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Dec 20 2010 Published by under Forget What You've Read!

Here, dear readers, is a hilarious review of Gregory Sampson's "The Language Instinct Debate" from humorist and Amazon "top 1000" reviewer Olly Buxton.  There's politics; there's drama; and it is delightfully droll!  (Steve Pinker and Noam Chomsky also make appearances).

Olly gave the book a five-star rating and titled this review, "The sound of leather on willow floats across the village green."

"There's nothing better than seeing an overconfident favourite getting a proper seeing to from an unfancied underdog.

All the same, when best-selling MIT and Harvard-credentialised psycho-linguist Steven Pinker's book "The Language Instinct" - a work feted far and wide and rarely challenged in polite circles - is subjected to critical treatment by an curmudgeonly British professor from an unfashionable second tier university in the home counties, it is a hopeful chap indeed who thinks an upset might be on the cards.

Pinker, after all, has the weight of Noam Chomsky (self styled most important intellect on the planet) behind him, and rates consistently favourable mentions from the literary review sections of important newspapers and that peculiar clique of populist science writers (Dan Dennett, Alan Sokal and Richard Dawkins among others).

The best you could say for Sampson, on the other hand, is that he lacks profile: His tenure is at the University of Sussex - yes, there is one - and the profile he does have isn't the sort most people would want: as far back as 1977, Christopher Hitchens described him as "an academic nonentity who made various other incautious allegations [about Noam Chomsky's political views] and who later ... strolled into the propellers and was distributed into such fine particles that he has never been heard from again." Ouch.

That's all ancient history, though, and the pleasant surprise is that over the last thirty years the plucky little Britisher has made a full recovery from his encounter with the propellers and is in fine enough fettle to give said global linguistic superstar a good old-fashioned intellectual walloping. Even read alone, Pinker's book is built on a wobbly edifice, but with Sampson's expert guide, it looks positively idiotic. Sampson is systematic: he sets up each of Pinker's arguments (such as they are), represents them fairly (I read Pinker's original concurrently to check) and then, like a gentleman cricketer on the village green dispatches each of them deftly to the boundary through extra-cover.

I'm really not sure why Geoffrey Sampson's book hasn't received more attention: possibly the author's history (he seems to made a number of "incautious" political statements over his life and doesn't seem to be the recanting type), but also because it swims bravely against an intellectual tide: Sampson is - though I don't think he expressly says it - a relativist:

"What the language learner is trying to bring his tacit theory into correspondence with is not some single, consistent grammar inhering in a collective national psyche, the sort of mystic entity that a sociologist such as Emile Durkheim would call a "social fact". Rather, he is trying to reconstruct a system underlying the usage of various speakers to whom he is exposed, and these speakers will almost certainly be working at any given time with non-identical tacit theories of their own - so that there will not be any wholly coherent and irrefutable grammar available to be formulated"

Advocating relativism, as I think Sampson coherently and convincingly does, has the misfortune to be about as incautious as criticising Noam Chomsky these days, so perhaps Sampson's card is marked and that's that. All the same, the passage cited above is beautifully put, and by itself is more persuasive than Steven Pinker's whole book.

All the same, who's laughing now? Probably not G. Sampson esq., as he strolls from the wicket at stumps, having carried his bat valiantly, but not having managed to save the innings. But up on the grassy bank, this cricket connoisseur stand to applaud this stylish, defiant knock.

Well batted, sir.

Olly Buxton"

14 responses so far

  • "these speakers will almost certainly be working at any given time with non-identical tacit theories of their own – so that there will not be any wholly coherent and irrefutable grammar available to be formulated"

    I want to get this on a plaque for my desk at work. I can then point to it whenever I'm asked a grammar question and the other teacher says "That can't be right! We learned it a different way in school".

    • melodye says:

      We've done research on this subject actually! In one simple study, we found that literary and non-literary readers have different sensitivities to the distributions of words in English.

      What we did was take several high-quality fiction passages and manipulate some of the chunks (short word sequences) therein in a controlled way. For example, we might exchange "on the far side of the field" with "on the far part of the field." Both are technically 'grammatical' phrases, 'side' and 'part' are synonyms, and 'part' is actually a higher frequency word than 'side.' However, in terms of the overall 'chunk' frequency, "on the far side of the field" is actually way more frequent than "on the far part of the field" (you can test this using Google).

      We then tested whether literary and non-literary readers were sensitive to these kinds of manipulations. What we found was that when it came to fiction, only literary readers noticed (and disliked) these kinds of manipulations; non-literary readers actually preferred the modifications! The full explanation of this can be found in a draft article we currently have under review at Psych Science, but the basic idea is that because literary readers are exposed to literary writing, they become sensitized to the peculiar distributions of words in fiction; non-literary readers, who lack that exposure, don't.

      In other words, even native English speakers (and Stanford students, at that) develop different models of their language depending on exposure.

