Jenner – Christopher Hallpike (McMaster University)
Thanks for the interest in my article! I was informed by Academia.edu that one of my articles aroused your interest.
<So all languages aren’t equally complex after all.pdf>
Dear Dr Jenner,
I have learned a great deal from your paper, especially about the potentialities of Chomsky’s UG for machine translation, about which I knew nothing at all. Your analysis of the 6 questions that Chomsky tried to answer is particularly useful and informative. But I’m puzzled that you don’t refer to recursion at all, although Chomsky regards it as lying at the very heart of language. I was most surprised when researching my paper to find that in fact in the simpler languages there may be little or no recursion, which is why Everett’s publicity over the Piraha case caused such a stir, of course. In
There were also three little points: ‘Hallspike’ appears on p.3; ‘astrology’ in §6 should be ‘astronomy’
Where do you intend publishing your paper?
With best wishes
Dear Professor Hallpike,
thank you for the corrections – unfortunately I am still prone to make mistakes as I am my own editor. Of course, I am very pleased that my analysis of Chomsky seems to you plausible. I understand why you are surprised that a main feature distinguishing developed from less developed languages, namely recursion or embedding, is merely mentioned in passing (Men eating rice on Sundays tend to eat rice on Mondays as well). I now explain this by a short addition to the corresponding paragraph. Why I am reluctant to use the term “recursion” that plays so important a role in Chomsky’s theory is understandable only to those who read my “Principles” where the subject occupies a central role. In my view, Chomsky only provides a technical and superficial description of what can be defined exactly at the level of meaning – but there is no room for such a more profound explanation within the framework of my article.
Where do I want to publish the essay? I am quite at a loss to know or to say anything about that matter, because I don’t even like to look back on my linguistic „career“. In 1981, a habilitation thesis at Freie Universität Berlin, in which I presented my own thoughts on a General Grammar and my criticism of Chomsky, was rejected for formal reasons (only one of the reviewers agreed with my arguments). My following three publications (“Grammatica Nova”, “Prolegomena zur Generellen Grammatik”, and “Principles of Language” were practically ignored. My critics then proved that they were typical Germans in all their thoroughness. While “Gero Jenner” was still mentioned as a „linguist“ in Wikipedia during the nineties, this paragraph was afterwards deleted. At that time Chomsky was at the height of his fame – my criticism of him probably seemed preposterous. I then turned to other areas in my most recent work (Reflections on Reflections on Meaning and Purpose in History, which I published on Amazon in English), including your area, by the way. Then, two years ago, I happened to come across Steven Pinker’s „The Language Instinct“ by mere chance – and this work mobilized both my approval and my defenses. I wrote the four essays on „Meaning and Form“, on Pinker, (see also Correspondence), on Goldsmith and the last one as a reaction to your thoughts. But I am pretty sure that when offering the last article to some linguistic journal, nine out of ten would still reject it – so I think I should rather use the energy to find the tenth one for other tasks. That’s why I think it highly unlikely that my article will ever appear anywhere except in Academia.edu and on my website.
With kind regards
Dear Dr Jenner,
I’ll have a look at your Principles to see if, as a non-linguist, I can understand what you say about recursion. Sorry to hear about your publication difficulties. I have had the same in anthropology. Bigotry reigns supreme!
„The Goldsmith Paper“ (Prof. John Goldsmith, University of Chicago, and Dr. Gero Jenner, author of “Principles of Language”, criticize Chomsky’s Universal Grammar).
From: Dr. Gero Jenner, A-8182 Puch b. Weiz, Hohenilz 22, Österreich, Tel. 03177/2182, E-Mail: email@example.com
To: Prof. Dr. Steven Pinker, Harvard Department of Psychology, 970 William James Hall, 33 Kirkland Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, United States of America
- November, 2018
Presumably you react to your own works in the same way as most other people: what belongs to the past does no longer occupy one’s mind. I’m talking about your book „The Language Instinct“, which I believe to have understood particularly well as I have dealt with the subject in several books myself. However, I wrote them in a typical German way, i.e. very abstractly and with few examples, while you make a difficult subject understandable even for laymen in exquisitely vivid pages.
You ask the reader: „If thoughts depended on words, how could a new word ever be coined?” And you continue giving the question a more general form: „Are our thoughts couched in some silent medium of the brain – a language of thought, or „mentalese“ – and merely clothed in words whenever we need to communicate them to a listener?” Here too you provide the answer: „We end up with the following picture. People do not think in English or Chinese or Apache; they think in a language of thought“ – a language which you then call „universal mentalese“, while I speak of a „pure structure of meaning“.
