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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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I must say I habe not yet read the paper by Christiansen and Chater because I wanted to wait for it publication in the Behavioral and Brain Science along with the commentaries, but here are my two cents:
I must say that I have trouble grasping why the non-arbitrariness of certain aspects of language would refute arguments made for nativism and/or UG. It makes sense that syntactic patterns are influenced or even shaped by functional constraints and processes.
Also, I do think a lot of (I think in fact most)Generativists would agree that the brain is not just a simple desktop computer.
As Jackendoff (e.g. Linguistics in Cognitive Science: The State of the Art 2007, available at hsi webpage) points out, explanations for language can take place on three different levels of inquiry:
the formal level
the functional/psychological level
the neural level

generativist formalists do not claim that the brain exactly computes these formalized rules, but that the formalized rules have some psychological reality in that they "symbolically approximate" (a term coined, I think, by Smolensky) what is going on in terms of neural computations in the brain. Thus I do not think that "our brains are just like modern computers" is in any way an adequate description of generativist or nativist viewpoints.
The kind of argument the are advancing against UG to me seems a bit as if they are attacking a straw man (and if there are people proposing exactly such a theory, the critique would nevertheless leave generativism in general unfazed).

One further comment regarding Kirby's experiment. AFAIK it hasn't been published next so we'll have to wait for further details a bit, but one question I asked myself:
The Poverty of Stimulus argument doesn't say anything about people learning or creating a new language who already speak one. This is second language acqusition or creation somehow akin to what took place with Tok Pisin, if I'm not mistaken. Unlike in real first language aquisition, in Kirby's experiments the cognitive architecture of language (whatever its structure may be) is already up and running, fully developed, and operational, and thus this language creation process is vastly different from the one a human infant encounters. The experiment surely has some important and profound implications, but i do not see it refuting the fact of PoS (if there is such a fact.

Much stronger case four UG, which ought to be considered seriously, are, e.g., the examples of Nicaraguan Sign Language and home sign, which bears certain morphosyntactic features prior to any linguistic inputt (see e.g. Susan Goldin-Meadow. 2005. The challenge: Some properties of language can be learned without linguistic input, available at her home page)

I'm looking forward to reading your next post, maybe there are really some good arguments for this new approach, but the arguments against UG didn't convince me.


Poverty of the Stimulus is nothing other than the creationist's Argument from Incredulity: whatever patterns in the data remain unexplained are the work of a Universal Grammarian who lives in our heads. Instead of seeking the origin of the Unknown Gnome who created the patterns, the scientific method seeks functional explanations for their apparent arbitrariness.
Nicaragua/Sinai prove an innate “syntax”, but cognitive structures like agent-actor and lineo-temporal sequencing also underlie realms such as mathematics. The syntax of 2-1=1 is [[SVO]VO], and that this structure is attested in both pre-linguistic children and languageless adults disproves any dedicated language module.
BLOGGER: It may be true that " the scientific method [begins by seeking] functional explanations for their apparent arbitrariness," but sometimes things are arbitary. Einstein never accepted quantum mechanics because it says that, at bottom, there is no reason for the phenomena. Most physicists made their peace with that. Evolution says many things are the result of drift, i.e., arbitrary chance. So these days you cannot just dismiss a claim a priori on the grounds that it reveals no underlying reason for the nature of things.


Sheer random chance could be an explanation, but PoS has never offered it. The claim is that there cannot be an explanation—a claim that requires the maker to be omnisciently aware of every possible factor that has been or ever will be discovered.

In the absence of any alternate theory, one might well settle for a "symbolically approximate" model, but C&C show there are numerous empirically based alternatives offering explanation right down to the neural level. These successfully generate aspects of language from pragmatic and non-linguistic input, so the traditional argument—that the Primary Language Data alone is insufficient—could be true, but is also irrelevant.

The authors deconstruct PofS pretty well I'd say. And it's refreshing to see 'evolution' not taken too literally, even though they waterboard this 'useful metaphor' until it seems to muddle their main point that there is no 'genetically specified linguistic endowment'.

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