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It all starts by looking a baby right in the eyes
September 29, 2004 2:49 PM   Subscribe

Language started with emotional signaling. That's the thesis of a new book, The First Idea: How Symbols, Language, And Intelligence Evolved From Our Primate Ancestors To Modern Humans, by Stanley I. Greenspan and Stuart G. Shanker.
Lived emotional experience is key to language learning, the authors suggest. "Mathematicians and physicists may manipulate abstruse symbols representing space, time, and quantity, but they first understood those entities as tiny children wanting a far-away toy, or waiting for juice, or counting cookies. The grown-up genius, like the adventurous child, forms ideas through playful explorations in the imagination, only later translated into the rigor of mathematics."
The book is very ambitious, and I don't think we'll ever know where language came from, but this sounds like a more fruitful line of thinking than Chomsky's deus ex machina "language gene" mutation.
posted by languagehat (32 comments total)

One of my favorite books, Myth, Truth and Literature by Colin Falck, suggested that language was originally onomatopoeia.
posted by goethean at 3:20 PM on September 29, 2004

Here's another article with a somewhat similar take on the subject, although less specific about the mother-child relationship. (found while looking for a decent summary of Julian Jaynes' theories on language, which are worth reading if this kind of stuff interests you)

Somewhat closer to the mark, I believe, is the approach of contemporary linguist E.H. Sturtevant: since all intentions and emotions are involuntarily expressed by gesture, look, or sound, voluntary communication, such as language, must have been invented for the purpose of lying or deceiving. In a more circumspect vein, the philosopher Caws insisted that " a comparative latecomer on the linguistic scene, and it is certainly a mistake to suppose that language was invented for the purpose of telling it."
posted by milovoo at 3:32 PM on September 29, 2004

Thanks languagehat. But I am unclear on the concept still, I guess.

Animals (and us) are really good at emotional signaling without language. Dogs and people can communicate wonderfully. Likewise, animals manage to achieve great feats of social organization. Think lions in a coordinated ambush or migratory birds not to mention ants and bees. What pressure exactly drove the development of language?
posted by vacapinta at 4:02 PM on September 29, 2004

But that emotional signaling (and all signaling) is actually language, vaca, no? When bees dance, or lions roar, they're communicating. They have languages. Our grunts and gestures became our spoken languages.

I totally buy it. I do think tho, that maybe Montagu's stuff might play here too, to help prove or disprove (i only know a tiny bit of it--that stuff about monkeys not having moms, and how their development/growth is affected.) And it may be dependent on any emotion/want, not just love and caring.

(and in the list at the bottom of the article, 5 and 6 should be smushed together)

milovoo, i read a good book recently where that happens, sort of. A virus got loose and people became pre-verbal (and happier).
posted by amberglow at 4:39 PM on September 29, 2004

higher-level symbolic thinking, language, and social skills cannot be explained by genes and natural selection, but depend on cultural practices learned anew by each generation over millions of years

How, then, do they explain the spontaneous emergence of fully developed language among isolated communities?

But that emotional signaling (and all signaling) is actually language, vaca, no?

It's communication, but not language. Animal communication generally lacks complex syntax and grammar. The big debate here is whether we're hardwired for that complex communication, which Chomsky and Pinker believe, or whether you simply learn it as a child the same way you learn to, oh, tie your shoes.

[much ranting omitted]
posted by lbergstr at 4:51 PM on September 29, 2004

does a language have to have complex syntax and grammar to count?

Can't we be hardwired to accept and learn and use language, but want/need it to function?
posted by amberglow at 5:04 PM on September 29, 2004

I recall a recent news item about non-verbal children in India inventing a robust sign language. Seems they were hardwired for it.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:48 PM on September 29, 2004

Chomsky's deus ex machina "language gene" mutation

Although calling his 'language aquisition device' a deus ex machina is perhaps dismissive oversimplification, it is not entirely inaccurate. I remain unconvinced in either direction. Fascinating subject, though.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:56 PM on September 29, 2004

Vaguely reminds me of a theory discussed Cassirer's Mythical Thinking (and makes me wish I had read the volume actually on language) that language came from a kind of primeval ejaculation (verbal, mind you)—like one day someone stubbed his toe and yelled "FUCK!", and language was born.

I think there are some Romantic theories of language that are somewhat similar?
posted by kenko at 7:05 PM on September 29, 2004

Very interesting, languagehat. Although I love language I have to struggle to understand linguistics and language theory.

