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Competitive theories

There are a number of theories of both speech and language. I personally plump for Noam Chomsky’s current model of language, known as the Minimalist Program, and a rather confused situation with respect to speech because the field is currently dominated by a theory known as ‘Optimality Theory’ or OT. Like Chomsky, I think OT is profoundly mistaken.
I don’t think this sort of theoretical preference should be on the basis of numbers of adherents, or personal or ideological loyalty, or fashion, or ‘look and feel’, or the sound of the terminology, or any notion of intuitively obvious simplicity. I think that competition between theories is a matter of judgement about what is explained or correctly and non-trivially predicted, taking account of the primitives involved. This judgement is usually a very difficult one, as it is in this case.
Speaking just for myself, when I was a speech and language therapy student over 40 years ago, it seemed to me that the relevant professional literature was poorly informed by expertise in biology, linguistics, statistics, to name just three fields, none such that it could be mastered by a quick read of a student text-book or a chat with a more expert colleague. Already having an MA in Theoretical linguistics and a BA in sociology, both taught by leading experts, and studying biology as part of the speech and language therapy course, I was particularly worried by the general lack of interest or expertise in the three fields I have mentioned, all critical, in my view, then and now.
The reason I make the theoretical choices I do is that they seem to me to offer the best chances of making progress on what has seemed to me for the past 25 years the critical question of relating issues in the acquisition of speech and language to the process by which the faculty of speech and language evolved in the human species, what Chomsky now calls ‘evolvability’. In part this is a matter of primitives. Chomsky has always chosen to keep these as simple, abstract, and parsimonious as possible, in line with standard scientific practise in all fields. The fact that the argumentation for one particular position against another is often complex and subtle does not query the nature of the primitives.
But also I have to take account of the fact that in the various competitive theories, in OT, what is known as Lexical Function Grammar. Head driven Phrase Structure Grammar, Construction Grammar, there is relatively little interest in either evolvability or a broad perspective on acquisition. Even in the narrow area of my own research, informed at least to some degree by the work of Chomsky, what seems to me important evidence, such as children’s speech in general, is often dismissed in a way which seems to me both cavalier and ill-considered. And the question of evolution is often dismissed as too poorly evidenced to be worthy of discussion.
We all tread difficult and lonely furrows.

Published on July 26, 2022