myself. One may or may not agree with Tomasello, but throwing at him the ever-present “not-a-linguist” label, and claiming the general public should distrust his piece for that reason, amounts to plain lying.

    • David Pesetsky

      Despite your putting “just a psychologist” in quotes, that’s not what the article says, and that’s not a quote from the article. All the article says is that it is a decent rule of thumb for the non-specialist reading a science article to look for some credential-ish record of accomplishment in the area being discussed. By that rule-of-thumb method, an article like the Guardian’s could indeed “raise red flags” for such a reader (Pereltsvaig’s actual words). That’s a different question from whether the red flags are justified. Answering that question requires some specialized knowledge on the reader’s part. You need to figure out whether, among other things, researchers who claim to disagree with a body of work have actually addressed any of the results of that body of work. You also need to ask whether researchers who claim to have an alternative proposal actually do. From what I can see, the answers in this case are negative. If the answers to those questions were more positive, you could move to the next step of evaluating competing proposals, and then you can talk about agreeing or not agreeing, as you do.

      But in the cases at hand, we can’t even get to that stage. If I’m wrong, point us to the work by Tomasello and his colleagues (maybe work of your own?) that actually engages with any serious analytical work on language structure that has been taken by others as a discovery about properties of UG — and shows that it is better understood as arising from “a broader adaptation for culture and cooperation” (a quote from the Guardian article). Show us the culture-and-cooperation proposals that get the language-acquiring child from “small pockets of reliable patterns in the language they hear” (a quote once again) to any of the complex syntactic patterns we find in the languages of the world (e.g. verb-second), while avoiding the patterns we don’t find (e.g. verb-third). Or a culture-and-cooperation proposal that explains anything at all about the regularities that have been discovered in that process by language acquisition researchers.

      There’s a lot that we don’t understand about language — even us credentialed linguists. In fact no one realizes this as acutely as us credentialed linguists! So new ideas and proposals are welcome and necessary, and if history is any guide, they will come from the most unexpected corners of science, credentials be damned. But I don’t think that’s what we’re dealing with here. Please, prove me wrong!

      • closetothetruth

        all of what you’ve said is a scholarly argument. an ordinary reader looking at the piece should and would see that Tomasello is a world-famous, well-respected and well-regarded linguist working in the field.

        the viciousness of Chomskyan-vs-non-Chomskyan debate is fascinating. but you have to admit (although I’m not sure you will) that many non-Chomskyans would ask very similar questions about Chomskyan articles. But i’d be just as concerned by an essay that said a Chomsky newspaper article was “pseudo-linguistics” because Paul Postal thinks it fails to address what are to him fundamental questions as I am by this author’s saying Tomasello is “pseudo” because his framework does not answer what are to you fundamental questions. the strong and vibrant (and in my opinion important) conflict between markedly different paradigms of scholarship is very different from pseudo-scholarship presented under cover of journalism. If readers want to truly understand the conflict they should read Tomasello and you (and many others), rather than taking on faith the view that one side of the conflict is “pseudo” and propagated by scholarly frauds, which is what this piece says.

        • I didn’t say that Tomasello is “pseudo” *because his framework does not answer what to me is a fundamental question*. I did say that he misrepresents other frameworks, i.e. is lying (or is so clueless that he shouldn’t be writing on the topic at all, but everybody writing here in his defense say that he isn’t clueless, so malicious lying is the only alternative explanation).

          The other undeniable problem with the Guardian article is that it does not engage any linguistic material, just as David Pesetsky pointed out here and elsewhere. It’s not about theoretical explanations, but what they are trying to explain. Whatever the framework it has to engage with nuts-and-bolts of language. Show me some word order, some suffix in Middle Korean, vowel harmony, anything!

          Also, you said “an ordinary reader looking at the piece should and would see that
          Tomasello is a world-famous, well-respected and well-regarded linguist
          working in the field”, which may very well be true (about the ordinary reader), and if it is, that’s the saddest part. An “ordinary reader” (whom I am more familiar with than an average linguist, I am pretty sure) doesn’t know enough about language to even know who is a linguist and who isn’t. Good linguists don’t publish enough for the “ordinary reader”. Bad linguists and pseudo-linguists do publicize their “work” broadly. (Click on “Bad linguistics” Category in the main menu above.) That’s the real problem. At least I am doing something about it — do you?

