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CHAT: Chomsky and the LSA

From:Thomas R. Wier <trwier@...>
Date:Tuesday, January 13, 2004, 4:34
So, last week it was asked whether anyone was going to the LSA
meeting in Boston and would hear Chomsky's talk.  As I had suspected,
his talk had nothing whatsoever to do with conlanging.  His basic
thesis was that the point at which humans developed their language
instinct (the language module, as Chomsky says) was the point when
they spontaneously developed the operation of Merge, which is a
theoretical construct in Minimalism.   It was typically and entirely
unsurprisingly monotone, as anyone who's ever seen Chomsky on TV
would know.  Afterwards, Ives Goddard got up and asked "If the language
module is a genetic adaptation, wouldn't one expect there to be
variation [a la Darwinian theory]?" [That is, one would expect to
see a number of people who can't get past the two word stage, e.g.]
For about two seconds, Chomsky looked like he was stricken with fear,
and he didn't know how to respond.  His first response was ridiculous
in the context of his previous statements about biology:  "Well, one
possibility is that it isn't genetic" -- an obvious stall for time.
I don't quite remember what Chomsky said after that, but it put
Ives back in his place.  [Ives' question clearly betrayed an ignorance
of the literature on the family in Britain that was of late discovered
to be possessing a deformed gene which was linked to speech defects.
Those family members who carried two copies of the recessive allele
were essentially unable to acquire syntax, as I recall, while others
were carriers.]  All the same, it was interesting to see him on his
feet, both literally and figuratively.

It was really neat to see the man in person.  After years of studying
his work, and reading his positions on everything from Laos to
Afghanistan, he looked surprisingly frailm for someone with such
strong positions. (He was also short: about 5'4" or so.) The hotel that
housed the conference was attached to a mall at which several of us from
Chicago would eat.  We had just finished lunch at one point, and
were trying to decide which talks to attend, when who should walk
by but Noam himself.  He was wearing a heavy light-gray jacket and
walked by us towards the bathroom.  At that particular moment it
dawned on me that I had never really considered him something other
than an intellectual construct; but here was a man who used the
restroom. Amazing! I can only wonder what it must have been like
to see Descartes heading toward the latrines.  He was also reported
seen at the _Au bon pain_ the next morning getting some breakfast,
but AFAIK attended none of the actual talks besides his own.

Thomas Wier            "I find it useful to meet my subjects personally,
Dept. of Linguistics    because our secret police don't get it right
University of Chicago   half the time." -- octogenarian Sheikh Zayed of
1010 E. 59th Street     Abu Dhabi, to a French reporter.
Chicago, IL 60637


dansulani <dansulani@...>