LINGUIST List 5.572

Thu 19 May 1994

Disc: A linguist's nightmare

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  1. Lila R. Gleitman, worst nightmare

Message 1: worst nightmare

Date: Mon, 9 May 1994 15:07:56 -worst nightmare
From: Lila R. Gleitman <>
Subject: worst nightmare

Colleagues and friends:

 I believe the worst nightmare for any linguist
would come in these three parts:

 (1) being cited by William Safire in the NY Times
 (2) being cited approvingly by William Safire in
 the NY Times
 (3) being cited as claiming the OPPOSITE OF WHAT
 ONE HAS CLAIMED by William Safire in the
 NY times.

These three nightmarish events happened to me (and my
collaborators, Henry Gleitman and Elissa Newport) this
week. Probably this was God evening things up for
granting me a fond linguists' dream last year, i.e.,
being elected President of LSA.

 Safire gave us credit for coining the term
"Motherese," true enough. But if his sensitivity to
language use is what he cracks it up to be, he should
have realized that the name has, to say the least,
a whimsical ring. He went on to laud us for thus
having championed (and "proved") the so-called
modern so-called correct interactionist
view of language acquisition in which your mother can
be thanked on Mother's Day for teaching you proper
grammar. Probably this is our own fault: We did
acknowledge in a fit of enthusiasm that Greek children
learn Greek while French children learn French.
I now regret this concession but it
seemed harmless enough at the time. Safire leaves
aside that we mentioned as a much more awe-inspiring
feature of language-learning that all of the
babies in the house acquire their language while none of
the pets in the house do the same (these latter acquire
Doggerel instead).

 Our view was contrasted by Safire with the damnable one
 that "language is innate," attributed by him to Steve Pinker
owing to the latter's recent book. As most of you
know, Newport, Gleitman, and Gleitman spent a decade of
their lives disproving the widely acclaimed notion that
Mothers present you with your language knowledge along
 with your icecream and your apple pie. Had the facts
 turned out differently we would have entitled
this speech register "The Sweet Music of the Species"
(following Darwin) rather than "Motherese."

 It is amazing to me that both the commonsensical
and evidentiary demonstrations from Chomsky, Lenneberg,
Wexler, and indeed a generation of linguists, neurolinguists,
and psycholinguists regarding a significant innate endowment
for language fail to penetrate the belief systems of our
brothers and sisters of the literary persuasion, especially
those whose posh nursery schools inculcated in them certain
posh dialects of English.

 Can we do better? Is it worth trying? Please send me
your cracks and brickbats in the interest of my getting a
letter to the editor of the NY Times published. These must
come in the next two days if we are to have a chance. But
I doubt in any case that they'll give us space to respond.

Lila Gleitman

PS: Never mind your responses to my use of "cracked up" in
the active voice, I did it more or less on purpose.

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