          As for not criticizing Chomsky enough, give me an article of his in the popular press (one on language, not politics, please) that you consider pseudo-linguistics and I will analyze it. Deal?

      • John Cowan

        “You need to figure out whether, among other things, researchers who claim to disagree with a body of work have actually addressed any of the results of that body of work. You also need to ask whether researchers who claim to have an alternative proposal actually do.”

        Quite so. But even if people with alternative theories have no-good theories, that does not mean that their data can be disregarded if it tends to refute the prevailing theory. Classical physics didn’t stop cold because 19C physicists couldn’t explain the ultraviolet catastrophe or the precession of Mercury, but physicists didn’t try to claim that these problems were unimportant or didn’t affect the substance of physics. Eventually classical theory had to be encapsulated in two totally new theories that reduced to the classical theory in the limit case.

        I believe this will happen soon in historical linguistics as the tree and wave models are abandoned for the linkage model, which also reduces in the limit to its predecessors. That is normal science working normally. But the history of linguistics suggests that data often gets ignored if it comes from the “wrong” people.

        • What “data” of Tomasello’s is being ignored by generative linguists, pray tell? The only thing that could pass for data in the Guardian article is the chunks that characterize children’s speech. You can’t claim that generative acquisition literature ignored that obvious fact that children speak with incomplete sentences. What that literature did examine is how children get from these chunks to the competency of adult speakers. I am referring to acquisition literature by Borer, Hyams, Guasti and many others.

      • There are several papers by Daniel Freudenthal and his lab, who look into the predictions of pattern-based approaches to language acquisition. For instance:
        Modeling the Developmental Patterning of Finiteness Marking in English, Dutch, German, and Spanish Using MOSAIC
        Daniel Freudenthal and Julian M. Pine and Javier Aguado-Orea and Fernand Gobet
        Cognitive Science

        They show that alternative proposals about maturation actually make wrong predictions, while the frequency-based proposals can explain the differences between languages. I think this work is cool and it is in the spirit of Tomasello’s proposals.

        • David Pesetsky

          Looking quickly at the paper, it does look both interesting and responsible — thanks for the reference! But it doesn’t look like it’s about pattern-based approaches to language acquisition (much less about the rights and wrongs of Universal Grammar), but rather about whether an early-childhood bias to learn from the right edge of input sentences can account for a characteristic cross-linguistic pattern of early child errors (the Optional Infinitive stage) as well or better than the grammar-based account of my colleague Ken Wexler. Tomasello’s work is not cited.

    • Well, here’s how Tomasello describes himself on his webpage: “Major research interests in processes of social cognition, social
      learning, cooperation, and communication from developmental,
      comparative, and cultural perspectives. Current theoretical focus on
      processes of shared intentionality. Empirical research mainly with human
      children from 1 to 4 years of age and great apes.” Where do you see linguistics here?

      To quote what Boban Arsenijevic said in response to the same comment you made on his FB wall: “one
      can theorize about grammar purely from a global and cognitive
      perspective, and give potentially valuable contributions, but that
      doesn’t deny the lack of the deep and substantial knowledge about
      phenomena like secondary predication, prosodic marking of lexical
      relations or the placing of clitics.”

  • Thom

    I agree with the other commentators: implying that Tomasello as a “pseudo-linguist” is deeply misleading. He may also work on psychology, and you may not agree with his views, but there is no question at all that Tomasello is a major figure in linguistics today. To suggest otherwise is at best irresponsible.

    • One can be a major figure in linguistics without being a linguist, and I said so explicitly in the post. One of the most important figures in Indo-European historical linguistics is David Anthony — not a linguist and never characterized himself as such. Please give me a definition of “linguist” that includes Tomasello.

      • Thom

        Definitions aren’t the issue. You can say he’s not a linguist, and I won’t disagree, because I don’t care about the labels. What I care about is fair characterisation of knowledge and expertise. You present Tomasello as an ignorant who doesn’t know his way around linguistics, and that just isn’t the case. In fact, it’s so wide of the mark as to be irresponsible and offensive.

        • What is “irresponsible and offensive” is your comment which misrepresents what I said. You read something into the post that isn’t there. And definitions are important. I did say that he is not a linguist, and what he wrote is a pseudo-linguistics piece, not real linguistics and not how linguistics should be done. I gave a definition of what places one into that category. I further explained in earlier comments (take the time to read them) what makes one do pseudo- rather than real linguistics. You may not share that opinion, but that’s your problem. You can write about it in your blog.

          • Thom

            I am not here to argue whether or not Tomasello is a linguist. As I said, labels do not interest me. My only objection is to your mischaracterisation of Tomasello’s expertise. Your rebuttal has been to insist that you have not misrepresented Tomasello’s expertise; that I have “read something into the post that isn’t there”.

            Well, let’s see. Let me quote your conclusion back to you. You wrote that all the authors under discussion, including Tomasello, have “a poor understanding of what language is and how it works”, and a “lack of intellectual preparation for writing about language”. How do you expect us to understand that, except as a statement that Tomasello doesn’t know his stuff??

            (Just so you and the readers know, I don’t expect I’ll reply any further to this. Enough already.)

          • My comment about “a poor understanding of what language is and how it works” has to do with the avoidance of engaging with nuts-and-bolts of language, evident in all three articles. Where in the Guardian article do the authors show any engagement with such bread-and-butter of linguistics (as construed in any framework)? I am drawing a distinction between someone who talks about subjects and objects, suffixes and prefixes, vowels and consonants, case marking, “free word order” etc. etc. in whatever framework vs. someone who does not talk of these things, considers them unimportant, and makes general statements about language/cognition/grammar without engaging with the mechanics of language. I place Mel’chuk, Jakobson and many others into the former category despite not agreeing with their general approach to the study of language. I fail to see what in the Guardian article would put Tomasello or Ibbotson in that category as well. Please cite from their article if you want to continue the discussion.

  • Aelfscine

    I’ll add another voice saying that lumping Tomasello in with two totally specious articles is incredibly callous and dishonest. If you’re upset with The Guardian giving his theory a pretty non-rigorous discussion or treating one theory like it’s rock-solid fact, then say that – it’d be a valid criticism. But you mainly seem to harp on the theory itself. And whether you agree with Tomasello or not, his work is *strongly* paying attention to peer-reviewed research and scholarly work. Conflating him with some random idiot who made up some nonsense about Australians is absurd, petty, and crass.

    • I didn’t even begin to criticize his theories. But I don’t agree that a linguist is simply someone who “pay[s] attention to peer-reviewed research and scholarly work”. That’s the stupidest definition I’ve seen so far.

      • Aelfscine

        What I mean is, his work is scholarly. He cites peer-reviewed research, he makes inferences based on the results of experiments, many of which he’s conducted himself. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, he’s not Ben Carson, just wingin’ it and delivering proclamations based on whatever. Australia guy is essentially Ben Carson Does Linguistics. Tomasello’s actually a scientist. The article in the Guardian is not a good one, but it’s also not really the right forum for ‘let me walk you through a few dozen studies on child language acquisition.’

        • I wouldn’t know what you’re talking about with Ben Carson, and as I’ve said elsewhere in the comments, I am not equating Tomasello with the Aussie dude. But being a scientist doesn’t make one a linguist, isn’t that evident? I have lots of scientist friends who are not linguists: physicists, geneticists, computational scientists… some even study things that relate to what linguists study. It doesn’t make them linguists though. Go to Tomasello’s website and check out his description of his research interest. To make it really easy for you, here it is: “Major research interests in processes of social cognition, social
          learning, cooperation, and communication from developmental, comparative, and cultural
          Current theoretical focus on processes of shared intentionality. Empirical
          research mainly with human children from 1 to 4 years of age and great
          apes.” — where’s language? Where’s some specific linguistic phenomena. He doesn’t even say “how children acquire language”. Just as a “for example” compare to Nina Hyams’ description (why her? I just happened to have her page open for other purposes): “The primary focus of my
          research is language acquisition in children, especially the early acquisition
          of syntax, morphosyntax, and the
          semantics of tense and aspect. My previous work spans many areas of language
          development, including null subjects, verb inflection and root infinitives,
          aspect and eventivity, binding
          principles and control, ergativity and auxiliary selection in Romance, and
          evidentiality. I think that
          cross-linguistic comparisons are very revealing of the processes underlying
          language acquisition and so with the collaboration of my many students and
          colleagues I have tried to study development in various languages, including
          English, Italian, Dutch, German, Swahili, Japanese, Icelandic, Malagasy, and
          most recently, Cape Verdean Creole. In my work I attempt to explore the
          interaction of different components of language in development, for example, at
          the interface of syntax and semantics/pragmatics, as well as the effects of
          production vs. comprehension of early language. I am especially interested in
          models of Universal Grammar and parameter setting and their instantiation in
          actual language development.” — do you not see a difference? Both study kids really and the noise that comes out of their mouths, but what a difference.

