The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Why Do We Talk?

I don't watch a huge amount of TV, but I do enjoy a good documentary. Wildlife programmes are my favourites, but I'll watch stuff about science, medicine, history, anthropology, even a bit of politics or economics if I'm in the right mood. So when my boyfriend pointed out a documentary about language on BBC2 last night - Horizon: Why Do We Talk? - it seemed worth a watch.

I did enjoy it, but I also found it enormously frustrating. It seemed to skip from one topic to another with only the most tenuous links, it confused completely separate areas of research (in particular, the two very different issues of how we physically produce speech sounds and the processing of language in the brain) and it all felt like it added up to a rather misleading picture of what we know about why - or more importantly, perhaps - how we talk. I guess it's the same though with any 'popular science' on television and I'm sure that biologists and zoologists shout at the TV during some of my favourite wildlife programmes.

I think my mood wasn't improved by the appearance of Noam Chomsky, probably my least favourite linguist, spouting his ideas about knowledge of a basic language structure being innate. I know it sounds like a perfectly reasonable idea, but after two years of studying Transformational Syntax as a Linguistics undergraduate, I came to hate Chomsky. There were frustrating hours of trying to draw tree diagrams to represent sentence structure, trying to follow endless rules about where different elements could move to, followed, in my final year, by the great man's admission that in fact there were an endless number of movement rules and his subsequent abandonment of the whole theory!

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