Intuitively, though, this makes sense to me. I've been watching my husband's nephew acquire language, first naming his parents, then food, then his brother and the dog, then all the other things he wanted in the world. It's all based on desire, as far as I can tell, to get what he needs and be recognized as part of the group. He also mimics his mother uncannily, like a little mood ring, bursting into laughter and tears as she does. Her gestures become his.

The fascination he and other kids that age have for talking to and about animals moves me too. When you're on the floor and the only thing at eye level is the dog, maybe he's having better conversations with you than anyone else.

Great ideas to consider and a book to put on my wish list. Thanks again.
posted by melissa may at 7:14 PM on September 29, 2004

Reminds me also of George Herbert Mead's theories on the "conversation of gestures" and how that evolves into symbolic language. (Mead was a pragmatist philosopher around the turn of the century.) For him, all gestures are meaningful, in that they relay information, but they are not necessarily reflective, and can be the result of purely instinctive genetic programming. The development of a reflective self is necessary for language proper, which rather than merely indicating immediate needs, desires, etc, can refer to abstractions, concepts or merely that which is not present.

I don't think Mead would say we're "hardwired" for language per se, but rather that we have various traits which encourage the development of reflective consciousness (neural capacity, a grasping hand which can remove an object from the stream of experience, a voice we simultaneously hear [as opposed to communicating through, eg, facial expression which we wouldn't simultaneously see], a long infancy where we're dependent on expressing our needs rather than on killing prey, etc), and that reflective consciousness actually develops through social interaction, meaning that language is an integral part of reflective consciousness.
posted by mdn at 7:46 PM on September 29, 2004

I wouldn't say we were hardwired for language, I would say we are hardwired to be social....
posted by wobh at 7:54 PM on September 29, 2004

Oh, boy. This looks bad to me. Looks like a volley by the "nurture" side of the nature/nurture wars. I'm only going by the CSM blurb, languagehat, but it seems to be asserting that language is entirely cultural. How could this possibly be true without violating a great deal of what we know about linguistics? Why would language be as regular as it is?

Not to mention that something that has been so closely identified with human brain functioning, with regular and localized areas of the brain crucial to language, that it seems farfetched to say that it is not genetic in some very fundamental sense.

And let's go back to those Nicaraguan deaf kids.

When I was arguing about them with Mayor Curly, he in various handwaving arguments excluded them as examples of a language arising independently of the supposed proto-world language. I take it that the argument there is that the deaf children were not isolated from human society, which did have language, and thus the necessary cultural bits which are human language and which all languages share were transmitted. I'm skeptical of that, myself—I find it much more credible that most of the wiring for language is already in the brain and it only needs a sufficient cultural milleu to be fully expressed as language as we know it. (And thus I see no reason that language could not have become locally extinct and then recreated among isolated groups of humans throughout history, and it's not necessarily the case that all extent human languages share a lineage. But that's different argument.)

If, as I surmise from the blurb, this view of language involves a long historial cultural incubation, it's hard to see how it could account for a fully-developed language from this deaf culture in such a short time. Unless, of course, we assume, as before, some sort of cultural cross-fertilization from the vocal.

This also seems dangerous close to the idea that consciousness as we know it didn't exist before language—that is, consciousness, self-awareness in particular, arose culturally and prior to that assumed very (relative) recent time in history, human beings were supposedly unself-aware animals. Or something. I think that's a load of hooey.

I've tried to engage you before, languagehat, in a discussion about why many of the ideas in linguistics are deeply saturated in ideology. I think here, again, we see an argument about basic linguistics that is really just a front in the nature/nurture science wars battle.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:40 PM on September 29, 2004

Amberglow: language as it's understood by linguistics is more than just signaling. That this is so is the very foundations of the discipline. It's actually quite regular and complex—human languages all have some very interesting characteristics in common. That human language is qualitatively unique is not really disputed by anyone these days. In this sense, animal language is unthinkable. It's an oxymoron.

Some people like myself, however, allow for something like human language in animals. We see the quality that human language possesses to be something more akin to the difference between phases of matter—solid to liquid, perhaps. That is, there may not be any particular "ingredient" that is present or missing; but, rather, along a continuum there is a point where the state of the system suddenly, discontinuously, changes. Liquid to gas, say. In this view, I think that primates may have most of the pieces of the cognitive tools necessary for language. Maybe they're missing a crucial few, maybe they're missing a sufficient quantity, maybe both those things plus the social context we know is necessary for human language. Whatever. In this view, though, it wouldn't be a surprise to find something like language in animals, something that can do some of the things that human language does. And there's no reason to suppose that a non-human primate's brain comprehends the world in an enormously and fundamentally different fashion than a human's does. I think Koko is using language, in a fashion. Sorta.