  • Sherman Wilcox

    She cites Tomasello’s degree to point out that it is not in linguistics, with the implication that his work on language is not to be trusted. He’s a “pseudo linguist.” How is that not an ad hominem attack?

    • It is and is intended to be. Anyone who publishes “pseudo-linguistic” pieces the way I definite it is subject to an attack from me on this blog. It’s a promise.

      • Sherman Wilcox

        Oh, I see, I didn’t understand. Schoolyard justice.

  • Roland Schuhmann

    Not being in this topic as a pure Indo-Europeanist and not knowing anything about any personal feelings that seem to be involved here, I still do not understand the uproar. All three articles were about linguistics and were published in the public press. So, they are dealt with here. Why a discussion by the combination of all three would be unjust or whatsoever, doesn’t open up to me … even more as this is a blog (is it forbidden for an author of a blog to express his/her own views?), not a peer-reviewed article. But perhaps I am starry-eyed 😀 …

    • Exactly. All those fans of Tomasello can start a “We love Tomasello” blog and post about his greatness day and night — I will have no problem with that.

      But note also that an article in the Guardian is not a blog post. If someone misrepresents linguistics to a broader audience, and especially if the misrepresented side has no chance to respond (which I am pretty sure is the case here), that’s not right and I most certainly am allowed to have an opinion about that.

  • There’s only one sure fire way of knowing whether an article on language appearing in the media is pseudolinguistic. And that is: has the article appeared in the media? If it mentions Chomsky as an explanation of anything, we’re very close to 100%. Linguistics fares not much worse in this than other disciplines – most academic matters are grossly distorted by the media and are going nothing to increase anybody’s understanding of anything. Linguistics may be at a slight disadvantage because more editors are likely to assume greater competence in the matters of language (by virtue of being speakers).

    But linguists do not help matters when they choose their public outreach platforms to settle intradisciplinary scores. You obviously think UG is a serious scientific entreprise, many many many very serious linguists (not just Michael Tomasello) think it is about as serious as looking for alien messages in the design of the pyramids – do we really need to play my serious linguist can beat up your serious linguist? Most linguists (somewhere in the middle) find it completely irrelevant to almost anything to do with language (see Robin Tolmach Lakoff’s Language War). I have even argued that Chomsky only borderline counts as a linguist when compared to what most linguists do http://metaphorhacker.net/2010/08/why-chomsky-doesnt-count-as-a-gifted-linguist/ – but we must have our fun.

    You seem to be very certain that to do “justice to the sheer diversity of human languages”, it is sufficient to have a “theory is designed specifically to account for the diversity of human languages”. But surely you can have a theory to account for diversity that does not do it justice? Which is what UG is to a great many working linguists. Also you forgot to add “if they says so themselves” after claiming “linguists working in this framework have made great progress in accounting for patterns of diversity and variation across languages”. Again, there are scores of “proper” linguists who think those results do no such thing.

    I feel very strongly about all that – and I bristle when students bring up UG in contexts where it has no application. None of this matters when you want to pursue a meaningful engagement with people who care about language (rather than headline grabbing nonsense). I have even recommended that beginners interested in language start with Pinker’s ‘Language Instinct’ even though I think the basic premise is wrong. I’m all for a good fight about UG any time of day or night but let’s not drag the kids into it:)

    PS: Despite my sympathy with their view, I think the article by Tomasello and Ibbotson was pretty much a waste of time (as were previous efforts by Vyv Evans). These issues can’t be summarized and argued in a popular context in a way that is more than a shouting match – and the side that can wave “Chomsky” around is always going to win. Frankly, I’m not even sure it can be properly argued in any context because the two sides are not really speaking the same language. The only time the debate seems really relevant when it comes to media spats.

