Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Linguistics smacks down Pop Evolutionary Psychology

I saw this while on vacation, and hadn't had a chance to blog about it.

Shades of Sapir-Whorf!

It appears that language usage, in the case of one language family versus another is fairly strongly influenced by cultural background.
The authors say their findings run contrary to the idea of Noam Chomsky's generative grammar, which says the brain has hard and fast ordering rules for language. They also contradict the "universal rules" of Joseph H. Greenberg, who said languages tended to choose certain patterns over others.

"Culture trumps the innate structure of the human mind," said study coauthor Russell Gray, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. "We need to take much more seriously the role of cultural factors in changing language diversity."
Even if overstating the case, if it's half true, it not only undercuts Chomsky, it's another blow to the "massive modularity" idea of the brain.

Without looking at it in just that light, though, it does raise other issues of social and cultural evolution. Nature has more.

Beyond the easy references to how this undercuts (what doesn't, really) the "Pop" version of evolutionary psychology, this has more serious linguistic implications.

Greenberg, beyond being a "universalist" on linking phenomena of languages, was also a "clumper" in terms of how many, or how few, language families he postulated. This is especially true in his analysis of Native American and sub-Saharan African families.

But, if his "implication universals" idea isn't so true, then perhaps some languages he has clumped together should be bound more loosely. If we don't become "splitter" into many more language families, perhaps we should at least discuss the idea of subfamilies.

No comments: