Geeky Stuff

don’t bother arguing with Chomsky…

because the possibility that you are right is slim to none.

In the field of linguistics, Chomsky is King. And we few, but loyal linguists quietly sit in our ivory tower protected by the omnipotent grace of our king, and observe the kingdom of language. We listen and ponder and discuss, and present and applaud.

Jolly good presentation Arthur! I always wondered if full closure occurred at the ariepiglottic location in epiglottal stops. It makes good sense though. Right, well I’m off to the Antarctic again to see whether those darn penguins have figured it out yet.

But once in a blue moon, a wandering linguist in the wild jungles of somewhere hard to pronounce, observes a language that doesn’t quite fit into Chomsky’s “universal” theory. And then that linguist presents the contrary findings to other linguists and they talk and soon the twittering of a paradigm shift echoes in the ivory tower:

I never believed in syntax anyway. Something off-putting about those trees. So many branches. Ugh. And I could never find a piece of paper big enough to fit all that…
Yeah, all those trees! Syntax just isn’t, like, sustainable…
Totally. Go Green!!!
Yeah. I’m not using paper ever!
No way!
Yeah.. and, like, didn’t you think it was kind of weird that he was so furry…
What are you talking about?
I mean how can you trust a monkey anyway…
Chompsky is a monkey. Don’t get me wrong, he was really smart monkey. They say he learnt language and then piloted a rocket into space…
Are you talking about Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee at Columbia University who the subject of and animal language acquisition project?
Ooh chimpanzee that monkey news.

(In order to get this joke you need to know about the following:

  1. Sentences can be drawn into tree-like structures.
  2. Paper is made out of trees (real ones).
  3. Syntactic trees can get very long, thus wasting a lot of paper made from trees.
  4. Sustainability is a hot topic in the world.
  5. The truth is inconvenient cuz people don’t like to think that a giant tsunami is gonna destroy North America and the only person that can save us is Dennis Quaid.
  6. Dennis plays the role of a climatologist who tries to save the world from rapid global warming in the movie The Day After Tomorrow.
  7. He is not very convincing in this role.
  8. First year linguistic students often mispronounce Chomsky as “Chompsky”.
  9. Really dumb first year students often confuse the Columbia University chimpanzee, Nim Chimpsky, with linguist, philosopher, political activist, Noam Chomsky.
  10. The Ricky Gervais podcast featuring Steve Merchant and Karl Pilkington has a segment called “monkey news” were Karl talks about news concerning monkeys, like a monkey that according to Karl, piloted a rocket into outer space.
  11. While introducing this segment, Ricky Gervais says, “Oooh chimpanzee that monkey news”.

What’s the point of this???

Oh yeah, there’s a big brouhaha in the linguistic community over the research of Dan Everett, an American linguistics professor and feather-ruffler-at-large, that claims that Pirahã, a language spoken by a small tribe in the Amazon, challenges Noam Chomsky’s theory of “Universal Grammar”.

If you are so inclined, you can read the scintillating New Yorker article:
The Interpreter
Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?
by John Colapinto

What do you think about all this? Should we shout “paradigm shift!” OR bury our heads in the sand for a few more years??

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  • Reply
    June 24, 2007 at 11:24 AM

    Ok..this is a bit too clever for me these days…BUT…I do have a bit of a mistrust of anthropologists.

    I recall watching a documentary about some ‘tribe’ in the Amazon a while back…with the same sort of claim as these guys….but it just smelled wrong.

    My mom and I just looked at each other and were convinced they were yanking our chain.
    We did some research..the tv networks..pbs and or NG was convinced this was real…but it just stank of hoax. Hoax perhaps due to people needing grant money..I don’t know.

    But anyway….I am a skeptic.

  • Reply
    Arthur Crababble
    June 25, 2007 at 2:41 AM

    a monkey did not launch a rocket into space… that’s absolute rubbish.

  • Reply
    June 25, 2007 at 2:48 AM

    i don’t trust monkeys. once a monkey bit me and he never apologized or showed any sense of remorse. monkeys are mean and rude and I think they should stay in the Amazon and stop bothering linguists with their shenanigans.

  • Reply
    Captain Foushad
    June 25, 2007 at 4:53 PM

    Ich vertraue nicht Affen. Sie sind dumm. Sie sind armer Schwertfechter und haben keine Fähigkeiten in der Schlacht.

  • Reply
    Lisa Bettany
    June 26, 2007 at 12:01 AM


    It’s only as clever as you let it. That makes no sense. I know. Smart.


    You are probably right. It is unlikely that NASA would allow a monkey to pilot a rocket into space.


    i won’t trust a monkey with say, my banking information, or my lunch, but I wouldn’t go so far as saying ALL monkeys are mean and rude. That is a little too prejudiced for my liking.

