Reading popular linguistics articles with Anaea

Oooh, this article about knots, language, and songbirds could be interesting, and just up my alley. What wonderful timing for it to show up on bookslut right when I’m yearning mightily for class. Let’s take notes on reactions as I read. (I’ve come back to rewrite this opening paragraph, but everything that follows is right as I read it, without knowledge of the rest of the article)


1) Being innate does not mean that it is genetic. It is entirely possible, and I’d lean towards “likely” that language is a consequence of the pattern of human brain structure re what goes where relative to everything else, and how they all mish-mash together. Portions of that will be genetic, a lot of that will be environmental. We don’t grow up in complete isolation, and the few of us who have and been studied later didn’t develop language well at all. Innateness could merely be a property of common human experience, not genes. The problem here is with the definitions of innate that get thrown around, which are bad enough within the field and go all to pieces when lay people go nosing in and try to be insightful.

2) It is not advised to make the mistake of listening to Chomsky too much. He did great things for the field with respect to kick-starting it and shaming linguists in general into being more scientific than the shady psychologists they were mimicking, but his theories are based on bad and insufficient data, and are most likely wrong to one degree or another. See, when Chomsky gets involved, everybody speaks English. That annoys the French and German linguists, from what I can tell the Japanese and Russians are ignoring him. Get off the bandwagon before it crashes. Oh, and could you define “specific linguistic behaviors”? I’m not sure what you’re talking about and the whole sentence is very vague. You do know that the people working on the early evolution of human language are guessing and hand waving, right? They do good work, but you can’t just go making leftways assertions based on it with no explanation.

3) Ah, see, this next paragraph is where your earlier mistakes start getting you into trouble. Please tell me you haven’t deliberately set up a faulty premise just to give yourself an article to write because a) that’s cheap, bad writing and b) too many people will only read your first paragraph and then Chomsky wins. Oh, and you might want to do enough exploration to find out that virtually nothing about human language is completely unique; it’s just the combination of all the features that makes us snazzy, so far as we know. It’s okay, Chomsky doesn’t pay attention to that either, because animals don’t speak English, you see. And do you have any idea how very impractical developing a brain that does human language is, evolutionarily? Sure, it works for us, but not everybody. I neglect to be surprised.

4) Re the virus metaphor: ew. Reel that nonsense in, please. Are you even aware of the role viruses can play in evolution at the genetic level? Go ahead and start your thinking with mitchondria (maybe) and move on to “junk DNA” from there.

5) Oh, you did set up a false premise to make your article look like it was going to be informative. And yet…I need to go look up the names of the guys who went for a straight cognitive model of language development and argued that syntax was an accidental side effect since humans tend to force everything into patterns, if it’s a real phenomenon at all. They’re fringe guys, and I don’t completely buy it, but it could be that Chomsky’s brainwashed me, too.

6) You’re kidding, right? Your big revelation is that songbirds are more interesting than chimps? Uhm, how to put this gently…duh. They wouldn’t be if it weren’t for the decade or two that Chomsky spent harping on recursion being the defining unique element of human language, despite emerging evidence that songbirds are not only capable of recursion, but they’re better at it than we are. No really, humans max out at about four embeddings in spoken language and they’ve got species that blow past eight.

7) I was about to give you a big pat on the back for handling a summary of SLI without anything criminally obtuse, but then you went and drew a very silly conclusion. “The fact that genes we share with yeast are directly implicated in language shows that we are using very general cognitive mechanisms to learn language, not genes in any way specific to it. FOXP2 could merely be regulating sequential movements.” You’re falling into another problem with your definition of innate, but this is also about as sensical as saying that if you genetically remove the ability to hear from people, when they don’t develop spoken language it’s proof that it isn’t innate. You can learn things from aberrations, this aberration tells you nothing about that question. We still don’t fully understand how genes interact and regulate one another, how they relate to what develops, and how what develops then feeds back into the genes and their regulation, let alone how all that works specifically in FOXP2. Let’s stick to evidence based on evidence, and lacking that, well reasoned theories. Oh, an the conclusions based on the second part, we don’t marry those.

8) Wait, are you implying that SLI (I know you didn’t identify it as such, probably makes it too easy to fact check on Google that way, but the information you do supply is enough to know what you mean) is just slurred speech? Wow, you reporterly types really do like getting carried away by your metaphors. Maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to use them anymore.

9) Hang on a sec, are you not a reporter? Apparently not. It’s worse than an idiot reporter, it’s an idiot non-Chomsky-sycophant linguist. Further googling reveals that you’re a in the minimalist syntax camp about which I make no cracks because Jason Merchant is a smart, smart man and I am not capable of winning an argument with him on his subject. (I can barely engage him in an argument on his subject, it makes me go cross-eyed.) I think I’m just going to quit reading the article since I don’t trust your ability to do your experiments well if this is what I got so far, and if I meet you on the street I shall shame you for being a bad, lazy, uninformed analyst.

10) Okay, I couldn’t let this slide before I quit. These are the same two sentences that set off point nine above, the “I” in there sent me off track before I caught this. “Marta Camps and I have shown that there is no evidence for the ability to tie and untie knots prior to the FOXP2 mutation.” Good job. Heinlein was talking about the need for people who do nothing but keep on top of what we do and don’t have evidence for back in the 50’s. It’s gotten much worse since then. “No other animals besides humans can tie or untie knots…” Lack of evidence is not a proof. Say it with me again: Lack of evidence is not a proof. “Without evidence of other knot tying animals,” is a much better start for that sentence. Lack of evidence is not a proof. Go back to the eight grade. Learn the scientific method. Maybe then I’ll finish your essay.

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