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War of Words

Tom Wolfe paints a florid and darkly conspiratorial picture of a decade-old discussion in linguistics, in which my colleagues and I are assigned the role of bad guys [“The Origins of Speech,” Essay, August]. The dispute concerns Daniel Everett’s assertion that Pirahã, an indigenous Brazilian language, has unique features that overturn a supposed linguistic orthodoxy attributed to Noam Chomsky. I was one of three authors of a 2009 paper that weighed in against Everett’s claims, a paper extensively discussed by Wolfe in dramatically negative terms (“a swollen corpus of objections — cosmic, small-minded, and everything in between”).

There is so much to object to in Wolfe’s narrative. There is the name-calling and over-the-top rhetoric (“Little Dan standing up to daunting Dictator Chomsky”). There are the many passages in which Wolfe purports to know my private thoughts and those of my colleagues, despite having made no effort to contact us for interviews. There is the description of my department at MIT as a den of “modern air-conditioned armchair linguists with their radiation-bluish computer-screen pallors and faux-manly open shirts” — contrasting, apparently, with the genuinely manly field linguistics practiced by Everett. (Many of my MIT colleagues and students are women, by the way, and some of them are fieldworkers.)

But the most important shortcoming of Wolfe’s essay is his misrepresentation of the scientific issues at stake. In a 2005 paper, Everett argued that the Pirahã language lacked subordinate clauses (“Mary said that it is raining”) and the ability to nest possessors inside of other possessors (“Mary’s canoe’s motor is big”), along with a few other properties. He further maintained that these “gaps” contradicted a theory about language that he attributed to Chomsky. Puzzled by the apparent weakness of the evidence presented for these claims and the significance alleged for them, Andrew Nevins, Cilene Rodrigues, and I decided to investigate. In his own previous papers, we found blatant counterexamples to Everett’s claims, which he had left not only unexplained but unmentioned, and we argued that many of the supposedly unique properties of Pirahã had precedents in other languages of the world.

Crucially, we also pointed out that even if Everett’s new factual claims about Pirahã were correct, they would have no bearing whatsoever on the issues that he believed his work addressed — because he misrepresented those issues. Chomsky has never proposed that every language must have subordinate clauses, nested possessors, or any other specific grammatical construction. All linguists know that languages vary in the constructions they allow and disallow, and the principles that underlie this variation constitute one of the main topics of our field. In the Science paper that Everett cited repeatedly for the assertion that every language must have subordinate clauses, Chomsky and his coauthors actually said nothing of the sort, mentioning subordinate clauses only as an illustrative example in a broader discussion of the human capacity for hierarchically organized phrase structure.

One limitation of our paper was its reliance on the published record for its data. Over the past few years, however, exciting new field research on the Pirahã language has emerged, which supports our conclusions from fresh angles. Uli Sauerland, the coordinator of Berlin’s Centre for General Linguistics, has shown with an ingenious set of on-site experiments that Pirahã speakers do in fact use and understand subordinate clauses. Raiane Salles, a Brazilian graduate student, discovered in the course of her thesis research that, contrary to Everett’s claims, speakers in the Pirahã villages have no trouble at all with nested possessor constructions.

This is how our field actually works. Ideas about language, like ideas about anything else, lead to predictions that can be tested, thereby advancing knowledge. We, as Everett’s critics, participated in that process. In his article, Wolfe repeatedly calls my coauthors and me “the truth squad,” apparently intending this as an insult. But to the extent that our paper and its successors have brought some clarity to an otherwise muddy discussion, it is a label that we wear proudly.

David Pesetsky
Professor of Modern Languages and Linguistics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, Mass.

Despite Tom Wolfe’s obvious contempt for his subject, he rallies behind his story long enough to suggest that Noam Chomsky may be something of a charlatan and a tyrant, perhaps undeserving of the great mantle of genius bestowed on him. Although it is difficult to see what was so wrong about his calling Jacques Lacan a fraud or urging intellectuals to denounce the Vietnam War, it’s easy enough to accept that the intricate abstractions of Chomsky’s linguistic theories may be missing much about the diversity of living languages. But Wolfe betrays his own bias in his uncritical enthusiasm for Daniel Everett’s work. His peculiar, anti-intellectual admiration for Everett’s derring-do does not explain how language could possibly be a cultural artifact that has “not evolved from . . . anything.” And casting doubt on the existence of the language-acquisition device does little to prove that language is entirely a cultural construction.

