Holiday fun to poke tongue in cheek at Chomsky?

Lingua ex Machina
May 5, 2000

During their stay at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni overlooking Italy's Lake Como, William Calvin, a theoretical neurophysiologist, and Derek Bickerton, a linguist, resolved to tiptoe in where Chomsky had feared to tread - "to look either at the neurological infrastructure of language or at the ways it might have evolved", or, in the words of an amused hotel guest, "to out-Chomsky Chomsky". This book recounts their trek in search of the origin of language.

Before language there was proto-language, a term of comparative linguistics hijacked and redefined by Bickerton to mean a language with words but without the means to string them together beyond the most primitive of utterances. "Me Tarzan, you Jane" is about as far as a proto-language will stretch.

Syntax is the missing link between proto-language, as Bickerton has it, and language proper. How could syntax have emerged within the Darwinian model by gradual evolution? Such is the subject of this book, presented, as it may actually have happened, in the form of an exchange of letters and memos between the two authors, peppered with conversations.

Bickerton eventually throws in the towel and looks for an answer to Calvin, who gets his inspiration as he is playing bocce (Italian pétanque ). Throwing involves multi-jointed action and planning - a tree structure - and syntax is the arrangement of words in a tree structure... eureka!... From this all else follows, verbosely.

Calvin kicks off: "My candidate for the augmented-proto-language-to-fluent-syntax step can be stated succinctly (if densely) as: 'the frequent use of Darwin Machines in the frontal lobe (mostly ballistic movement planning) leads finally to the achievement of cortico-cortical coherence in the arcuate fasciculus and a spatio-temporal code common across the cortex, so that, in throwing-free moments, embedded phrases and clauses can be handled in other Darwin Machines at some cortical distance from the one for the symphonic sentence, fully assembled'."

Bickerton takes over three chapters later and tops it off with a grand theory in a 30-page appendix: "I shall try to show that the core phenomena explained by a Chomskyan universal grammar can be derived directly from the exaptation of a social calculus, plus a theta-role hierarchy, the Baldwin effects of the exaptation, and a procedure for joining meaningful units."

Faced with such a jungle of jargon, one may find it difficult to resist the suspicion that this is a send-up of modern linguistic theory,  à la Alan Sokal. There are veiled hints, such as Calvin commenting on his flash of bocce inspiration: "A series of hundred-dollar words, if there ever was one." And Bickerton closing his appendix by stating two "conditions of binding", which he numbers sequentially with examples, so that "Mary wanted John to leave" is on the same level as "Anaphora are bound by prior attachments and/or by the nearest final attachment."

There are also broader hints that tongues are in cheeks. For instance, Bickerton presents two trees for "John kissed Mary", one ternary, which he claims is "proto-language", the other binary, which he claims is "language with syntax", when they are in reality topologically equivalent and a structureless (syntaxless) sentence should be represented by a disconnected graph. And he attributes well-known properties of normal languages to proto-languages. Thus proto-languages, he says, make do with nouns (eg "top") for want of prepositions ("on") - a feature that happens to be common to every Polynesian language I know: "jump Teroro to-top to-boat" is what you say in Polynesian.

Although the accumulated weight of these titbits does suggest a hoax, many of them could be artefacts of serendipity. Some definitely are: for example, the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni really exists, even though it sounds like it might be bogus, a pun on Villa Cervelloni ("Villa Big Brains"). So what is the truth of this book? I confess to puzzlement. As Mae West never said to W. C. Fields: "Is that a tongue in your cheek, or is it just your cortex happy to see me?" "A tongue, it is a tongue: lingua. Down to my chin, hey! ex ma-chin-a."

Jacques Guy is an Austronesian comparative linguist and computer scientist.

Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain

Author - William H. Calvin and Derek Bickerton
ISBN - 0 262 033 2
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £16.95
Pages - 298

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