But as I allude in the previous comment, the thing about linguistic discussions is that language lies at the intersection of the most fundamental ideas we have about ourselves as human beings. This means that it is very ideological. Theories of consciousness, epistemology, the uniqueness of Man, Nature versus Nurture, philosophical and cultural relativism...all are in play, explicitly or implicitly.

Anyway, the regularity of human languages is very provocative. You need either a biological or cultural argument to account for it. Or both. You can't posit language as a relatively trivial artifact, like, say, formal western music. If it were, it would take relatively arbitrary shapes which we know it doesn't. We can imagine some basic linguistic structures that don't exist and have never (as far as we know) existed.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:00 PM on September 29, 2004

Language is a virus from outer space.

Actually, language is a sideffect of a sufficient level of consciousness.

Consciousness is a fundamental force of nature. At the atomic level, consciousness informs space as to what sub-atomic particles are required from the underlying energy field; at a cellular level, consciousness informs biochemical processes that permit survival and propagation; at the human level, consciousness informs language and social constructs that have lead to the development of science and the likelihood that one of these days, we'll get the hell off this planet.

Consciousness is the organizing force that counterbalances entropy. Entropy is the decay of matter to energy; consciousness is the creation of matter from energy.

Just as matter starts at the sub-atomic level, builds atomic particles, which form molecules, which create cells, which spring forth as multicellular lifeforms, which get more and more complex as you move up the chain... so too consciousness, from the atomic level on up. Atomic consciousness, molecular consciousness, cellular consciousness, etc.

I am, of course, bullshitting.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:59 PM on September 29, 2004

" would take relatively arbitrary shapes." - Languages built on pops and clicks ?

"....what is known as the Khoisan language group, made up of most of the click languages spoken in South Africa. A click language has sharp pops and clicks made with the tongue in various parts of the mouth, combined with an implosion of the breath, very difficult to understand, harder still to pronounce, as the slightest mistake may change the meaning of a word entirely."

I just couldn't reisist. *emits strident clicking noise*
posted by troutfishing at 10:01 PM on September 29, 2004

*Pops thrice and clicks once, in admiration at FFF's dense linguistic scat marking territory*
posted by troutfishing at 10:04 PM on September 29, 2004

The best points I have heard in favour of the "hard-wired" thesis are just that you don't really teach a child to speak. A child of normal intelligence will learn to speak just from being exposed to speech, whether they are conciously taught or not. I've known some pretty neglected children, whose parents would probably have never given them extra stimulus - but they still learned to speak as well as any other (Reading - that's a completely different story). Only children who are isolated from contact for the majority of the time, or who have a developmental disability, do not learn to speak (and I have heard that that kind of severe isolation can itself cause severe mental disabilities).

My niece may be slightly developmentally disabled - certainly she is not picking up language as quickly as most children (She is now in language therapy). Seeing her struggle makes me think of really how there are no handbooks for teaching speach - most children just suck it in, and then seemingly magically reproduce this incredibly complex system. It's very frustrating when a child does not - you realise that (unlike other skills, like reading) no one really understands how children learn to speak, because it is such a rare problem.

I have no idea how any such "hardwiring" would work - I'm just a historian who took a linguistics course in college, and likes language news. But if I remember that course correctly, the theory was not that a given grammatical structure was in the brain, but rather the ability to pick up a language - like having many bricks and a little trowel, and waiting for someone to come along and build a wall beside you, and then you can just follow and pick it up. Or maybe, it's like you have an inate wall building ability, and you are waiting for someone to come along and give you the bricks and mortar, and to show you the pattern.

On preview: one of my favorite songs is from South Africa, and in English it is called "The Click Song", because anglophones cannot say .... damn, I don't know how to say it : )
posted by jb at 10:14 PM on September 29, 2004

To clarify my second analogy a little: But you don't need them to show you how to smooth the mortar, or fit the brick - your hands just know how to.
posted by jb at 10:16 PM on September 29, 2004

Now that I've read the blurb (always a good idea) - I see that what they are proposing isn't incompatible with the idea of a kind of innate aptitude (where one is more like a language sponge, than being taught like another skill), but talking about where that might come from. The development could happen in early infancy, in response to certain kinds of stimuli, rather than just mapped out in the brain from the get go.

But I still can't help but think that there must be still some genetic component, if only a gene that sets up the blank slate of the brain ready for that stimulus, because other animals, like great apes, must also similar relationships with their young (affectionate back-and-forth between baby and caregiver, long period of care, etc) but no spoken language.
posted by jb at 10:34 PM on September 29, 2004

Languages built on pops and clicks ?

I meant more in the sense of "grammar".

jb: I have the impression (perhaps false) that some people argue that language in its entirety (minus the cultural context which we know it needs) couldn't be genetic because the genome couldn't code that much info. Or something. But this way of thinking about genetics is very naive. It's equally the case that the genome isn't a blueprint of the whole organism. It's a lot more like a complicated algorithm—or rather, a set of complicated, interacting algorithms—and the enormous complexity of language, like everything else, is implied by the genome.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:10 PM on September 29, 2004

Animals (and us) are really good at emotional signaling without language. Dogs and people can communicate wonderfully.

Yes, they can, vacapinta. Dogs can read our faces, intuit out thoughts and feelings and have adapted to our company to the point of adopting some of our expressions--smiles, worried frowns and such. What is interesting to me is that dogs can do it so much better than even our cousins the chimpanzees.
posted by y2karl at 12:16 AM on September 30, 2004

Yeah, that was a really neat study, wasn't it? The first thing I thought of was that this explains the difference between a dog and a cat when they're "begging" for food. The cat will very carefully watch the food. They'll watch you pick it up and put it in your mouth. And so on. A dog, however, will look at your face (with glances at the food). The dog is looking for cues from you that you're going to give the food to him/her.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:05 AM on September 30, 2004

I've tried to engage you before, languagehat, in a discussion about why many of the ideas in linguistics are deeply saturated in ideology.

EB, this is probably going to sound snotty, and I'm sorry, but it's really not interesting discussing linguistics with somebody who 1) doesn't know much about it and 2) is convinced that he's right, or at least that his ideas are so well founded that he should be given the presumption of correctness until somebody proves him wrong point by point. This sort of attitude is common in highly intelligent people who have educated themselves about all sorts of things they've gotten interested in and have put together overarching theories that encompass lots of areas they've dabbled in. Well, people who have spent years and years immersing themselves in those areas are usually somewhat impatient with that attitude. Go up to a physicist and tell him "I know your stick-in-the-mud theories claim that perpetual motion is impossible, but I've gone into the matter and I have an idea..." See how quickly he makes an excuse and runs. You say:

I find it much more credible that most of the wiring for language is already in the brain and it only needs a sufficient cultural milleu to be fully expressed as language as we know it.

Well, to be perfectly blunt, I don't care what you find credible. Neither of us knows the truth about this issue, nor does anybody else; the difference is that you're confident enough in your intuitions to give weight to them, and I'm not, because I know exactly how worthless intutitions are in such matters. As I said here, "I have to say, much as I enjoy explaining the role of coincidence to people convinced two similar-sounding words must be related, even I find it hard to believe niinbal and niimbal, both meaning 'footprints,' are unrelated. Not saying it ain't so, just pointing out that I'm not immune to the natural human craving to connect similar things." I'm willing to take the word of a specialist in Bardi (the Australian Aboriginal language in question) that the words, strikingly similar though they are, are probably unrelated, because I know how much one has to know to have an informed opinion. See also here for a forceful statement of the care that has to be taken in making linguistic judgments.

On the other hand, I'm fine with five fresh fish speculating on this stuff, because he cheerfully says he's just bullshitting. This stuff is fun to bullshit about; that's why I posted it. But don't ask me to treat your speculations as equivalent to a paper in Language. I think you know that I respect you, and I take you very seriously when you write about topics you have truly mastered. This is not one of those topics.

We can imagine some basic linguistic structures that don't exist and have never (as far as we know) existed.

Yeah? Name some. Chomsky kept trying to come up with "universals" and kept getting shot down; I think he's pretty much given up. Amazing how confident one can be when one is only familiar with a few Indo-European languages; amazing how weird languages from the Americas or the Caucasus or Papua New Guinea can get.

