... this is an expanding selection of pics and of some of my shorter pieces of writing ... and other bits and pieces ... in German and mainly English ... and other strange languages ... COME BACK AND CHECK IT OUT ... COMMENTS WELCOME


Saturday, December 25, 2010


A sign on an Ingolstadt wall ... small pockets of German RESISTance still exist in 2010 ...

Monday, October 25, 2010


Tomorrow will be the same but not like this

[based on the similar title of a painting by Colin McCahon]

I really, really wonder why

Why everything is as it is, when it is evident

That nothing much in planetary human affairs

Is - even by the Kantian Categorical Imperative - as it should be

The bad BBC news is ever more barbaric

Love in times of cholera blossoms anew in Haiti in 2010

Babies’ heads are cut off in Iraq

The terrible enemies terrorize each other all around the military globe

Who is leading whom by the noose or is it by the nose?

Who pays the piper, who pickles the media, who pollutes the minds?

Who runs the show which makes the most money?

Why are we paying the price in dollars when we count in Chinese?

I watch the world go by, faster and faster, like a race

I read the on-line bulletins by the minute, I check the latest Wikileaks

Everyone is passing me by, even old Chomsky

Should I laugh, should I cry?

Life goes on personally, privately, homely, mostly sunny in outlook

The crazy neighbour wants our cat to wear a bell

The local, apocalyptic supermarket changed its name to Countdown

I’ll bet you again, tomorrow will be the same but not like this

Friday, September 24, 2010


... written in Munich a long time ago ...

Like a decision made by coincidence
A gambling man
Stumbled upon the law of average
He didn’t change the world
But he knew
One in a billion is a lucky one

Like a game played by fate
A starving man
Was given a grain of rice
He ate and asked for more
Soon he died of hope

Like a poem written by a ghost
It wandered through the minds of many
Never won awards
Nobody ever saw the words

Like a change in fortune
One man rose to say what he meant
Next day he met with an accident
Not allowed to change


... written in Munich a long time ago and now possibly dedicated to you know who ... 

Hey Joe
Sittin’ on a street corner
Drinkin’ a bottle of beer
Thinkin’ of the time
When he was still alive
Well, you know
Hey Joe
He’s handed in his resignation
When he was twenty-five
Hey Joe
‘s getting’ late
Goes over to the bottle store
T'spend his last dirty dollar bill
Walkin’ back to his shack
Puttin’ down his weary head
Hey man, let’s give him a break
All he wants is a good night’s sleep
Dreamin’ of the time
When he was still alive
Well, you know, you know
Hey Joe
He’s handed in his resignation
When he was twenty-five.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010



... an entry from my Ms. THE ABC OF NEO-FEUDALISM

                                    © Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg

The cliché of German stultifying education is the Nürnberger Trichter whereby the student is indoctrinated via a funnel.

As such the Germans are clearly best prepared for neo-feudalism when it comes to education - they have never changed the system they inherited from the feudalism of old. Germany is one of the few countries that separate children, aged between 10 and 12 (depending in which state they live) into educational winners and losers. At year 10 (to 12) all German children are tested and/or are recommended by their teachers for various strands of further schooling, essentially a choice between low vocational (Hauptschule) and academic (Gymnasium). These are not just streams in a school - these are totally separate schools. If you are destined for the Hauptschule you’ve just been made a member of the Prekariat (see entry under class). A German education expert, Inge Kloepfer[1] (2008) wrote that ’the German underclass comprises some 20% of the total population, and that the offspring of this underclass congregate in the Hauptschule, and subsequently live of social welfare and criminal activities all their lives. In other words they make excellent serfs and fiefs for neo-feudalism.

In most other (typically Anglo-Saxon) countries that have a much later separation of education winners and losers, there is at least a token belief that children should have an equal chance in getting an education. Sure, the Germans can argue that in Anglo-Saxon countries there is another way to solve the class problem: simply separate the children even earlier at the beginning of the primary school cycle: send the upper class kids to private, so-called prep schools (i.e. to prepare them for entry into private high class high schools and colleges) while the rest of the school age population goes to ordinary primary/elementary schools and on through ordinary high schools and colleges that invariably fail students at academic subjects - shunting them into the vocational streams or total failure. Same outcome, sure, but slightly less systemic.

Furthermore a study (2008) conducted by the Mainz Gutenberg University[2] showed that when the German 10 year old pupil from the lower classes has grades as good as that for the pupil from the upper classes, the teacher will invariably recommend only the upper class student for the Gymnasium. The only really interesting point here is that universities typically conduct research into what is already well known by society - under the weird pretense that they reveal some sort of shocking social engineering, when in fact such research helps to reassure the ruling classes that all is well.