      I thought this was particularly interesting in light of this editor's rant about the mass appeal of Stieg Larsson's books. It may be that the "errors" she's picking up on, are errors only she (and other experts) would be sensitive to.

      Also brilliant (and problematic) in this regard is Donald Davidson's piece "A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs."

      • william e emba says:

        Geoffrey Pullum on Language Log has over a dozen posts on how megabestseller Dan Brown is such a horrible stylist. I find that I can almost never read such incompetent writing, and I've never given Dan Brown a try, and doubt I ever will. I was forced to listen to the opening of a Tom Clancy novel in a car ride, and between the stylistic incompetence and the technical incompetence I've never been tempted to give him a glance. I forced myself to read John Twelve Hawks Fourth Realm trilogy all the way to the end with great difficulty. I've read one Piers Anthony short story.

        Meanwhile, I find reading lots of modernist and postmodernist "unreadables" both possible and enjoyable. (Short list: all of Joyce and Beckett and Pynchon.) Even extreme reader-killers like Joseph McElroy and Michael Brodsky don't phase me, although I confess I am taking my good sweet time reading through their complete works.

        An example of someone in between is Elmore Leonard. His plots and dialogue are absolutely fantastic. It's the mundane sentences in between that are close to unreadably clunky. I'll read him once every other year.

        • melodye says:

          As you may already know, I have a huge crush on GP. --In the (innocent, I promise!) sense that I love what he writes and thinks about, and the adorable ways in which he attracts page views and commentary. I try to follow him and ML to the extent possible -- Language Log is certainly my most read 'blog' on the Internet. Er, or maybe that's The Superficial, but that's just because I have a terrible (read: 'teenage male') sense of humor 😉

          Like you, I have trouble reading a lot of popular authors. And it's similar for me with film; I find films with mediocre dialogue or illogical or overwrought plotlines to be borderline painful to watch, even if the visuals are stunning. I have this aching need to correct the author or scriptwriter, or to add back in complexity. (I get bored easily).

          While I'm likely not nearly as well read as you are, I do love the postmodern 'unreadables' like Pynchon and Joyce. At the same time, I have a real taste for 'simpler' writers (whatever that means) like Hemingway, Sebald, Bolaño and McCarthy. I'm even content reading Murakami, whose prose - at least in translation - is neither particularly refined, nor complex (though what his prose lacks in complexity, his narratives more than make up for...)

          I do wonder whether reading isn't a bit like any other skill. For example, if you played violin for years on end, it would fast become tiresome to continue playing tunes out of your first Suzuki primer. Reading Clancy or Brown is similar; they use short, simple sentences, canned phrases, and are highly repetitive. The stories are highly predictable and all follow the same genre conventions. For a less experienced (or simply lazy) reader, perhaps that's the right level of linguistic and narrative predictability.

          • william e emba says:

            Well, I don't consider Bolaño simple. (I've only read The Savage Detectives and 2666; I'll eventually read more.) I admit I'm relying on the English translations, and the power of these novels comes from many many levels. At the lowest level, his writing and characterizations are "simple", done with fantastic talent. But at the highest levels, he's riffing off of a half-century of Latin American literature, carrying it all to a new unimagined level. And he's doing it so well, readers can probably appreciate it without any previous exposure.

            On the other hand, I can appreciate predictable plotting--so long as it's done really really well. An example can be found in the Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe novels. The plots unwind in an almost entirely predictable manner: with great difficulty, Wolfe figures out who is lying, confronts them, and forces out the truth. Which turns out to a big red herring, and he's back to square one, and it's the second time around that he figures out whodunnit. In between, Wolfe is irritated and Goodwin is irritated back and so on and so on. Yet I found maybe two or three of the novels were subpar, the rest were excellent, with many of them being absolutely fantastic. The appeal was never the plot, it was 100% the characters.

            There's no one rule I can spell out. I also try and force myself to be open to appreciation in ways that I did not know I was supposed to have. Sometimes it works. I remember reading Ringworld and Ringworld Engineers, and having no idea what the award-winning appeal of the first novel was. The second at least had a mildly interesting plot. On-line discussion cleared things up: ooh, the Ringworld, it's big big big!!! I had noticed of course, but I wasn't aware I was supposed to enjoy that as such. OK, I learned and I adjusted my tastes.

            I am sometimes the opposite of you with great or brilliant visuals. They can get me to overlook the sins of average/predictable plotting/acting. The Wizard of Oz style 2D/3D transition trick in Tron:Legacy simply blew me away. All was forgiven.

        • melodye says:

          The format of Scientopia won't let me continue to comment, so I will reply to your first comment again, though I mean to give comment to your second.

          When I say I find Bolaño 'simple' I only mean his prose style. And I mean 'simple' in terms of how easy the words are to read off the page; if you plucked a sentence of his out of thin air, it would likely be short, fluent, and laced with (relatively) high frequency words. In 2666, in particular, the complexity of his task (unimaginable) and narrative are not in question.