...the theory was not that a given grammatical structure was in the brain, but rather the ability to pick up a language

Some people say that, but the classic Chomsky theory was that grammar itself was hard-wired, and all earth's languages were simply superficial variants of a structure he'd come up with based (surprise!) on English. He had to keep elaborating the theory as linguists who actually knew languages came up with structures that didn't fit. I have no idea whether he's still clinging to his NP-VP phrase-structure template; I hope not, simply because he still has a lot of influence over people who treat him as the Great American Linguist, and the more sense can be knocked into him the better.

stavros: "Dismissive oversimplification" -- heh! Come on, you know how I feel about the Chomster; I give him as few breaks as possible.
posted by languagehat at 7:24 AM on September 30, 2004

Well, that was a classic languagehat smackdown.

( and I also, too, respect EB's areas of expertise. )
posted by troutfishing at 10:13 AM on September 30, 2004

Well, that was a classic languagehat smackdown.

Bullshit. His entire argument boiled down to "I know more than you, and Chomsky has been proven to be wrong in the past".

Now, EB and him may have repeated an actual, substantive argument back in the Mefi archives, in which case languagehat might be justified in ignoring arguments he's already countered.

But it frustrates me to be ignored here, because obviously phenomena that are extremely compelling to me (deaf children in Nicaragua) are not at all compelling to languagehat, and I'd like to know why.
posted by lbergstr at 10:30 AM on September 30, 2004

[reads may 2004 thread on deaf children in Nicaragua, in which Eldritch speaks up for nativism and languagehat gives kudos to Eldritch]

[is very confused]
posted by lbergstr at 11:08 AM on September 30, 2004

lbergstr: I'm not trying to ignore you, but as I said in that deaf-children thread, I don't know enough about child language or deaf language to have an informed opinion about it. I was giving kudos to Eldritch because he clearly knows a lot about it and writes well.

I wasn't trying to refute EB here, just explaining at length (which seems only appropriate) why I didn't want to get into it with him. I put the link here so people could have fun discussing it, not to get into fruitless discussions that will go nowhere. I'm fine with him expounding his ideas, I just wish he wouldn't noodge me about "engaging" him on the subject.

As for:

phenomena that are extremely compelling to me (deaf children in Nicaragua) are not at all compelling to languagehat, and I'd like to know why

Well, what can I tell you? Not everything is equally compelling to everyone. I posted about it on my blog, because it was a subject of linguistic interest, but personally I'm more compelled by obscure Russian loan words from Romanes or the details of phonetic development in Albanian. Why? In the immortal words of Van Morrison, "It ain’t why, why, why/ It just is."
posted by languagehat at 1:07 PM on September 30, 2004

The difference between your example and this instance, languagehat, is that these aren't "my theories", they arise from writings by, um, actual respected working linguists, they are critical of a few widely-held linguistic shibboleths but do not, in any way, contradict anything that is essential in contemporary linguistics. The two claims that I dispute: 1) that all human languages must necessarily be of the same lineage; and 2) that there is a qualitative difference between human language and animal communication such that in no way does animal communication approximate language are both highly speculative claims, the kind of speculative claims that reveal an ideological bias in the absense of good science. I'm hard pressed to find something equivalent in physics, since the science in that field is so much more rigorous and complete. But the comparison to a crank asserting that a perpetual motion machine is possible is worse then inapt, it's insulting.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:28 PM on September 30, 2004

I don't hold either of those positions. I think Occam's razor demands that we assume all languages are related unless there's reason to think otherwise, and given the rate of linguistic change, I don't see how there could be reason to think otherwise; this is not the same as saying "all human languages must necessarily be of the same lineage." Similarly, I have no quasi-religious belief that "in no way does animal communication approximate language"; I think in some ways it does approximate language, but I set the bar pretty high in terms of defining things as language, and I have no expectation that animals will meet that bar unless genetically altered (see Cordwainer Smith). One of the things I like about this book is that it deals with animal communication in ways that make sense to me, that place it on a continuum with human language without insisting it is language. I hope this sounds less dogmatic, and I apologize for causing you to feel insulted -- chalk it up to accumulated impatience with years of dealing with people who fail to grasp that linguistics is a science at all, and think that anyone who speaks a language has as much claim to know how language works as some pointy-headed intellectual. I do not count you among those people.
posted by languagehat at 6:01 PM on September 30, 2004

Lh - thanks for the clarification - I see I didn't really understand what was meant by "hard-wired" - I had thought it was much softer than that. I think my professor must have agreed with Chomsky, since, in addition to the lectures on innate grammar, our grammar teaching (it was a gammatical structure of English class) was heavily based around the Noun Phrase - Verb phrase division. This seemed appropriate for English at least - but was part of the claim that the NP-VP thing is universal?

