The Language Myth

Vyvyan Evans
September 29, 2014

The Language Myth is a frustrating book.

I want to praise it, but I have to be careful how much.

Vyvyan Evans’s book takes a strong position against the Chomskyan notion that language is the product of an innate mental module, a brain structure that equips all normal human beings with a “Universal Grammar” that arises from an inborn “thought speak” and underlies all of our spoken communication.

Evans argues instead that “language reflects and builds upon general properties and abilities of the human mind – specifically our species-specific cultural intelligence; it reflects human pro-social inclinations for intersubjective communication.”

In other words, while Evans accepts that there are universal mental skills that allow us to develop language, those skills are not themselves language — nor are these abilities, at least in some measure, confined to our species. Language is a cultural artifact. Yes, it is facilitated by universal cognitive characteristics, but language is not itself universal in the sense that we all are born with a “language centre” in our brains.

My claim, then, is that our species has a special kind of cultural intelligence, which leads us to cooperative patterns of behaviour. Cultural intelligence has given rise to a further more specialised interactional intelligence. And so, language arises in our species not because we have a dedicated grammar gene, as claimed by the language myth. Rather, language arises because our species has specialised types of intelligences – cultural and interactional – qualitatively different from those seen in other species.

And,

… these ‘intelligences’ are not modules of mind. They are not the result of specialised and dedicated neural structures. They most likely arise from an amalgam of various mental competences, a consequence of the ecological niche to which our bipedal hominin forebears adapted.

This is good stuff, and Evans does a good job of convincing us that he’s right. The Language Myth is richly-detailed, yet it remains accessible to the lay reader. His supporting evidence comes from a wide range of sources, and from a number of sciences beyond linguistics.

Evans systematically attacks each of the key claims of Chomskyan linguistics.

He provides evidence that language is not a distinct mental module; that language is not innate, but rather acquired by use; that there are no true “language universals” that prove that all languages come from one “root”; that human language, while singularly complex and expressive, is nevertheless related to animal communication systems; that there is no proto-language, “Mentalese,” that constitutes thought without words.

Each of these “language-as-use” claims energetically refutes the “language-as-instinct” claims of Chomsky, Pinker, and their supporters. Evans makes quite a strong case.

So, what’s the problem? This sounds like a good book!

The problem, simply, is the book’s tone. The Language Myth descends too often into a kind of whiny gloating, a puerile oneupmanship that distracts mightily from the book’s intended impact.

Approvingly quoting another writer’s assertion that “the emperor of Universal Grammar has no clothes,” Evans shows little restraint in criticizing Chomsky. I had the distinct sense that Evans had been “burned” academically once too often. I pictured him sitting, humiliated, in the back row of a conference room, thinking to himself, “One of these days … one of these days.”

The Language Myth is that day. Evans describes Chomsky as “the famous (or perhaps infamous) American researcher.” His book’s very title doesn’t just dispute Chomsky’s work; it mocks it. Evans calls “universal grammar” a “myth” not only in the title but on page after page throughout the book. It becomes quite tiresome.

Here’s a more extended example of the frequent ad hominem passages in the book:

… don’t be fooled! As we shall see, the language-as-instinct crowd don’t always fight fair: ideas can be massaged to fit the claims, and often, too often, the facts are misrepresented, ridiculed or simply not presented at all.

It’s really too bad, for without the locker room towel-snapping, The Language Myth would be a good book, indeed.

 

 

 

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6 thoughts on “The Language Myth

  1. The academic writer as petulant pedant may be commoner than I thought. I am trying to read (read stuck) a book called Archeology of Mind by Jaak Panksepp. The central idea of the book is an important one – that mammals share basic affective needs and responses and are “tuned” or set by evolution differently. Dogs have higher attachment settings, cats have higher curiosity settings, for example. Truly an idea whose time has come (read an idea that I am currently in love with.)
    Jaak’s book suffers a bit from his desire to dump on the behaviourists who disagreed with him in the past. Even in victory, Jaak needs to gloat.
    On the universal grammar issue: Evans is wrong, perhaps not even wrong.

  2. On the universal grammar issue: Evans is wrong, perhaps not even wrong.

    On what basis?
    There is little, if any, real evidence for specific brain modules of any kind; rather, the truer description seems to be dynamic systems. If there’s no dedicated language “centre,” how does one justify positing an identical grammatical structure, in the face of evidence that some languages have very dissimilar cores? Similar, yes. Identical, not likely.

    “Not even wrong” should be reserved for ideas that completely misunderstand the entire domain of study. I don’t see any indication that Evans does that.

  3. There is no brain centre because language is distributed throughout the brain. I don’t know the mechanism, but since it exists at higher levels like us and exists in our forebears with simpler brains, it must exist at the organism level at the very least and probably lower. I’d go for the neuron if I were researching it.

    BTW a neural net is a dynamical system.

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