LINGUIST List 5.761

Wed 29 Jun 1994

Misc: Pinker's book, Chaology & complexity

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Michael Newman, Pinker's book
  2. , Chaology & complexity

Message 1: Pinker's book

Date: Wed, 22 Jun 1994 22:18:53 Pinker's book
From: Michael Newman <>
Subject: Pinker's book

I'm a little surprised about how few comments have been made to Steven
Pinker's book. I suppose it's on a number of people's summer reading list,
and that most haven't gotten to it yet. For me, however, it has been a
revelation, not so much in the content--it's not aimed a professional
audience--but in how useful it is in getting across the message.

My students, elementary school teachers and future elementary school
teachers, are often, how can I put it, 'analytically differently abled.' I
mean you're talking 2.something undergrad GPAs on average. However, this
spring I assigned a couple of chapters as optional readings, and found the
ones who read it enthusiastically discussing language as a "discrete
combinatorial system" without even blinking. There was not a single
dissenter. More than one went out and purchased a copy. One said her
husband complained about her laughing in bed. (Why she was doing her course
reading in bed is another story, but they work very hard, and I can't blame
her.) They even claimed to understand his chapter "How language works," and
there wasn't a single complaint about the trees. Those who have taught
structure of English classes for teachers can probably really appreciate
that accomplishment. Furthermore, they saw (with some encouragement from
me) that the understanding of language acquistion the book gives were
directly related to their own teaching, a central point with them. It
became clear just how necessary the idea of an innate language faculty is
to whole-language teaching, the predominant methodology promoted at OSU.
Some even took it on their own initiative to investigate the methods by
which children in their schools get classified as "language deficit" or in
need of some sort of speech therapy. By comparison, most of the class
struggled through Halliday and Hasan, who much more than Pinker attempt to
relate their theory to teaching.

Of course, I don't agree with everything in the book. I find there is too
much faith in application of logical principles to language. For example
he argues that singular THEY is permitted on the basis of the
nonreferentiality of the pronoun. I think the choice of pronoun is
meaningful and obeys pragmatic criteria. Further, his criticism of the
language mavens, while mostly on target in the particulars, does not show
an understanding of the nature of prescription. For example, the fact that
prescription has existed since Panini shows that it has a functionality
that goes beyond being a silly fashion that started in the 18th century as
Pinker implies. However, these are relatively minor quibbles in a work
that communicates the large and small notions of what linguistics is about
so effectively. I should note also, I am a lot more sympathetic
philosphically and theoretically than Claudia Brugman is in terms of
acceptance of modularity and other theoretical issues. Finally, unlike
Brugman, I don't see anything in the book that could remotely be considered
linguist bashing.

The book is now on my required list for my Applied Linguistics course in
the fall, and will be in any other course of that nature that I teach.
Michael Newman
Dept. of Educational Theory & Practice
The Ohio State University
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: Chaology & complexity

Date: Tue, 21 Jun 1994 12:09:00 Chaology & complexity
From: <>
Subject: Chaology & complexity

I've worked on chaotic linguistics & complexity over the past few years and
was interested to see your e-Mail message. I only received my e-Mail facility
yesterday, which is why I have not responded earlier.
The trouble I have with most proponents in other disicplines working with
these concepts is that they seem to be somewhat neo-positivistic. And
when applied to language (as e.g. in Ballmer and associates) they merely
accept what I call the Language Myth and all its variations -- eg the
grammar myth. In following the interpretation of linguistic history by Roy
Harris -- ex-Oxford -- there are many linguistic "facts" we have inherited
from our predecessors which we accepts as God-s given truth, but when
we analyse the development of these concepts against their cultural
backdrops, we notice that they were introduced for quite different
purposes, yet we merely take them as fact without scrutiny -- biologising
grammatical categories as Chomsky and many cognitisvists have done is
one example of how a mythical notion (grammar) received physical
ontogolocal status.
In my view there is no point in merely using more modern tools (such as
chaology and complexity) and applying them to inherited mythical concepts
about language. Whilst these tools have very powerful explanatory power,
in order to understand that thing we call language we will also have to
revise our concepts of language -- a kind of quantum revolution is
necessary in the investigation of language.
I would love to get involved in conversations regarding these topics.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue