Shaking language to the core

[ Sat. Jun. 9. 2007 ]


NORMAL, Ill. -- To get some idea of the brouhaha currently enveloping linguists, occupants of a usually quiet corner of the ivory tower, suppose a high-school physics teacher found a hole in the theory of relativity.

Students of language consider Noam Chomsky the Einstein of their discipline. Linguistics is a very old science, but beginning in the 1950s, Chomsky so revolutionized the field that linguists refer to the time prior to his work as B.C., or before Chomsky.

They may have to add another marker: A.D., after Dan.

Daniel Everett, a faculty member at Illinois State University, has done field work among a tiny tribe in the Amazon. He reports that their obscure language lacks a fundamental characteristic that, according to Chomsky's theory, underlies all human language.

With that declaration, Everett pitted himself against a giant in the field, and modest ISU against the nation's elite universities. In the process, he drew national attention to this arcane field and enveloped scholars around the world in a battle that plays out over and over in -- this is academia, after all -- conferences and seminars. ...