    • You know, your tongue-in-cheek point about if an article appears in the media, it’s almost certain to be pseudo-linguistics is exactly what I was going to say in the post, semi-jokingly, but then I thought that too many people wouldn’t get the sarcasm so I didn’t. It’s actually quite true though. But I wouldn’t say that it is because all the pieces that do appear in the popular press wave a “Chomsky” card or a “UG” card — in fact, I can’t think of any pieces that did! Not one. If you can find me an article like this in the Guardian or elsewhere in the popular press, one that is pro-UG and has the same problems that I identify in the post, please send me a link and I will be happy to write a post about it. Deal?

      Because the point of this and many other posts on this blog is to show non-specialists who to do a “triage” of sorts with articles about language that they encounter in the media. There’s nothing about the theories of Tomasello, Chomsky or anyone else in this post. If Tomasello and his co-author engaged some actual linguistics stuff (word order, vowel harmony, anything of this sort), I would forgive them the lack of credentials (so long as they don’t misrepresent other theories, which I stand by my point that they do). In fact, if you read the post carefully, you’ll see that I say explicitly that people who are not linguists can — and sometimes do — do good work about language.

      But when it comes to theoretical disagreements, I find it despicable that so many people jumped at the chance to sling some anti-Chomsky mud when this has no bearing on the post whatsoever. You obviously have a very strong anti-Chomsky position and I am happy if you explain it in your blog and send me a link. I might even write a response. But when it comes to “not dragging the kids into it”, I agree with you that “ordinary readers” are only left more perplexed when exposed to this “anti-Chomsky mud slinging” that they don’t understand. But it’s not me who dragged the kids into it — write to Ibbotson and Tomasello about it.

      • I’m sorry Asya, that you were set upon by the hoards. Such are the “Linguistics Wars”. But I’m afraid, in this case your opponents are right. I came here to read before retweet (a bit wearily because I’ve read Crystal and Liberman on this issue and couldn’t imagine there was more to say). And I was almost ready to do so but seeing Tomasello’s name on the list stopped me – and frankly did feel a little bit insulting – let me explain why.

        1. You are right. Tomasello oversimplified UG and he did not present a coherent alternative. But that doesn’t put him in the same category as the others (and he most certainly did not lie as you put it in one of your responses). But…

        2. Whether Tomasello is a linguist or not is irrelevant. He is representing a very mainstream view of a great many linguists and cognitive scientists who have as much disciplinary standing as you can desire. In the same way Pinker is (although Pinker has done a lot more of it). Which is why many people reacted so angrily – you were putting them in the same category. Vyv Evans (a professor of linguistics – since this seems to matter to you) has written almost exactly the same thing in exactly the same way a few months ago.

        3. Misrepresenting someone in a debate of this sort is not only commonplace – it is also inevitable. It happens in peer-reviewed journals, respected academic tomes. How often do we see scholars responding “but I did not say that”. It is always the ones being debated who feel hard done by only to turn around and do the same. What matters is whether the misrepresentation is done within the disciplinary framework. To claim that Tomasello’s misrepresentation is not will feel insulting to all those ‘real’ linguists who share his views. Many of whom have been misrepresented by the other side. Exactly the same way you seem to have felt about Tomasello, they feel about you.

        4. After all, you seem to have misrepresented Tomasello yourself by dismissing this statement as non-sensical because UG is designed to capture diversity: “it turned out that it is really difficult to state what is “in” universal grammar in a way that does justice to the sheer diversity of human languages”. But what Tomasello says clearly does not dispute that UG is designed to account for diversity. It merely represents a common view among a great many respectable linguists that UG fails in its aims.

        5. Recently there have been 2 anti-UG articles written (this and Vyv Evans) but they come mostly as a reaction to a popularization mainstream that feels (rightly or wrongly) distinctly pro UG. Pinker here being the shining light. I remember groaning at the Stephen Fry story of language documentary on the BBC. I’ve long given up reading this so can’t give you anything more recent or from the Guardian. We all suffer from assymetric perception bias – statements that support our view strike us as normal (thus not remarked upon) and contrary statements are salient (thus seemingly ubiquitous).

