Mythological figures: The generative field linguist

           Dead Collector: Bring out yer dead!
           Large Man: Here’s one.
           Dead Collector: Nine pence.
           “Dead” Man: I’m not dead.
           Dead Collector: What?
           Large Man: Nothing. There’s your nine pence.
           “Dead” Man: I’m not dead!
           Dead Collector: ‘Ere, he says he’s not dead.
           Large Man: Yes he is.
           “Dead” Man: I’m not.
           Dead Collector: He isn’t.
           Large Man: Well, he will be soon, he’s very ill.
           “Dead” Man: I’m getting better.
           Large Man: No you’re not, you’ll be stone dead in a moment.

A situation similar to this scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail has played out over the last month or so in the discipline that we call linguistics. Generative linguistics has been playing the role of the “dead” man, and other linguists have tried to hand us over to the collector of dead theoretical linguistic frameworks. This all started with the publication of Tom Wolfe’s book The Kingdom of Speech earlier this year, followed by an article by Ibbotson and Tomasello.

By now, this has been written about by plenty of people and reformulating what has already been said is a little pointless. Instead, I want to focus on one specific issue that shows up now and again and really surprises me: The realization that certain linguists see generative linguistics as inherently opposed to fieldwork research. It surprises me because one would think that linguists of any theoretical colour would know better and, in fact, I am convinced that they do know better. I cannot conceive of smart and knowledgeable language scientists ignoring the work of people like Ken Hale or Emmon Bach, whose research on generative syntax was as impressive as their experience doing linguistic fieldwork. I want to stress that I’m talking about the perception by fellow linguists, not by the general public (even though Daniel Everett has said repeatedly that he himself was a generative field linguist during his Pirahã years).

This view of the generative framework coincides with the caricature that some people spread, and some people assume to be true, both of Noam Chomsky and by extension of generative linguists as armchair linguists that look down on fieldwork. This view consists of two sides:

(a) Generative linguists are armchair linguists that don’t know what fieldwork is
(b) Generative linguists systematically disregard data obtained in fieldwork

While it is true that there is an undeniable bias towards Eurasian languages in the corpus of work of the theoretical framework, an active resistance against languages that are not the researcher’s own is something that definitely doesn’t line up with reality. More and more of us generative linguists are incorporating fieldwork as a crucial part of our research, both in recently contacted communities in places like Amazonia and in accultured indigenous communities like those in North America, to the point that the “ivory tower” of MIT is putting out PhD dissertations based on fieldwork on languages as mainstream as Dinka (Nilotic) or Kĩsêdjê (Jê). This is far from a hidden current, as in fact generative linguists have tried to reach out and let other linguists know of these endeavours. Davis, Gillon and Matthewson recently wrote a detailed and very interesting article in which they present examples of generative research conducted in fieldwork situations.


This image depicts the creature that still defies ordinary beliefs: the generative field linguist.

I will rephrase the preceding paragraph for the sake of clarity: there are many generative linguists that do fieldwork. What is more, even among generative linguists that do not do fieldwork themselves, I have yet to encounter anyone that does not highly value both the descriptive and the analysis sides of linguistic fieldwork like the one that I conduct on Panará. On the issue of case alone, research by people like Mark Baker (Mohawk, Shipibo), Amy Rose Deal (Nez Perce), Julie Anne Legate (Warlpiri) or Jessica Coon (Chol) is an absolutely indispensable part of any discussion regarding case marking and agreement in generative syntax.

I want to wrap up this entry by stressing the idea that generative linguists do fieldwork and, more generally, they love data originating in fieldwork. Don’t let anyone hand us over to the collector of dead, out-of-touch-with-reality theoretical frameworks  just yet.

As for the broader debate stirred by Tom Wolfe’s book, I defer to an informed and thought out article written by John McWhorter. Just a brief excerpt that I think reflects very well the way many of us (linguists that work in the generative framework) feel about this whole issue:

On the Chomskyans, Wolfe misunderstands what they consider important. What Wolfe considers important — understandably, since it is what would be most immediately interesting to laypeople — is how language evolved. Hence the lengthy prologue on Darwin; hence Wolfe mocking Chomsky for not knowing just what this uniquely human “language organ” that has purportedly evolved even consists of, after all of this time. “So in thirty years,” Wolfe writes, “Chomsky had advanced from ‘specific neural structures, though their nature is not well understood’ to ‘some rather obscure system of thought that we know is there but we don’t know much about it.’”

But Chomsky doesn’t see this as a problem. Wolfe seems to suppose that today’s generative syntacticians operate under the 19th-century scholar’s cultural assumption of natural history, evolution, and development as key to the investigation of any scientific matter. But the Chomskyan is mainly interested in the present-day mechanisms that (supposedly) produce sentences, and that we don’t know how they came to be worries them no more than it would a cancer researcher who found the cure but couldn’t explain just how natural selection generated it.


Update: For a detailed, lengthy and hilarious review of Tom Wolfe’s book, I also recommend this article by E. J. Spode.



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