From Scientific American:
Noam Chomsky’s political views attract so much attention that it’s easy to forget he’s a scientist, one of the most influential who ever lived. Beginning in the 1950s, Chomsky contended that all humans possess an innate capacity for language, activated in infancy by minimal environmental stimuli. He has elaborated and revised his theory of language acquisition ever since.
It’s a great article, and includes an interview with another accomplished linguist, Steven Pinker. Pinker concludes that even after decades of brutal examination and criticism, Chomsky’s famous thesis best explains how children master language. The alternatives boil down to arguing that language is an artificial construct of the rational mind that children, starting from a blank slate, must learn.
This vindication of Chomsky’s universal grammar theory is interesting on two counts, and both impact my writing. First, I’m fascinated by language. More important, scientific support of language as an inborn capability bolsters the view that people are naturally social, as opposed to the atomistic, rationalistic view of humanity pushed by both Hobbesians and Marxists.
We’re not plopped on this planet to enrich ourselves and consume; we are born to experience the world and find ourselves in it. That’s the worldview that animates everything I write.
4 thoughts on “The Linguist as piñata”
Mike, I enjoyed the post but could you explain your title for me? I need help comprehending the piñata reference. Let this comment be my way of giving you a whack so that enlightening words can spill forth. Ha!
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The title came from the Scientific American article I linked to, where Steven Pinker says, ““Chomsky has been a piñata, where anyone who finds some evidence that some aspect of language is learned (and there are plenty), or some grammatical phenomenon varies from language to language, claims to have slain the king. It has not been a scientifically productive debate, unfortunately.”
Always good to hear from you, and thanks for reading!
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I find your world view refreshing and spot on, Mike.
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Jack Ronald Cotner,
Thank you very much!