Daniel Everett, known for challenging Chomskian orthodoxy by claiming to have found a human language lacking recursion – the Pirahã language of the Amazon – has a new book out: Language: the Cultural Tool. Accordingly, there have been a number of articles on the new book and on the Pirahã controversy more generally. The Chronicle of Higher Ed article is long and resolutely anti-Chomsky and Chomskians, pro-Everett; the NYT article is more impartial. But both describe the bitter battles and the disturbing level of animosity among linguists on both ‘sides’. A comment in the NYT article by Ted Gibson, a cognitive science having conducted a data-analysis study on the Pirahã language relying on data other than Everett’s, is quite revealing:
But to Dr. Gibson, who said he does not find Dr. Everett’s cultural theory of language persuasive, such responses reflect the gap between theoretical linguists and data-driven cognitive scientists, not to mention the strangely calcified state of the recursion debate.
“Chomskians and non-Chomskians are weirdly illogical at times,” he said. “It’s like they just don’t want to have a cogent argument. They just want to contradict what the other guy is saying.”
Either way, it is to be hoped that the days of linguistic research being conducted exclusively from the armchair in air-conditioned offices will finally come to an end.
UPDATE: Kai von Fintel alerts me to the fact that my final comment above may be read as implying that there has not been much fieldwork-based research in linguistics in the last decades, under the influence of the Chomskian program. That's not what I meant at all: fortunately for us all, fieldwork-based linguistics continued to thrive throughout. What I meant is that it is to be hoped that the lack of attention for data-collection in the Chomskian program will no longer be seen as acceptable.