Alexander Clark and Shalom Lappin

Linguistic Nativism and the Poverty of the Stimulus

Wiley-Blackwell 2011

New Books in LanguageNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books Network June 8, 2012 Chris Cummins

In linguistics, if a book is ever described as a “must read for X”, it generally means that (i) it is trenchantly opposed to...

In linguistics, if a book is ever described as a “must read for X”, it generally means that (i) it is trenchantly opposed to whatever X does and (ii) X will completely ignore it. Alexander Clark and Shalom Lappin, Linguistic Nativism and the Poverty of the Stimulus (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) is described, on its dust-jacket, as a “must read for generative linguists”. Apparently generative linguists have so far taken the hint. This is a great pity, as this book is not only very pertinent, but also succeeds in eschewing most of the polemical excess that tends to engulf us all in this field.

It’s not an easy book. This interview reflects that – we range from fairly general historical and philosophical observations to some rather technical results in learnability. But I think it gives some sense of what the enterprise is about. Alex Clark describes it, at one point, as an exercise in clearing the ground – and it succeeds in sweeping away certain comfortable assumptions that are often made in this area, concerning (for instance) the irrelevance of negative evidence, what languages are provably unlearnable, and the role of the Chomsky hierarchy.

The book itself covers much of this territory in quite an accessible and systematic way. Here we proceed a bit more rapidly. If it gets too much, I recommend hearing the last ten minutes or so, for some interesting and provocative speculations on how linguistics has taken its current form, and what could or should be happening in the future.

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