Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Whatever happened to Chomsky's Critics?

From Manchester to M.I.T.: How Dr. Rupert Read & Dr. Everett Challenged Professor Chomsky

OVER a decade ago some Manchester sociologists and northern anarchists tried to publish a booklet critical of Professor Noam Chomsky's linguistics, but praising his politics, through the anarchist publishing outfit Freedom Press*. It was going to be entitled 'Chomskys Critics' and had essays by Dr. Rupert Read, Dr. Wil Coleman, John Lawrence, Pro. Wesley Sharrock, Dr. David Francis, Derek Pattison and was edited by Brian Bamford; Harold Sculthorpe, then a member of Friends of Freedom Press, was also involved in the publication and Milan Rai, Chomsky's former political secretary, was asked to contribute; several of these profess to be anarchists of one form or another. The material sent in at first appeared to have been accepted to be published in the anarchist Raven journal by Charles Crute (then editor of Freedom) and an essay arrived from Milan Rai. In order to add interest Professor Chomsky was invited to read Rupert Read's critique and comment upon it, which he duly did in a 3-page letter to the editor Brian Bamford denouncing Dr. Read and the whole project.

Freedom Press was alerted to Chomsky's displeasure and withdrew from the project arguing that the material was 'too academic' and unsuitable for publication by Freedom Press a political publishing house: it is not known if any pressure was applied to Freedom and Professor Chomsky was ambivalent about Freedom's decision when asked. Later the material was published independently by the northern anarchists and Manchester academics as a booklet entitled 'Chomsky & his Critics'. This is now retailing on AMAZON at £45. Two years ago in a public confrontation at the London Anarchist Bookfair, Professor Chris Knight, the radical anthropologist, raised these issues before Milan Rai, along with other misgiving he has about the Chomsky project in linguistics. Northern Voices has been asked to agree to reproduce the original booklet which is under consideration.

Last month, The Global Edition of the New York Times published an article by Jennifer Schuessler entitled 'The linguist who took on Chomsky' about Dr. Daniel Everett a linguist who spent time with a group of people called the Pirahã**, whose members are an isolated group of hunter-gathers who he first visited as a Christian missionary in the late 1970s. Jennifer Schuessler writes: 'In 2005 Dr. Everett shot to international prominence with a paper claiming that he had identified some peculiar features of the Pirahã language that challenged Noam Chomsky's influential theory, first proposed in the 1950s, that human language is governed by "universal grammar," a genetically determined capacity that imposes the same fundamental shape on all the world's tongues.' Thus, Everett became a bit of a popular hero, and was portrayed in the press as a giant killer who felled the mighty Chomsky, after his paper on the Pirahã was published in the journal Current Anthropology.

Dr. Everett's paper, published in 2005, claims that the Pirahã language lacks recursion, along with colour terms, number terms, and other common properties of language. This claim flies in the face of Chomsky's much-cited 2002 paper that insisted that recursion is the crucial feature of universal grammar, and that it was the only thing separating human language from its evolutionary forerunners. Chomsky is an emeritus professor of linguistics at MIT, who wrote the paper with Marc D. Hauser and W.Tecumseh Fitch.

Dr. Everett says 'I'm a small fish in the sea, I do not put myself at Chomsky's level.' Yet, his most recent book, published in March 2012, is 'Language: The Cultural Tool' and he writes: 'I am going beyond my work with Pirahã and systematically dismantling the evidence in favor of a language instinct.' Now there have been even echos of what we experienced over a decade ago with our modest booklet 'Chomsky & his Critics', and now a documentary 'The Grammar of Happiness' accuses unnamed linguists of improperly influencing the Brazilian government to deny Dr. Everett's request to return to the Pirahã territory, either with a film crew or with a research team from M.I.T., led by Ted Gibson, a professor of cognitive science: this is scheduled to run on the Smithsonian Channel in May 2012.

Migual Oliveira, an associate professor of linguistics at the Federal University of Alagoas and the M.I.T. expedition's Brazilian sponsor, said in an interview that Dr. Everett was widely resented among scholars in Brazil for his missionary past, anti-Chomskian stance and ability to attract research money. Dr. Oliveira claimed: 'This is politics, everybody knows that.' Dr. Everett himself has said that he has no evidence of any intrigues against him.

Jennifer Schuessler in her Global New York Times essay writes:
'The debate remains stymied by a lack of fresh, independently gathered data. Three different research teams ... have published papers supporting Dr. Everett's claim that there are no numbers in the Pirahã language. But efforts to go recursion hunting in the jungle have so far yielded no published results.'

Our unsavoury experience in Manchester with a few local scholars and anarchists, around the start of the new millennium, to produce a modest critique in booklet form of Chomsky's theory of language, was so like what Dr. Everett and his colleagues are now experiencing over access to the Pirahã that it may well have been the tip of an iceberg.

* Freedom Press, an anarchist journal and publishing house believed to have been set up over 125 years ago by the famous anarchist and geographer Peter Kropotkin.

**Pirahã (also spelled Pirahá, Pirahán) is a language spoken by the Pirahã. The Pirahã are an indigenous people of Amazonas, Brazil, living along the Maici River, a tributary of the Amazon.

Pirahã is believed to be the only surviving member of the Mura language family, all other members having become extinct in the last few centuries. It is therefore a language isolate, without any known connection to other living languages. It is estimated to have between 250 and 380 speakers.[1] It is not in immediate danger of extinction, as its use is vigorous and the Pirahã community is mostly monolingual.

The Pirahã language is most notable as the subject of various controversial claims;[1] for example, that it provides evidence for the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.[2] The controversy is compounded by the sheer difficulty of learning the language; the number of linguists with field experience in Pirahã is very small.

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