Language on the Fringe 4 – Babytalk!

This review article first appeared in: Skeptical Adversaria 4 (2008), 5-6

Reproduced with permission

Linguists differ as to the degree to which we humans are ‘hard-wired’ for language. Read a Chomskyan text and you’ll find the view that we are conceived with a huge, rigid and very largely species-uniform raft of general principles and constraints. Individual languages are merely built on these foundations, and even unrelated languages cannot differ structurally as much as one might expect or as much as they may superficially appear to differ. Read the British linguist Geoff Sampson for the contrary idea that we acquire languages through our general analytical intelligence and that they can vary within considerably wider limits.

The acquisition of specific languages, naturally, occurs mainly some time after birth. For instance, much of babies’ linguistic behavior is not tied to the specific languages used around them, notably in the ‘babbling’ stage where they try out a wide range of sounds, some found only in languages which they will never hear used. And infants brought up bilingually take some time to realise that two distinct systems are involved. On the other hand, there is now empirical evidence that as neonates and even in the womb we can already distinguish between different phonemes produced by our mothers and by others talking within earshot.

Fringe ‘linguists’ go well beyond this. For instance, David Oates, the promoter of ‘Reverse Speech’, holds that infants learn to construct sentences which construe and are meaningful backwards even at an age when they cannot yet do this in forward speech! As Jane Curtain and I (and other researchers) have found, the evidence for RS generally is highly dubious, to say the least – and ‘infant RS’ is one of the most suspect aspects of the theory! The reversals ‘found’ by Oates in infant speech have not been phonetically verified, and they often involve spatial and other concepts which young children have clearly not yet acquired. (Of course, even the early forward speech of infants is often over-interpreted by doting parents!)

There are also ‘psychics’ who sidestep the evidence involving actual speech and assert that they can communicate telepathically with babies. Skeptical psychologists Chris French and Krissy Wilson tested the ‘powers’ of one such in 2007; he also took on the James Randi Challenge. In both cases he failed miserably. (In future instalments I’ll talk about other issues of this kind, involving a) people who cannot communicate unaided and b) intelligent non-human animals such as African grey parrots.)

The Chinese non-discovery of the world in the 15th Century

Many readers will be aware of Gavin Menzies’ books 1421 and 1434, in which he argues for the view that Chinese navigators led by the famous admiral Zheng He explored as far as Australasia and even the Americas in that period. Some Chinese scholars and even the Beijing government have embraced his ideas out of nationalistic fervour; but the evidence for all this is by no means as strong as Menzies claims. His use of linguistic data, in particular, is flawed in the same way as that of most other amateur enthusiasts (non-standard etymologies based on the equation of unsystematically and superficially similar words in Chinese and far-flung languages). Even on simple linguistic facts, Menzies is often astray, relying on unqualified sources. For instance, he writes that Malayalam is a ‘dead’ language; it is in fact spoken today by tens of millions in Kerala in southern India and in a substantial diaspora.

Like many other thinkers of this kind, Menzies is not really interested in scholarly criticism. He says in correspondence: ‘I would be prepared to answer questions but am not prepared to answer the critics, because I think they are activated by malice, need psychiatric help and are extremely ignorant about the language and history of China … We have an old saying “don’t wrestle with chimney sweepers nor [argue] with lunatics”…’! Some might apply this saying to his own views; but I did ask him some questions about the evidence for his claims about language matters. He pointedly failed to respond.

Mayan doomsday imminent?

Many non-mainstream thinkers are currently focusing on the now familiar fact that the 5000-year Mayan ‘Long Count’ reaches an end-point in December 2012. In a recent book, Daniel Pinchbeck presents an unusually complex case for the genuine significance of this crisis. He follows the eccentric Jose Arguelles, and argues that Mayan ideas about the upcoming changes coincide not only with similar traditions in other, supposedly unrelated cultures but also, dramatically, with modern scientific notions. Humanity, he says, should modify its world-view so as to be ready for these changes and to move into a radically different future, embracing ecological imperatives (no?!) and accepting overtly spiritual aspects of existence.

Predictably, Pinchbeck’s presentation is often fatally one-sided. He simply accepts the reality of spiritual entities and paranormal phenomena; and he displays exaggerated respect for ‘deep ecological’ thinking, for traditional myths and for earlier fringe writers. It seems highly unlikely that a major crisis specifically centred on December 2012 really looms!

Update on the Phaistos Disk!

The recent conference in London was a success. We are urging the Greek authorities to allow thermo-luminescence dating of the Disk, and if this occurs we are to gather again in Crete in 2010 to discuss the outcome. Watch this space!