A Linguist's Nightmare: Being Cited By Safire

Leila Gleitman is a linguistics professor at UPenn. This is what she posted in May, 1994, to the LINGUIST List on the subject of being cited by Safire.

I believe the worst nightmare for any linguist would come in these three parts:

  1. being cited by William Safire in the NY Times
  2. being cited approvingly by William Safire in the NY Times
  3. being cited approvingly as claiming the opposite of what one has claimed by William Safire in the NY Times

These three nightmarish events happened to me (and my collaborators, Henry Gleitman and Elissa Newport) this week...

Safire gave us credit for coiningg the term "Motherese," true enough. But if his sensitivity to language use is what he cracks it up to be, he should have realized that the name has, to say the least, a whimsical ring. He went on to laud us for thus having championed (and "proved") the so-called modern so-called correct interactionist view of language acquisition in which your mother can be thanked on Mother's Day for teaching you proper grammar. Probably this is our own fault: We did acknowledge in a fit of enthusiasm that Greek children learn Greek while French children learn French. I now regret this concession but it seemed harmless enough at the time. Safire leaves aside that we mentioned as a much more awe-inspiring feature of language-learning that all of the babies in the house acquire their language while none of the pets in the house do the same (these latter acquire Doggerel instead).

Our view was contrasted by Safire with the damnable one that "language is innate," attributed by him to Steve Pinker owing to the latter's recent book. As most of you know, Newport, Gleitman, and Gleitman spent a decade of their lives disproving the widely acclaimed notion that Mothers present you with your language knowledge along with your ice cream and your apple pie. Had the facts turned out differently we would have entitled this speech register "The Sweet Music of the Species" (following Darwin) rather than "Motherese."

It is amazing to me that both the commonsensical and evidentiary demonstrations from Chomsky, Lenneberg, Wexler, and indeed a generation of linguists, neurolinguists, and psycholinguists regarding a significant innate endowment for language fail to penetrate the belief systems of our brothers and sisters of the literary persuasion, especially those whose posh nursery schools inculcated in them certain posh dialects of English.


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