Linguists of the World, Unite?

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Should we study language? 

As the title of a lecture by one of the fathers of modern linguistics, that sounds suspiciously like a rhetorical question. But Noam Chomsky C’49 G’51 Gr’55 Hon’84 returned to campus in October to tackle it in the spirit of intellectual combat—something a seasoned observer of this at-times fractious discipline might have gleaned from the second half of his title: If so, how?

Chomsky, who developed his influential theory of universal grammar as a student here and is best known (within linguistics) for his theoretical work on syntax [“Speech!” July|Aug 2001], was one of two pioneering Penn linguists who shared top billing at the 41st annual meeting of the North East Linguistic Society (NELS). The other was sociolinguist Bill Labov, a University professor who studies language from a quite different angle, focusing on population-level linguistic change primarily at the level of phonology [“Continental Drift,” May|June 2006].

Chomsky and Labov work at different ends of the linguistics spectrum, which is exactly why conference organizer Charles Yang, an associate professor of linguistics at Penn, wanted to bring them together. Yang, a computer scientist by training who has written about children’s language acquisition [“Gazetteer,” Mar|Apr 2007], suggested that the time is ripe for a “synthesis across what have previously been viewed—both scientifically and even in some cases sociologically—as opposing views of how to study language.”

Yang likened the current state of linguistics to that of biology in the mid-20th century. “I want to see the type of convergence that happened in biology between the 1930s and the 1960s, when people were able to synthesize the study of Darwinian natural history—the ecological study of biological distribution and change—with the Mendelian mechanisms of internal genetic rules,” he said after the conference. “I think the field is moving toward that, because people have realized the inadequacies of focusing on one side too much. And once you put those seemingly divergent points of view together, you actually see the connection, as we did at this conference.”

The conference was heavy on technical jargon, and neither of the keynote lectures was an exception. 

Chomsky took aim at those in linguistics and the cognitive sciences who, in his view, have abandoned the “abstraction and idealization” that are central to the scientific method in favor of relying on “statistical analysis of massive data” to merely predict behavioral outcomes rather than discover the general principles that govern them. People in this camp, he asserted, undermine the study of language by their insistence on the primacy of the social context of communication. For Chomsky, their dismissal of abstract, theory-driven work exploring the underlying capacities and constraints on human grammar and syntax amounts to a sort of scientific surrender. 

“It’s true that the study of communication does involve social context. That’s practically true by definition,” he said. But the same is true for bacteria, which communicate by chemical means, he pointed out, and biologists haven’t used that as a rationale to abandon the study—under artificial laboratory conditions—of their signaling mechanisms. “Fruit flies aren’t investigated in the wild,” he continued. “They’re studied under laboratory conditions, in which, as is known, the chromosomal proportions and in fact just about everything is different than in the wild. But that’s the way you do it. It naturally abstracts from natural conditions—again because it’s science, not butterfly collecting. But we’re being told, really, that we should go to butterfly collecting …

“This critique,” he went on, “is based on an intriguing misunderstanding of science altogether … You don’t try to determine the laws of motion by taking videotapes of leaves falling and doing massive statistical analysis of them. You do experiments. And in fact a lot of the experiments are thought experiments—including Galileo’s classic experiments. And that goes right up to the present. But any experiment is a high level of abstraction.”

After devoting a substantial portion of his lecture to a technical discussion of some of the puzzles of grammar and syntax that remain to be solved, such as how to account biologically for the tension between efficiency and ambiguity in language, Chomsky returned to his central question.

“There is a serious question about whether you should study language. It’s not a frivolous question. And in a certain sense the answer is: You should study it as little as possible. Meaning, we should try to show that whatever is specific to language is as limited as possible”—an idea Chomsky framed in the 1990s as the “minimalist program for linguistic theory,” positing that human grammar shows the properties of an optimally efficient design, which in turn suggests that it arises from a particular mental organ, rather than “emerging” from a fortuitous interaction between other neural and/or social processes whose primary functions may be other than strictly linguistic. 

“But,” he continued, “there’s an alternative approach, which is increasingly dominant in the surrounding disciplines—cognitive science, computational cognitive science—which reaches the same conclusion but carries it much further, and says that you should throw out everything, on the basis of … a deep misunderstanding about the nature of science—namely the belief that science means trying to approximate unanalyzed data, not trying to figure out how it works.”

The following day, Bill Labov drew from his immense database of recorded face-to-face conversations to illuminate the dynamics that govern variation and changes within American dialects. 

On one level, Labov’s research asks questions like: What caused people in the Great Lakes region to start pronouncing block the way people a few hundred miles south pronounce black, and why has the shift in that and other vowel sounds spread across an area that includes some 34 million speakers—only for the contagion to halt abruptly somewhere between Cleveland and Columbus? 

The answers he has come up with, though, lead in more fundamental directions.  For example, Labov has used all this conversational data—yoked to computer software that measures vowel sounds in objective and precise terms—to develop more basic theories about how children acquire language. 

So the fact that a child of Southern parents, if raised by them in Chicago, is very likely to pronounce socks the way his parents say sax, testifies to something deeper than the erosion of parental influence. Said Labov, “Children have the capacity to detect, at an early age, in ways that are not yet understood, the fact that their parents’ language is not fully representative of the speech community and is not the proper target for their language learning.” 

This outward orientation, rather than “a built-in biological bent,” he argued, may represent a social mechanism—though not one “entirely disconnected from biology”—that can account for the observation that “the human language faculty has evolved to favor generality in communication.” 

That notion of generality is, perhaps surprisingly, one of the most intriguing aspects of Labov’s work on dialectical differences.

“The study of linguistic variation is sometimes pursued as a way of showing how different people are from one another,” he concluded. “And it’s perfectly true that the larger our database becomes, statistical analysis reveals subtle differences among subgroups in the population. But I’d like to turn the focus away from these minor subdivisions and ask us to account for the breathtaking uniformities that result from the outward orientation of the language-learning faculty. Though we have much to learn from microanalysis, we have more to learn from our efforts to grasp the larger picture.”

So then: Should language be studied? And if so, how?

Afterwards, Charles Yang said that Chomsky and Labov’s approaches are complementary. (Labov, he stressed, is also trying to discover “general principles”; he’s not just “collecting butterflies.”) 

“On one hand, Chomsky talks about internal logic of language,” Yang said. “On the other hand, you have Labov approaching it from an entirely different angle, and still finding that the properties of the language faculty across many individuals that he’s surveyed over a few decades show remarkable uniformity. 

“If you said, People eat different foods and come out to walk the same way, nobody would be surprised,” Yang added. “But what both Chomsky and Labov are showing is that people hear different things but they come out [to talk] with remarkable consistency. That’s an indication that the linguistics system is governed by very powerful constraints, very much like the rest of the physical world.”

Yang looked back at the 41st annual NELS conference with the same optimism he had brought to its planning. “I hope this is something a lot of people in our field are feeling—that this kind of convergence is not only necessary, but now finally possible.” —T.P.

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