(I still really like "The Click Song" - any South Africans know the real name, and how to spell it?)
posted by jb at 7:20 PM on September 30, 2004

I really appreciate your comment and apology, languagehat. It's seemed to me that I've not ever claimed to any more knowledge about linguistics than an moderately well-read layperson; and, more to the point, the only two objections that I've raised that anyone's taken issue with have been the two discussed here—which, though widely held, are not universal among linguists. Perhaps it was not clear that I was never asserting that there are extent languages that are not of the same lineage, nor that animal communication, even non-human primate, is or could be equivalent to human language (and not by limited intelligence, but because there are almost certainly some parts missing). You and I disagree on how far apart they are, but not that they are significantly far apart. Particularly, I reject the dogmatic assertion that anything that seems like animal communication is necessarily just behavioral training ("Clever Hans"). People deny that animals are self-aware, too. The two are related, and, I strongly think (with considerable lay knowledge and educated philosophical expertise) the latter to be anthropocentric nonsense.

There was the third matter which I was taken to task by rodii and implicitly you, and that was my condemnation of Sapir-Whorf. That really was unfair and certainly the result of a reactionary "I'm tired of laypeople talking about this stuff" state of mind. It was unfair because, as you and rodii are well aware, any lay person who's been paying any attention to linguistics has heard (read) countless linguists bemoaning, criticizing, and outright savaging Sapir-Whorf. In that case, I was only repeating what the pros have been saying for a long time. Has Whorf gotten a bum rap? Well, with rodii's rebuke, I looked into it myself rather than relying on what annoyed linguists have said in the past, and I found several, somewhat tepid, defenses of him. So I learned something. But as experts dealing with non-experts, you guys need to understand that it's not really fair to give us the gloss (which is all you can do, because we don't have the preparation to get the whole story) and then later correct or condemn us for repeating that gloss back to you without realizing that, well, really, that's not how we see things.

I try very hard to be a "good" dilettante and not a "bad" dilettante. The great peril of an education like St. John's is that it is very easy to be the latter without realizing it. Before and after SJC, I had a good bit of conventional math and science education, having been, for example, a physics major for awhile. Because of that I've had the good fortune to straddle the SJC view of science (which is much more than "history of science"—we do a lot of real science) and the conventional university view of science. And the cultures, as well. Anyway, the point is that because of this I'm a bit more aware of the limitations of my expertise than I otherwise would be. On the other hand, I know things from both sides that each doesn't know. (They rarely believe me.) A good corrective for the intellectual arrogance that arises in many from a SJC education is to spend some time reading the sci.classics newsgroups. We johnnies are supposed to be pretty darn strong in the classics, right? Well, it's astonishing what we don't know. Oceans of material we wouldn't have guessed existed.

Also, the limits of knowledge, both in the particular and in the universal, is probably my personal area of intellectual interest. Your comparing me to a crank rankled because I am fascinated by cranks and have come to understand them, a bit. I try very hard not to be one—which is hard to do if you're bright and like to learn and reason from first principles and are not that impressed with arguments from authority. It's easy to go astray. I try to watch for the signs of crankiness in myself. I think I do a decent job of it. I didn't think I was questioning the very foundations of linguistics, not as science. (Perhaps I am questioning the foundational ideology, but that's a different matter.)

But there's probably no avoiding the fact that my skepticism about what I think is entranched ideology will just seem like willfull know-nothingness to you. The problem here is that linguistics is one of five or six disciplines that interesect right at my primary intellectual interest. And I do have some definite ideas about the terrain around that intersection. And, honestly, linguistics is the discipline among them of which I have the least knowledge and facility; it's been, really, the last for me to seriously explore. But I think I've got the general shape of it, and most of the core ideas. Other than that, and how much that's worth? Well, not much.

My primary intellectual interest places me right in the middle of the science wars, right in the middle of the nature/nurture conflict. And I get pretty frustrated with it because, from my perspective, common sense and science indicate that the partisans in this conflict are quite certainly ideologues that wrongly and foolishly expect all of reality to unveil itself according to their one assumed unifying principle. Is language cultural or genetic? Well, this debate is perverted by the desires or the ideologues. Every line drawn is like some hotly contested territory in a war zone. Frankly, it is what seems to me to be the philosophical naivete, or just stupid simple-mindedness, of this contest, and a few others very much like it, that I, with some considerable expertise and several decades of rumination, lose my patience over.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:20 AM on October 1, 2004

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