        In conclusion, you may feel justified in including Tomasello in list. But in doing so you are causing a great many people to feel personally attacked. You have to judge whether it is worth it. After all, I wrote a blog post claiming Chomsky is not a proper linguist and I would defend that view. However, if I were to write a post excoriating linguistic charlatans, nobody from the UG side would make that list. Even though I am on the side of UG-detractors, I understand them to be wrong (even disastrously wrong) well within the disciplinary fold. So perhaps a more charitable reading of what was after all a brief programmatic newspaper article might be worth it.

        • I don’t think I said anywhere in the post that Tomasello is as bad or as incompetent as Frenkel. If there’s some phrase you misinterpreted to mean that, you were just wrong. One could work out a detailed gradation system, but I don’t see a reason to do so. But I draw a line of what’s acceptable in a media article and what is not. Articles on both side of the acceptability divide may differ in how well-written they are or how insightful or whether I agree with what they say. If people think that the Guardian article is good simply because they agree with Tomasello’s general agenda, well they deserve to be offended, because it’s not. (In fact, one of the opponents, posting on FB, went as far in his defense of Tomasello as to praise the other articles as well, including the “drunken Aussie” article, which is just funny!) If Chomsky published something like this, not only you (and Evans and Everett and many others) but even I would be criticizing it. Somehow just because one is anti-Chomskian, different standards apply. I am very disappointed and revolted to see this kind of ideological “closing of ranks” and “following the party line”.

          As for the UG/anti-UG debate in the popular press/media, what since Pinker’s “Language Instinct”, which was published over 20 years ago, has been published that’s pro-UG? The only thing that I know of is Baker’s Atoms of Language, an excellent book that shows exactly how the UG folks do exactly what they set out to do, contrary to Tomasello’s claim. Have the anti-UG folks responded to that book in an engaged way? Showed how Baker is wrong? If so, I didn’t see it. And what of any pro-UG response that was published to Evans’ book? Again I don’t know of any, except maybe crumbs here and there in blogs, which the “ordinary reader” is never going to see. So the way I see it, the bias in the popular press is definitely towards anti-UG.

          While you may disagree with my view just above, let me explain why I make that judgment. Perhaps you don’t know that I’ve been engaging with the “ordinary reader” on a nearly daily basis, as I’ve been teaching linguistics in the adult ed system for the past 6 years, typically 6-10 courses a year, so I’ve had several thousands of students who ARE the “ordinary reader” and so I can judge what THEY take out of all of these debates and publications. What I see with them is typically utter ignorance about the UG framework, awareness of only the anti-UG views, and much worse, very little understanding of the nuts-and-bolts of language. So they cannot judge whether anti- or pro-UG folks are right or are making a more compelling argument, certainly not on the merits of the arguments. That’s the problem I’ve been trying to remedy. Articles like the ones I criticize in this post (and many many more!) are not helping.

          • Thank you for taking the time to respond. I think I understand where you are coming from.

          • I am glad to hear that.

  • And another Russian classic weighing on the problem (thanks to Ekaterina Lyutikova for reminding me):



    Картину раз высматривал сапожник
    И в обуви ошибку указал;
    Взяв тотчас кисть, исправился художник.
    Вот, подбочась, сапожник продолжал:
    “Мне кажется, лицо немного криво…
    А эта грудь не слишком ли нага?”….
    Тут Апеллес прервал нетерпеливо;
    “Суди, дружок, не свыше сапога!”

    Есть у меня приятель на примете:
    Не ведаю, в каком бы он предмете
    Был знатоком, хоть строг он на словах,
    Но чорт его несет судить о свете:
    Попробуй он судить о сапогах!



    Эпиграмма на Н.И.Надеждина, вызванная его статьей о «Полтаве».

    А.С. Пушкин. Сочинения в трех томах.
    Санкт-Петербург: Золотой век, Диамант, 1997.

  • Just a comment: “and how he [Tomasello] would explain the frequent appearance of verb-second”. V2 is rather rare. It is basically the Germanic languages and then maybe a handful other languages.

    Rens Bods paper from 2009 shows how one can get structures from distributional analysis. Phrase structure grammars can be derived from these structures. It would be interesting to see whether extraction analyses can be derived from these trees if semantics is taken into account, but I can imagine that this is possible.

