When linguistics does not seem to be a science


An interesting essay by Arika Okrent has appeared in Aeon – Is linguistics a science? It concerns the central position of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar to modern Linguistics, and revolves around a story in Tom Wolfe’s book The Kingdom of Speech (2016), Everett’s discovery of the Pirahã culture’s (and language’s) emphasis on the here and now: not embedding one phrase inside another, the simple kinship system, lack of numbers, and absence of fiction or creation myths. Some excerpts of the essay:

This looks suspiciously like defiance of a central feature of the scientific archetype, one first put forward by the philosopher Karl Popper: theories are not scientific unless they have the potential to be falsified. If you claim that recursion is the essential feature of language, and if the existence of a recursionless language does not debunk your claim, then what could possibly invalidate it?


In an interview with Edge.org in 2007, Everett said he emailed Chomsky: ‘What is a single prediction that universal grammar makes that I could falsify? How could I test it?’ According to Everett, Chomsky replied to say that universal grammar doesn’t make any predictions; it’s a field of study, like biology.


By contrast, good theories or hypotheses are those that allow you to search for contrary evidence. Thus Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity made a very specific prediction about the effect of gravity on light, which could be subsequently tested during the solar eclipse of 1919. Unlike astrology or Freudianism, relativity could be contradicted. It was possible to conceive of an observation that would conflict with one’s expectations (although the eclipse ultimately vindicated Einstein). The capacity to be disproved is what makes general relativity scientific.


In Chomsky’s formulation, we are not just after a set of abstract rules that account for the things we can see and hear, but one that explains why they are the way they are. In the late 1970s, Chomsky began to refer to this method of enquiry as the ‘Galilean style’


Chomsky’s Galilean vision was that our intuitive judgments about language stem from an innate language faculty, a universal grammar underlying the human capacity for language. His project is to determine the essential nature of that universal grammar – not the nature of language, but the nature of the human capacity for language. The distinction is a subtle one.

Regarding the pseudoscience claims about Linguistics, or in this case Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, and the common answer to such criticism of linguistic abstractions by their authors (asserting that they can be “neither right nor wrong” but only “fecund or sterile”), they reminded me of an old XKCD comic which sums up this line of reasoning quite well:

To Dmoz or not to Dmoz, that is the question…

Firstly, I am not a SEO expert. In fact, I am rather bad knowing how the WWW (not to talk about the Internet as a whole) works.

A year ago a (geek) friend of mine told me that to be on the Open Directory Project (Dmoz) was cool to promote our project of Indo-European Language Revival. Now I know that (obviously) it’s mostly a question of Pagerank and Google.

A year ago I sent what we had, our website dnghu.org, which was scarce in its original content, although it was not under construction, and it offered already some material on the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction; it followed all rules for site suggestion, even the appropriate category: Proto-Indo-European.

A year ago I found some websites in the Proto-Indo-European category, which were already for 2006-2007 a bad suggestion for knowing/learning Indo-European; there were/are still some other very good ones, like the Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, the Indo-European Roots index, the interesting Piotr Gasiorowski’s site, an article on Kurgan Culture, and indeed Kortlandt studies.

There are also some (apparently) simple HTML web pages with an original article on it – i.e., a one-page research of someone (or some) who preferred to publish their personal opinions or reflections about PIE (or its dialects, as the page on Illyrian) online.

The rest of it, i.e. those “summaries” of PIE, and “demonstration” websites, were maybe good in 1998, when we only had that kind of introductory stuff in the net. But now, most of them have little content concerning the actual PIE reconstruction, and some are even still under construction (¡?).

I have sent again our site – I think more than one year after the first time. I don’t know why our site was rejected then – unfortunately, editors at Dmoz face probably too many requests for inclusion to answer them all -, but, really, if our resources on Proto-Indo-European aren’t for them as good to be listed at least among those ‘introductions’, I can only think of these answers:

1. There are no editors for that section. If that’s the case, I could become an editor myself to delete some deprecated stuff and add dnghu.org – and maybe other pages (like TITUS) not included in this category, but elsewhere on Indo-European languages; it doesn’t sound like ‘fair play’ to me, though, but I think it could anyway save all Google users from this stuff

2. The editor/s are owners of those websites, edited them and don’t want/have time to edit anymore – it could be, but most of them don’t show any ads, so the benefit doesn’t exist – but for the American Heritage Dictionary, which shows a link to a rather simple summary of PIE apart from its main Root index, both of them in the same website. In any case, to reveal the actual identity of those involved couldn’t hurt anyone (if properly advised to all of them), and it could save us some unuseful thinking.

3. There are editors, and they are not related to those websites, but no one is willing to add a website like an “Indo-European Revival Association” to that linguistics section – in that case, they should re-read what the web suggestion says and what is said about the appropriate category to choose : Even if what we proposed were an artificial language, a ‘conlang’ (which is not), what we offer in our site is still the same as those sites on Proto-Indo-European: free online resources about the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language.

Anyway, I couldn’t be annoyed, even if it was worth it to be in Dmoz at any price; because I myself work in what I like (i.e. PIE resources) for free, and I do what I can the best I can. And I hate when people just criticize how bad this or that free resource of ours is, and don’t even try to help us improve it. ODP people are just doing their best since 1998, and it’s still a good place to look for other content – that which is not found with a simple Google search.

My thanks to them for achieving that.

PD- Btw. I thought about writing this post after reading this thread in their forum, where some ODP editors answer complaints like those we’ve all had sometime about the work in a free collaborative project like theirs.