Tuesday, 1 September 2015


I'm currently reading English for the Natives by Harry Ritchie. I might try and do a proper review sometime, but for now here's a snippet.

I knew that this book was not going to be sympathetic to my linguistic views when I saw Ritchie at the English Grammar Day this year and he went on about how wrong Chomsky was about Universal Grammar. I work within the paradigm of Generative Grammar, which is what people outside GG call 'Chomskyan' grammar. Chomsky himself does not use this term, and I dislike it as it implies uncritical acceptance of all his ideas (and, actually, the worst critics of Chomsky do assume this of his 'followers', as they inevitably call them, as if he is a cult leader).

Generative Grammar has been extremely successful, and is a flourishing research area, but there is an equally flourishing anti-GG crowd as well. Some of these people simply work within different frameworks and don't pay too much attention to us, but others actively attack Chomsky's ideas in particular. A characteristic of these people is that they tend not to engage with very up-to-date work, they tend to look at Chomsky only and no other researchers, and they often misunderstand or misrepresent things. Ritchie is not a linguist, although he has had some training, and so I'm going to put the mistake I'm about to talk about down to misunderstanding rather than deliberate misrepresentation. (One thing that is definitely misrepresentation is when he switches from a reasoned exposition of the ideas of Universal Grammar into using terms like 'magical', which is simply ridiculous when he outlined the non-magical explanation a few pages earlier.)

On page 51, during the 'ah, but it turns out Chomsky was totally wrong' section, he describes Geoffrey Sampson's work refuting Chomsky's claims using the British National Corpus. At one point, he says that he simply 'dusted down his 1947 edition of Teach Yourself Malay' to show that there is no universal distinction between nouns and verbs - apparently this language doesn't have this supposedly universal demarcation. They must think generative grammarians literally never look at other languages. If it was that easy to disprove just by looking in one book, would the theory really have stood up all these years? He even then says that English 'often dispenses with any noun-verb distinction and relies on the speaker to figure out how the word is functioning', with examples like 'cut' which can be either, depending on context.

This is such a basic misunderstanding. English and Malay both do distinguish nouns and verbs. Having them behave differently in the two different contexts precisely is distinguishing them. When cut is a noun, it can take an article, for instance ('make a cut along this line'), while it cannot when it's a verb, but then it can have a subject ('she cut the cake'), which nouns cannot. This is distinguishing nouns and verbs. Malay is even less of a good example: it actually has affixes to indicate if a word is a noun or a verb. This is not even just context: the form of the word itself distinguishes the categories.

The literature, especially popular books like this one, abounds with such fundamental errors. See, for example, the recent book by Vyvyan Evans, criticised here for its many, many misrepresentations. See also the lengthy debate about recursion, admittedly not helped by a fantastically unclear definition of recursion, but which once properly defined ought simply to have ended but trundles on regardless.

Anyway, I'm expecting the book to get much better once we're past the Chomsky-bashing, because Ritchie had a lot of interesting things to say at the English Grammar Day and spoke (and writes) in a very entertaining manner.

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