Friday, September 02, 2022

Since Leiter is posting Chomsky again (and authorship has been confirmed) I'll post something I cited in the manuscript, the magilla etc. [pick one] that I thought I'd linked here but apparently hadn't[?]

From the graduate student blog at MIT, part of the admissions page in 2018. Gone but now at The title should be enough to make my point (made years ago): it's 1950s rationalism, the equivalent of Chicago school economics, from the same origins and just as dated. 

Linguistics Is Basically Physics  Debunking myths about the study of linguistics.

 “Would they hire you to talk to aliens?”

“That’s so funny I have a friend who studies French literature!”

“So what do you think of Chomsky’s political views?”

“Linguistics? At MIT? I didn’t know they had that. I thought they just did science and stuff.”

Thanks to the popularity of the movie Arrival, the world now has a pretty good idea of what us linguists do. You know… figuring out how to communicate with aliens, internalizing all of space and time, it’s all in the job description.

Okay not really. Like not even a little bit. We don’t even have a special affinity for linguini (I did not make this up).

It is not surprising that people don’t  know much about the study of linguistics. Few schools offer linguistics classes at an early stage of education, and the field itself is broad enough that even linguists don’t always know what their colleagues in other subfields do.

I’m used to getting pseudo-science questions about language pretty much wherever I go, and while I expect this from the general population, I was surprised find that people at MIT are often nearly as confused!

And while most of the responses I get from MIT people are that of polite interest or excitement, people still generally make the assumption that my field is somehow categorically unrelated to science and engineering.

(The less enthusiastic responses seem to convey doubt about whether non-science/engineering fields have a place here, but that is a topic for another day.)

My goal is to debunk some myths about what linguistics is and what it means to be a scientist. I’ll be talking specifically about theoretical linguistics (which we call generative linguistics) with a special focus on syntax (my subfield).

But there is a whole world of sociolinguistics that I encourage you to look into as well if you are interested.

Theoretical linguistics explained

In linguistics, we hypothesize that the human language faculty is a universal property of the human species that is built on common foundational principles.

The key here is that linguistics is not the study of a language or even many languages, but rather the study of language as a concept, which all the languages of the world are instances of.

In the way that we believe the laws of physics to be invariant across different physical environments, we believe the laws of language structure to be invariant across languages (though things may appear different in different physical and linguistic environments).

In line with this hypothesis, we propose abstract representations of language that can be transformed in a number of ways to yield the diverse structures that we see within and across languages. And to get at this underlying representation, we look at data from all languages to find patterns.

I studied physics as an undergraduate so I’m going to use some analogies from Newtonian mechanics to show you what I mean. In Newtonian mechanics we have a formal framework, i.e. calculus, which has different types of objects and operations, i.e. variables and derivatives, integrals, etc.

On top of the framework, we have model specific constraints on how to use the framework to describe actual phenomena. For example we have the notion of forces and acceleration, and Newton’s second law, which relates the two (F=ma). To model facts about language, we too have a framework and a model that constrains it.

Or in other words, we too propose the existence of objects, and operations that relate objects to each other and build structure, and we propose principles to constrain those operations.

The types of evidence that we use to create a syntactic model come from looking at necessary conditions for the formation of grammatical sentences.

When looking at the structure of a particular language, we ask native speakers of that language to give us what we call “grammaticality judgments”.

What we are interested in is what kinds of sentences their internalized system can produce/parse, and what kinds of things it can’t. We are not interested in the “rules” of the language that they learned in school, but rather what the fundamental system looks like naturally.

Example 1: John and I... 

repeats, Leiter, Quine, Bobbitt, and Dennis Patterson

I never said Quine was a postmodernist. What I did say was that analytic philosophy has moved into a new paradigm, which I identify as postmodern, and that Quine's thought represents a significant contribution to the development of this new mode of philosophizing.


Modern empiricism has been conditioned in large part by two dogmas. One is a belief in some fundamental cleavage between truths which are analytic, or grounded in meanings independently of matters of fact and truths which are synthetic, or grounded in fact. The other dogma is reductionism: the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience. Both dogmas, I shall argue, are ill founded. One effect of abandoning them is, as we shall see, a blurring of the supposed boundary between speculative metaphysics and natural science. Another effect is a shift toward pragmatism.

Quine's a postmodernist. "But I didn't mean to open that door!"  

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