However, „mentalese“ or „pure structure of meaning“ is certainly not an amorphous entity, since the human brain orders sensory impressions even before it translates them into a spoken language: „So even a wordless thinker does well to chop continuously flowing experience into things, kinds of things, and actions“. Precisely for this reason I speak of „substances, actions, qualities, etc. as the building blocks of a „pure structure of meaning“.
After defining „mentalese“ as a structured entity, you necessarily arrive at the conclusion that it must be distinguished from the acoustic waves or the written characters in which it manifests itself in a material form outside the human brain. „Knowing a language, then, is knowing how to translate mentalese into strings of words and vice versa.“ What you call translating “mentalese into strings of words“ I express in a similar way as „the formal realization of meaning“.
In several passages of your book, you refer to such translations. For instance, when you point to the fact that the choice of pre- or postpositions usually depends on whether the verb precedes or follows the object. „If a language has the verb before the object, as in English, it will also have prepositions; if it has the verb after the object, as in Japanese, it will have postpositions.” I believe that I succeeded in showing the formal constraints that make this law mandatory (Principles revised, p. 24).
Your book deals with the principles of language, that is to say the principles at the base of a general and generative grammar. It goes without saying that you owe a great dept to its modern founder, Noam Chomsky. I am, of course, just as much indebted to Chomsky. But in my – at that time still youthful – zeal, I was rather keen on emphasizing the peculiarity of my own contribution. Which explains why I emphasized the contrast with Chomsky.
I am sure you must have seen this contrast as well. For it is hard to contest that the pre-linguistic semantic categorization („So even a wordless thinker does well to chop continuously flowing experience into things, kinds of things, and actions“), which I call “semantic paratax” does not coincide with the “formal paratax” the surface level (i.e. “the formal realization of meaning”).
In English but not in Chinese, the formal category of „nouns“ comprises so different members as house, walking, heat, extraordinariness etc. So „noun“ turns out to be a language-specific formal category that linguists apply to different languages for the sole reason that nouns in English or any other language like Japanese share some common semantic classes (nouns share substances, verbs share actions, adjectives share qualities). The same qualification applies to the use of verbs and adjectives: they are language-speficic paratactic formal classes and thus unfit to figure as general categories.
It is for this reason, that I am an admiring follower of Chomsky so far as his search for the universals of language is concerned, while, at the same time, I definitely reject his method. Instead of making „mentalese“ (the pure structure of meaning) the basis of language and its true and only deep structure, he introduces terms that definitely do not have a universal content.
My first work on Universal Grammar called „Grammatica Nova“ appeared in 1981. It was ignored in Germany as were the following „Prolegomena zur Generellen Grammatik“ (1991) and „Principles of Language“ (1993). What William James had said about German scholars more than one hundred years ago remains true even at present. „The forms are so professionalized that anybody who has gained a teaching chair and written a book, however distorted and excentric, has the legal right to figure forever in the history of the subject like a fly in amber. All later comers have the duty of quoting him and measuring their opinions with his opinion. Such are the rules of the professorial game – they think and write from each other and for each other and at each other exclusively.”
As for myself, I had committed the unpardonable sin of not thinking nor writing for professoral collegues, so German linguists were united in paying no attention whatsoever to my ideas. They even saw to it that an entry in Wikipedia hinting at the existence of a linguist named Gero Jenner was subsequently deleted. Officially, I do not exist as a linguist. That’s what happens to outsiders who don’t perform the prescribed kowtows in front of self-declared German authorities.
The effect of such rejection was that after having written “Principles” I resolutely turned my back on linguistics – which explains why I didn’t even got to know “The Language Instinct”. Indeed, it was through my reading of your great books “The Blank Slate” and “Enlightenment”*1* that I finally became acquainted with your linguistic work. Only during the last year did I return to dealing with linguistic problems. I rewrote “Principles of Language” as “Principles revised” found on my Website (Principles of Language revised, (http://www.gerojenner.com/wpe/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Principles_revised_2017.pdf)).
1 I owe some important insights to the second book which I quote several times in my recent work „In Search of Meaning and Purpose in Human History” (http://www.gerojenner.com/mfilesm/MandP.pdf)