          Like you, I've read The Savage Detectives and 2666; 2666 has got to be one of the most complete works of fiction I've ever read. It is so fully and richly imagined! I've always thought that part of the wonder of that novel was its sheer length, and the immersive quality it took on after reading for hours and hours - or over periods of days or weeks, depending. This is particularly so w/r the eminently unreadable "Part about the Crimes," on which the novel turns. (It always seemed to me that everything I ever understood about the novel came out of the experience of reading those pages.)

          I'm not familiar with Stout, McElroy or Brodsky, but have duly noted them in my to-read blackbook. I'm also curious what you were talking about with Tron, which --admittedly-- I found wildly amusing. (Particularly the disco-fight sequence.) 3-D glasses give me eye headaches, and much of the movie was in 2-D, so I was constantly taking off my glasses, and must have missed the trick!

          • william e emba says:

            Among the many things to like about 2666, what particularly enchanted me was the circular way a minor character in each part was the main subject of the next part, cycling back to the beginning. Normally such games are annoying, but Bolaño made it work in an essential way.

            Long novels that I think succeeded very well with "simple" writing and ought to be way better known include Carey Harrison Richard's Feet and Harry Mulisch The Discovery of Heaven. In both novels, you really don't even know what the plot is until well past half the book. Meanwhile, the prose and characters are electrifying, and so you don't really care. In looking at my (second) copy of RF just now, I was astonished (considering whom we were talking about) to discover that it was inscribed in 1997 with admiration by the author to one "Roberto", whom CH calls a great poet.

            Stout is classical EZ-read. My point was simply that despite large aspects of the plotting being highly predictable, this didn't detract from my enjoyment at all. What, Nero Wolfe is having his 45th consecutive hissy fit over something truly unimportant? Go, go, go! And Archie Goodwin is again coping with it full snark on? More, more, more! Pure enjoyment.

            Joseph McElroy is a reader-killer in that his prose is flat as flat can be. Not a touch of poetry. Boring simplicity that requires stamina and patience, but which rewards in the long run. He pushed this to his ultimate in Plus, his short science fiction "novel" telling its story entirely via the sentence fragments of a disembodied consciousness. It manages to be even more paralyzing (and a lot less readable) than Samuel Beckett How It Is, a trick I didn't think possible.

            Michael Brodsky is a reader-killer in the opposite direction. His prose is intensely complicated and exciting quaprose. His vocabulary is so dense that you need at least three unabridged dictionaries by your side for almost every paragraph. His syntax is straight out of the worst of deconstructionist excess. And his fiction does have "plots", but not in any normal sense. If anything his work is primarily algebraic in character, what with title character Xman (my introduction to Brodsky: I purchased my copy without hesitation because it had Mark Beyer artwork and the publisher consisted of the good people who fled Grove Press when it cratered) and even more so in *** (yes, that's the title, three asterisks) where the subject of the novel is indeed ***, about which we learn of solely by inference.

            Well, I thought Tron:Legacy had silly acting, endless swipes, giant plot holes, and worse. Par for the course, but the 3D graphics were fantastic (I had no problems watching) and perhaps would have won me over. I'll never know, because what made my day, as I said too briefly, was the Wizard of Oz trick. WOZ was filmed in black-and-white for the mundane world, and color for Oz. T:L was filmed in 2D for the mundane world, and 3D for the grid.

  • Oh but wait- Pinker's The Language Instinct rarely challenged? Not so. Primatologists, anthropologists, psychologists... the list is long of challenges to the innatist school of language acquisition. Connectionists, dynamic systems theorists, and social constructionists all challenge PInker. I convened an interdisciplinary seminar at the School for American Research in Santa Fe and our resulting volume in the Advanced Seminar Series called The Origins of Language includes a set of responses to Pinker from 1999. Far more famously, Michael Tomasello's work answers Pinker and he has a hugely scathing review of the book itself from 1995 called Language is not an Instinct. I could go on....It's great to read about Sampson and I appreciate this post a lot, just want to correct any notion that it's a rare strike against this book.

    • melodye says:

      Wow, thanks for commenting Barbara! I would have loved to attend that conference and I'll be sure to look out for the volume. I avidly follow Tomasello's work and have read his books; perhaps a posting on his theoretical stance is in order?

      The one thing I might add is that while many people are unhappy with Pinker (and question both his science and his arguments), he is still an incredibly powerful and influential figure in the field, and has captured much of the popular imagination. --A fact that I find unfortunate.

  • PS Of course I realize (just to clarify) I'm not arguing back to you Melody but only with what you quoted. In appreciation of your post! Barbara

  • It is somewhat of a conundrum that an atheist could hold an innatist view of language. Seems like that, to an atheist, that would be a cold, dark place.

  • "Shecky R." says:

    thanks, enjoyed this... there was a young Brit I read in the mid-70s who did what I thought was a pretty good 'take-down' of Chomsky at the time, but it never caught on... it may have been Sampson, I can't quite recall (back in those days I was trying to take down Fodor/Bever 🙂

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