    • David Pesetsky

      I don’t think we have any idea how rare or not V2 is cross-linguistically (it’s not a WALS category, I don’t think, for example), but we do know that it pops up all over the world in languages of very different families. Here are some decidedly non-Germanic languages with V2 that I happen to know of:

      Kashmiri (Indo-Aryan, http://bit.ly/1OBPvyu, also work of Rakesh (≠Rajesh) Bhatt),

      Vata (Kru, Ivory Coast; Hilda Koopman’s 1984 book),

      Karitiana (Tupi, Brazil; V2 a bit less obvious, could be challenged; see Luciana Storto’s MIT dissertation http://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/9702)

      Dinka (Nilotic, S. Sudan; see Coppe van Urk’s recent — quite wonderful — MIT dissertation, http://bit.ly/1MJ5fZG)

      • OK. We cannot say it is frequent since it is rare among the languages we know. And it is maybe too early to say it is rare since there may be more V2 languages. Anyway one has to explain why there are languages that use V2 to mark clause types and there aren’t any that use V3 to do this (or are there any). Is there an UG-based explanation for this? Gereon Müller just gave a nice talk at the FU explaining apparent multiple frontings in German: http://hpsg.fu-berlin.de/~stefan/Bilder/2015/11/03/gereon-mueller-3/ He proposes structures with multiple specifiers infront of the finite verb. So why is there no language that does this systematically? I do not see how UG could help here. I have a more simple explanation: V3 would not work for “daddy sleeps” since we have just two items. So a language that has a clause type marking that would not work for mono-valent verbs would be somehow dysfunctional. Doesn’t that count as an explanation?

        • David Pesetsky

          Some languages have expletive (i.e. meaningless, “dummy”) elements for just such an eventuality, so a V3 language, if such a thing existed, would just say “It daddy sleeps” or “there daddy sleeps”. But no such language appears to exist.

          Since Asya’s “Guide for the Perplexed” is aimed at the non-linguist perplexed, and since the two of us, perplexed though we may be, are highly credentialed linguists and therefore not Asya’s target audience, let’s continue this increasingly technical discussion elsewhere for now.

  • Emilio Márquez

    Hi, Asya! Thanks for this post; I found it very informative. As for the hostile
    comments, I thought a blog was something like a private garden where entry is
    free but where it is only the owner –very naturally– who decides everything. Whatever
    happened to good breeding, I wonder?

    • Thanks for your comment, Emilio. I’ve been wondering about that myself…

    • Hi Emilio Márquez, I did not read all comments, but many are not hostile. I hope you did not perceive my comments as hostile. The only thing I wanted to point out is that we need interaction with other disciplines and that there are subdisciplines of linguistics like psycholinguistics, language acquisition, computational linguistics, where people can make very valuable contributions even without knowing anything about clitics or secondary predicates.

      As for the garden: It is internationally visible. Would you find it OK if Rupert Murdoch would state: I own this newspaper, hence I can write what I want. Even in your local garden it would not be OK to say X does not qualify for major since the interests he states on his FB page do not list politics, if X worked in the local parliament of the village (or however that is called) for a decade. If you then go on and group X with Y and Z who certainly are out of the question, then other people from your village may object. Even though you own the garden.

      • Stefan: as the owner of this blog and the author of this post at whom the comments are directed, I found most of them fairly hostile in tone and approach, not to mention besides the point of the post. Re: your specific points here, I disagree that “people can make very valuable contributions even without knowing anything about clitics or secondary predicates”, even in “hyphenated linguistics” fields. I mean, one might not know a lot of details about a particular phenomenon, but one has to know a great deal of basic linguistic facts about clitics, secondary predication, word order, sound systems etc. etc. (the list is long), especially if one makes claims about the overarching system. That is, one might do something useful about acquisition of consonants by children without knowing much about the syntax of the world’s languages, but one can’t talk about language in general, its place in cognition and the like without knowing many different nuts-and-bolts. You may disagree, but then we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

      • Emilio Márquez

        Hi Stefan. Perhaps you are right about this garden thing. I suppose I should have compared blogs with personal diaries which anybody can read –it requires a lot of courage to expose oneself in such a way, so I think that views expressed in blogs should be opposed only from other blogs. In any case, mass attacks such as the one witnessed here seem to me totally unacceptable.

  • Dear Readers: Since the discussion in the comments here has become both unenlightening and largely besides the point of the post, I am closing this post for further discussion. You should be able to comment on other posts on this blog. Thanks to everyone who took the time to express their opinions.