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Blog criado por Bruno Coriolano de Almeida Costa, professor de Língua Inglesa desde 2002. Esse espaço surgiu em 2007 com o objetivo de unir alguns estudiosos e professores desse idioma. Abordamos, de forma rápida e simples, vários aspectos da Língua Inglesa e suas culturas. Agradeço a sua visita.

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sábado, 26 de março de 2016

Noam Chomsky The theories of the world’s best-known linguist have become rather weird

FEW disciplines are so strongly associated with a single figure: Einstein in physics and Freud in psychology, perhaps. But Noam Chomsky is the man who revolutionised linguistics. Since he wrote “Syntactic Structures” in 1957, Mr Chomsky has argued that human language is fundamentally different from any other kind of communication, that a “linguist from Mars” would agree that all human languages are variations on a single language, and that children’s incredibly quick and successful learning (despite often messy and inattentive parental input) points to an innate language faculty in the brain. These ideas are now widely accepted.

Over the past 60 years, Mr Chomsky has repeatedly stripped down his theory. Some aspects of human language are shared with animals, and others are part of more general human thinking. He has focused ever more narrowly on the features of language that he reckons are unique to humans. All this has led to a remarkable little book, published late last year with Robert Berwick, a computer scientist. “Why Only Us” purports to explain the evolution of human language.

Other biologists, linguists and psychologists have probed the same question and have reached little consensus. But there is even less consensus around the world’s most eminent linguist’s idea: that a single genetic mutation created an ability called “Merge”, in a single human whom Mr Chomsky has called “Prometheus”, some time before the human exodus from Africa. That mutation was so advantageous that it survived and thrived, producing today’s 7,000 languages from Albanian to Zulu. But the vast differences among the world’s languages, Mr Chomsky argues, are mere differences in “externalisation”. The key is Merge.

But what is it? Merge simply says that two mental objects can be merged into a bigger one, and mental operations can be performed on that as if it were a single one. The can be merged with cat to give a noun phrase, which other grammar rules can operate on as if it were a bare noun like water. So can the and hat. Once there, you can further merge, making the cat in the hat. The cat in the hat can be merged with a verb phrase to create a new object, a sentence: The cat in the hat came back. And that sentence can be merged into bigger sentences: You think the cat in the hat came back. And so on.

Why would this be of any use? No one else had Merge. Whom did Prometheus talk to? Nobody, at least not using Merge. (Humans may already have been using cries and gestures, as many animals do.) But Merge-enabled, hierarchically structured language, according to Mr Chomsky, did not evolve for talking at all. Rather, it let Prometheus take simple concepts and combine them in sentence-like ways in his own head. The resulting complex thoughts gave him a survival advantage. If he then passed the mutant Merge gene on to several surviving children, who thrived and passed on the Merge gene to their children, Messrs Chomsky and Berwick believe that they must have then come to dominate the population of humans in Africa. Only later, as Merge came to work with the vocal and hearing organs, did human language emerge.

Many scholars find this to be somewhere between insufficient, improbable and preposterous. The emergence of a single mutation that gives such a big advantage is derided by biologists as a “hopeful monster” theory; most evolution is gradual, operating on many genes, not one. Some ability like Merge may exist, but this does not explain why some words may merge and others don’t, much less why the world’s languages merge so differently. (Not a single non-English example appears in “Why Only Us”, nor a single foreign language in its index.)

Mr Chomsky says those who disagree with his ever-more contentious ideas are either blind or hucksters. Critics refer to a “cult” of “acolytes” around a “Great Leader”, unwilling to challenge him or engage seriously with the work of non-Chomskyan scholars. (One critic has said “to be savaged by Chomsky is a badge of honour.”) Linguistics is now divided into a Chomskyan camp, a large number of critics and many more still for whom the founder of the modern discipline is simply irrelevant. He is unlikely to end up like Freud, a marginal figure in modern psychology whose lasting influence has been on the humanities. Mr Chomsky’s career is more likely to end up like Einstein’s—at least in the sense that his best and most influential work came early on.

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