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Diversity driven but cognitively constrained: Boas meets Chomsky (Response to commentators)
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Diversity driven but cognitively constrained:
Boas meets Chomsky (Response to commentators)

1. Introduction

We would like to begin by thanking de Reuse, Dryer, and Haspel-math for their thoughtful and constructive replies to our target article (Davis et al. 2014) on how best to uncover linguistic diversity. All three of our respondents point out that there is a considerable amount of common ground between researchers from the generative linguistic tradition and those who fall within the descriptive-typological tradition. We concur, and also agree that since many of the differences are more sociological than intellectual, the field is better served by constructive engagement than by indulging in doctrinal disputes.

Nevertheless, there are still important methodological and theoretical differences between the two traditions. Our main purpose in this final summary is to try to sort out the more substantive differences from those that are largely rhetorical; in doing so, we hope to shed more light on the crucial issues, without at the same time generating more heat.

2. C-linguists vs. D-linguists: what is the debate really about?

Our original article was partly motivated by the necessity to refute certain widely propagated myths, such as the claim that linguists who work within a ‘Chomskyan’ tradition (‘C-linguists’) choose ‘off-the-shelf categories arising from specific grammatical traditions, and foist them on all languages’, a move that ‘typologists and descriptivists deplore … not only because it does procrustean violence to the basic data, but also because it pre-empts the discovery of new categories and new patterns’ (Levinson & Evans 2010: 2739; henceforth L&E). As we argued previously, this kind of rhetoric does a disservice not only to the many C-linguists who engage in primary fieldwork on underdescribed languages, but also to the discipline as a whole, by widening existing fissures and needlessly exaggerating ideological differences.

In their responses to our article, de Reuse (2014), Dryer (2014), and Haspelmath (2014b) all attempt to repair the damage brought about by such sweeping pronouncements. All three acknowledge that useful crosslinguistic work has been and is being done within both traditions, and all three believe that methodologies from both sides are useful in the discovery of linguistic diversity. They also all agree that scientific hypothesis testing is just as vital a component of research on individual languages for D-linguists as it is for C-linguists, a point that we readily acknowledge.

However, differences remain. Here, we highlight three areas where we think there are genuine points of contention, or at least where the two approaches diverge considerably in emphasis. The first two are methodological: one concerns the role of grammatical intuitions (§3), and the other the right way to construct an effective large-scale grammatical typology, with particular reference to the World atlas of language structures (WALS; Dryer & Haspelmath 2013) (§4). The third area concerns the nature of hypothesis testing and the difference between what Haspelmath characterizes as ‘a priori categories’ and his ‘comparative concepts’ (§5). In exploring these areas, we touch upon [End Page e127] most of the specific points made by our respondents; we deal with residual issues in §6, and conclude in §7.

3. Methodology and the role of grammatical intuitions

In our target article, we mention ‘a commitment to the use of grammatical intuitions’ as a key component of the C-linguistic approach to exploring linguistic diversity (p. e182, n. 1). Both de Reuse and Haspelmath take us to task on this point by observing that D-linguists, too, routinely make use of intuitions; they thereby claim that there is no substantive difference between the two camps on this point.

While conceding that in practice most D-linguists do make use of intuitions, our impression is that they do so reluctantly and often only as a last resort, when textual resources fail. In fact, despite de Reuse’s claims to the contrary, some of the more rigid neo-Bloomfieldian descriptivists refuse to employ direct elicitation techniques at all, even to fill in straightforward inflectional paradigms. One notable example among Pacific Northwest linguists is the late Salishan scholar Aert Kuipers, whose grammars of Squamish (Skwxwú7mesh) and...