Sunday, November 18, 2012

Show for Nov 18, 2012. Geoffrey Nunberg and Ascent of the A-Word.

Oh sure I could trot out all sorts of cheap double entendres. I could describe the linguist Geoff Nunberg as one of our most penetrating critics. I could say his book Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years opens a rear window on the last century of changing social norms, and that it’s a bravura feat of bottom-up cultural history. But people would think I’m being flip, when the praise is sincere. “The essay is at its best,” Geoff told me, “when you’re noodling over some really trivial thing and in the course of your thinking are led to all sorts of interesting insights.” So: Montaigne on friendship, Thoreau on walking, Chesterton on a piece of chalk, Barthes on steak and french fries, and Nunberg on “asshole.” Geoff and I talked about the word as insult and syndrome (“assholism”), its surprisingly recent emergence, its role in public life and its linkage to American notions of populism, authenticity and therapeutic self-awareness. This is the uncensored version of the original on-air broadcast, which may have set a record for bleepage on public radio.

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Show for July 8, 2012: Does Culture Drive Language?

It’s been about 50 years since Noam Chomsky conclusively established that the basic structures of human language are stamped in our brains, not gleaned from experience. Or… maybe he didn’t. Chomsky’s notion of an innate “universal grammar” fashioned by evolution has been hugely influential and has helped fuel the “cognitive revolution,” but there have always been doubters. While several generations of theoretical linguists have been diligently expanding the Chomskian program, another faction says there’s little or no evidence for UG and it’s time to scale back or even scrap the theory. Former innatist Daniel Everett is now part of the opposition. On last week’s show, I aired a 2007 interview with Dan talking about his adventures as a missionary-turned-Amazonian-linguist, and how he lost faith, first in Christianity and then in Chomskianism. This time, a new interview with Dan discussing his latest book, Language: The Cultural Tool. In it, he advances the idea that grammars and other aspects of particular languages are shaped by culture.


Dan Everett visiting a Pirahã village in the Amazon.

Click the Play arrow above to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Monday, July 2, 2012

Show for July 1, 2012. Iconoclast: linguist Daniel Everett.

Dan Everett is twice a heretic, having strayed from the path of Christian missionary to become a linguist, and then breaking with the dominant branch of theoretical linguistics led by Noam Chomsky. I did a report on Dan for NPR in 2007, but I never broadcast this longer interview, from which that piece was taken. I decided to air it now because Dan will be on the show next week, talking about his new book on the origins of language. The earlier interview provides the fascinating back story: how he went from rock n’ roller to missionary to Amazonian linguist, his years in the rain forest with the isolated Pirahã tribe, their anomalous language, and how he came to doubt Chomsky’s idea of universal grammar.

Click the Play arrow above to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Show for Dec. 18, 2011. Guy Deutscher: The Unfolding of Language (Rebroadcast)

Originally aired in Nov. 2010: Linguist Guy Deutscher on why language refuses to stand still, why the language “declinists” are wrong, and why resistance to linguistic change is futile. More info here.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Show for Nov 21, 2010. Linguist Guy Deutscher: Language Ain’t What it Used to Be (And Never Was)

Guy Deutscher discusses the restless, ever-shifting nature of human languages. Have languages gotten more complex or simpler over the centuries? Does improper usage threaten the integrity of language? How do grammatical systems arise? How much of our linguistic mastery is innate, and how much is acquired through experience?

In this conversation, we focused on the arguments Guy presents in his 2005 book The Unfolding of Language. We’re hoping to take up his most recent book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different In Other Languages in a future show. It’s been getting a lot of notice lately, thanks in part to this New York Times article.

Click the “play” arrow above to listen, or download the MP3 here.