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Re: Naturalness, etc. (was: Re: LUNATIC again)

From:Matt Pearson <mpearson@...>
Date:Thursday, November 5, 1998, 20:56
lojbab wrote:

>Well, I have heard people attacking Chomskyan theories, and painting >Chomskyans >with a broad brush as intellectually close-minded, but it always seemed >more or >less an intellectual challenge rather than rudeness.
I dunno. I guess it depends on your perspective. I've had to answer some criticisms in the past which at the time seemed a lot more like insults than intellectual challenges. How does one objectively answer the charge of being brainwashed, or of not doing 'real science'? Part of the problem is that many of the attacks on Chomskyan theory that I've read, both on this list and elsewhere, are based on the theory as it was twenty years ago. It seems like many of Chomsky's critics got as far as "Lectures on Government and Binding" (1981) and haven't read anything by him since. (And frankly, who could blame them? Chomsky's writing isn't exactly a model of clarity or precision, and you have to dig to find the interesting insights.) For example, IMHO, the criticism that Chomskyans believe that "if it happens in French, English, and Hebrew, then it's universal" is no longer valid, if it ever really was. Although Chomsky himself rarely deigns to discuss languages more exotic than Icelandic, those who operate within the generativist framework have been working diligently over the last 20 years to expand the data base, and have broadened the empirical coverage of the theory considerably as a result. Chomsky may have been the first person to spell out the assumptions and research strategies that underlie generative linguistics, but other people have since taken those assumptions and strategies and modified them beyond all recognition. I guess I resent having to answer for all the little eccentricities of Chomsky's own work when the field is so much broader than just one person. And to be honest, my feeling is that the best work within generative linguistics has been done not by Chomsky or his closer followers, but by those of us who are inspired by his ideas but also take them with a grain of salt. Chomskyan linguists
>have, however, been directly insulting to Loglanist/Lojbanists in the way that >they choose to label the language uninteresting, not merely in the fact that >they do so. It's kind of hard to explain, but for the longest time, my main >goal for Lojban was to get the project to be considered "respectable" to >linguists, which it once was. The Chomskyans I talked to not only saw >no reason to think that it was possible to have Loglan/Lojban be >linguistically >respectable, but theyseemed to be insulting me for trying to gain this >respect. It was clear that I was being classed with the auxlangers who, >naive anbout linguistics, would bombard linguists with imperatives to solve >the "World Language Problem" by supporting their auxlang of choice. I was not >that sort of person, and resented being classed as that sort before I had even >tried to make my case.
I understand your resentment, and I agree that you were treated most unfairly. But I can also understand the feelings of the linguists you talked to, even though I don't condone their attitude. Linguists tend to be very paranoid about issues of academic legitimacy, more so than other fields, I think. On the one hand we're constantly having to answer criticisms from the hard(er) sciences - physics, biology, even psychology - that what we're doing is not empirical and doesn't count as 'real science'. And on the other hand we're constantly having to counter popular misconceptions about what we do, which lump us together with prescriptive grammarians, spelling reformers, Ebonics advocates, and other non-academic 'special interest groups'. Given this paranoia, I can see how a linguist might jump to conclusions, once the notion of an invented language (whatever its purpose) has been introduced into the conversation. After all, most linguists are just as ignorant as everybody else about the diversity of interests and goals within the conlanging community. And to the ignorant, the idea of arranging for large groups of people to learn and use an invented language - even if it's to test legitimate scientific questions - smacks too much of 'Esperantism', which smacks of language reform, which smacks of prescriptivism. And prescriptivists are, as every linguist knows, the enemy! :-) Matt. ------------------------------------ Matt Pearson UCLA Linguistics Department 405 Hilgard Avenue Los Angeles, CA 90095-1543 ------------------------------------