It’s ironic that Wolfe should use Chomsky as the villain in his attempt to protect language from Darwinism, since Chomsky himself has argued (unconvincingly) that language has not been influenced by natural selection, presumably because his politics make him uncomfortable with anything smacking of social Darwinism. A reader is left with the impression that the caricature of Chomsky is grossly inflated to replace any forthright consideration of the evolution of language.

Jason Smith
New York City

Survey Says

Walter Kirn offers a critique of capitalism, seemingly without realizing it [“Atlas Aggregated,” Easy Chair, August]. At a cocktail party, Kirn meets a surgeon named Dave, who bemoans the fact that he is subjected to appraisals and reviews by patients — nonexperts who can’t possibly appreciate his skills. Kirn agrees with Dr. Dave’s dim view of professional life in the United States, decrying the epidemic of customer-satisfaction surveys and ratings aggregators that has infected even elite industries such as medicine and literature. Of course, such complaints are valid, but Kirn doesn’t seem to grasp that the customer-service culture he despises is a natural consequence of capitalism, not an undesirable effect of recent technological progress.

This phenomenon is not new. Teachers have long been judged on the basis of reviews from students and their parents. Actors, politicians, and athletes have always needed to please their constituencies. What has changed is that fewer and fewer people are beyond the reach of public evaluation and assessment. As markets become more efficient, professions that were once able to seclude themselves within echo chambers of mutual appreciation are increasingly being held accountable to the will of the consumer. I’m not saying I disagree with the premise of the essay; Rotten Tomatoes certainly hasn’t done wonders for the quality of Hollywood films. What I’m saying is, welcome to the real world. If you want to change it, change the system that it’s running on.

Scott Feuless

The pressure on physicians to accommodate their patients is real but, as Winston Churchill said, “the price of greatness is responsibility.” Despite the temptation of positive reviews, doctors must resist becoming “slaves to opinion”; they shouldn’t be “ordering unnecessary tests to head off complaints from anxious, demanding types” or cater to their patients’ whims, neuroses, and addictions. Medical professionals — and the rest of the elite — should have the courage to do the right thing no matter the consequences.

Social status does not rest on technical skill alone; it also requires an energetic sense of moral and civic purpose. Dr. Dave decided not to engage, withdrawing from rather than shaping the world in which he lives and works. He chose the Hawaiian shirt over the good fight.

When professors, arguably the best-protected elite in the United States, complain about political correctness and pander to students instead of teaching what they believe, when Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell refuse to stand up to Donald Trump, they prove themselves unworthy of their position. At the end of the day, “Rotten Tomatoes from the cheap seats” is less of a problem than elites abdicating their responsibility.

Thomas Oles
Associate Professor of Social Work, Skidmore College
Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Heaven Knows

Nat Segnit admits that very little is known about Hieronymus Bosch, yet he rejects my thesis that the artist was a Cathar, writing that “Bosch’s scathing treatment of religious figures” does not contradict church doctrine. [“Abandon All Hope,” Criticism, August]. Admittedly, there is no record that Catharism ever existed in ’s Hertogenbosch, but, as the writer Richard Smoley points out when discussing my book on the subject, “this hunted sect had a dire need to cover its tracks.”

Bosch’s eccentric treatment of religious subjects consistently contradicts Netherlandish traditions, and he takes aim at far more than the “corrupt monks” who are “fair game.” Cathar ideas hostile to the established church can be seen in all of his paintings. For example, the central panel of the Temptation of St. Anthony in Lisbon depicts the Virgin Mary as a deathly demon riding a rat, and she appears again on the right as a blue-cloaked demon pouring wine. Another painting, the Prado Adoration of the Magi, includes a parody of the Flight into Egypt, in which a man leads an ape on a donkey. So, while it’s true that we lack the documentary evidence to prove Bosch’s Catharism, I believe the images speak for themselves.

Lynda Harris

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October 2016

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