    Captain Foushad:

    I am sorry. I don’t speak German, but I’m fairly certain you just said something entirely inappropriate. It’s not appreciated.

  • Reply
    June 26, 2007 at 5:22 AM

    I am sorry but I love Chomsky. His particular view of society and his work like political analyst, it’s amazing.

  • Reply
    Lisa Bettany
    June 26, 2007 at 3:25 PM

    How can you NOT love Chomsky. He is a genius among mice… I was just making a joke that it is foolish to argue with him, because he is never wrong! :razz:

  • Reply
    July 7, 2007 at 4:49 PM

    :-D Kisses from Galicia, Spain.

  • Reply
    Lisa Bettany
    July 7, 2007 at 5:22 PM

    thank you :cool:

  • Reply
    Vitor Zimmerer
    July 30, 2007 at 5:25 AM

    Chomsky’s attempts at generative grammar, while being elegant and potent, always had little empirical backup. His strongest argument for why languages need to be recursive is drawn from sentences no one produces “Men women children dogs bit like marry hate pets”, and while there certainy is something to the distinction between competence and performance, we have to keep in mind that sentences that don’t exist are very poor evidence. I personally think that these days will be remembered as very naive days, where linguistics were heading to the right direction in general, but in which the theories themselves were pulled out of very thin air.

    Chomsky knows this, and his reply to Everett (you can read it on wikipedia when you go to the Chomsky page) are telling. Chomsky doesn’t even consider universal grammar a theory anymore, it is a “topic”. Gone are the days in which UG was attached to claims you could falsify. This is not called “not being wrong”, it’s called “immunizing”.

    As for Everett, his data is interesting, but it is still work in a very early phase for such a strong claim (no clausal embedding in Piraha – though it is not the only language where it seems to be the case).

    But in general I agree that you should have utter respect for the work of his man, both in linguistics and in politics.

  • Reply
    Lisa Bettany
    August 13, 2007 at 7:16 PM

    Thanks Vito for your thoughtful comment. It doesn’t happen very often. so thanks!

    I have been trying to think of an intelligent reply for two weeks. Unfortunately, this is what i came up with: 0.

    see that’s the thing with being out of school for over two years… brain has turned a bit mushy in places (especially in the syntactic areas…) I think syntax lost me somewhere around the CP node.

    what a frightfully awful reply.

    i apologize. give me another week. maybe i’ll come up with something.

  • Reply
    Vitor Zimmerer
    September 11, 2007 at 3:45 PM

    No problem.

    I would actually love to edit that reply. I wrote it in such a rush, and it’s got mistakes all over the place. Oh well.

    Very nice photos btw.

  • Reply
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    September 23, 2007 at 4:11 AM

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  • Reply
    September 23, 2007 at 4:41 PM

    What in the h* did I just read all of that for…..

    All I know about monkeys is this ( and this (, but that has nothing to do with this.


    Go Radars !!!

  • Reply
    September 23, 2007 at 11:10 PM

    So I read this ( The Interpreter, Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?, by John Colapinto (AKA Kaaxáoi) and for some reason it was very interesting and captivating. In a non-demeaning use of the tribal name Pirahã (pronounced pee-da-HAN), I’m going to start using it to describe people I work with that resist change.

    I have compiled a list of the greatest Linguist and Anthropologist in this field (descending order)

    Lisa Bettany
    Dan Everett
    Noam Chomsky
    Tecumseh Fitch
    David Pesetsky
    Marc Hauser
    Kenneth L. Pike
    Peter Gordon
    Curt Nimuendajú
    Peter Gordon
    Steve Sheldon
    Brent Berlin
    Paul Kay
    Marco Antonio Gonçalves
    B. F. Skinner
    Edward Sapir
    Benjamin Lee Whorf
    Franz Boas
    Herbert Simon
    Stephen Levinson
    Anna Wierzbicka
    Andrew Nevins
    Cilene Rodrigues
    Michael Tomasello
    Steven Pinker
    Ray Jacken-doff
    Brent Berlin

    Also I have a number of questions and statements….

    I really like your prosody, it’s pretty.
    Lets play tagmemics, you’re it !
    This rap song has phonology, morphology, syntax, and sentences, but no recursion.
    You’re a crooked head!
    Will you show me your descended larynx?
    I speak six thousand languages, how many do you?
    Get my knife, i need to whittle these nouns down to single syllables.
    Have you ever been in a monolingual field situation?
    Teacher I cannot do my homework, I do not possess the requisite neurological architecture to do so.

    “Fuck that, I’m going to get on the river and take my canoe.” -Dan Everett

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