As someone who has taken part in both the German and Anglo-Saxon education systems, I am forever amazed by the hypocrisy displayed by the education elites and education bureaucrats - of any shade in the mainstream political spectrum - in that they commission and conduct endless research into why students from lower socio-economic classes perform so badly in the education system. Resulting education programmes such as Head Start, No Child Left Behind, Bridging the Gap and what-have-you, are all designed to level the playing field, to give everyone an equal chance, to be fair, to be democratic, to be proactive, even to employ positive discrimination - they assuage the minimal guilt felt by wishy-washy high class liberals but thankfully have no educational effect whatsoever. Low class schools have to sign up to these remedial programmes with great enthusiasm, low-class teachers have to work twice as hard - if at all - and school management provides glowing reports for the Ministry of Education and the Media that all is well, unbelievable progress is being made, working class students gaining entry to universities, and “democracy is coming to the USA” - as Leonard Cohen sings. So that the ruling classes do not get worried unduly over such reports there needs to be the occasional reality check such as the one done above - or just consult the education statistics of any country, thanks to UNESCO - and all is well again. I am looking forward to neo-feudalism where at least a spade is called a spade and where low class children expect nothing more and nothing less than becoming low class adults. It will be official policy (indeed under neo-feudalism we will not need a Ministry of Education at all, thank God). Under neo-feudalism you know various degrees of the elite by the school tie they wear. If they don’t wear any tie at all they are either in disguise or else true members of the underclass Prekariat - notice that the Prekariat cannot disguise themselves as wearing such ties because they never could afford one in the first place, and anyway, to wear a school tie under false pretenses is a capital crime.

1 The full interview can be accessed on Der Spiegel at http://www.spiegel.de/schulspiegel/wissen/0,1518,584417,00.html

2 The researchers also came up with the idea that teachers engage in ‘unbewusste Diskriminierung’ which in English one might either call sub-conscious discrimination’ or ‘unconscious discrimination’ - either way an oxymoron of the first grade; http://www.spiegel.de/schulspiegel/wissen/0,1518,577485,00.html

Monday, September 20, 2010


... occasionally I submit letters and opinion pieces to the editor of my local newspaper ... they never get published ... I wonder why?


The claim, by Lindsay Mitchell for the Business Roundtable (Herald, Wednesday, September 30, 2009), that “it is a fact that the more is done for people, the less they will do for themselves”, invites ridicule for inventing fictitious facts. Anyone handy with a learner’s dictionary will find that definitions for words and expressions like ‘help, to do something for someone, aid’ are based on the logical assumption that ‘help’ is an action transferred to those who cannot help themselves. The very idea of ‘helping oneself’ is of course also mired in ambiguity - a negative interpretation being something like ‘Bill English helped himself to a bit of extra income’. The notion that Maori - and Maori women in particular - help themselves to taxpayers’ help - help they do not deserve morally and ethically but are entitled to legally - is an old and worn bogeyman, again and again trotted out by New Zealand’s gentry who should look at their own luxury glasshouses before they throw stones. How much of taxpayers’ funds are diverted into subsidies, tax breaks, incentives, protection, R&D - all to boost corporate profits? Sure, these guys are good at monetary calculations: take a 100,000 or so DPB women at say an average of $500.- a week (wasn’t that a sum Paula Bennett disclosed?) and, bingo, five million dollars a week would be so much better spent on supporting the blue-chip import-export industries. If some 33,000 Maori women on the DPB cannot help themselves, let them eat cake, as Marie Antoinette would say.

For educational purposes let’s have a look at the other facts presented by Lindsay on behalf of the Business Round Table.

• numerous international studies show that numbers of children born outside marriage increase with increasing benefit payment

Citing studies requires references - it’s a fundamental requirement for Year 10 students doing their first research assignment. In the absence of any such references we are left to suspect that any statistical correlations of such sort can only be manufactured by the Business Round Table.

• the DPB has made fathering and fleeing commonplace and accepted

Another fantastic fact that has no basis in fact. Who has done a survey of Maori women who become pregnant so they can get on the DPB? Who has surveyed the 33,000 Maori men who fathered Maori children with the devious plan to flee from the scene? Show me at least 1,500 such men so as to make it a significant statistic.

• The taxpayer provides computers for the homes of poor children (many of which probably have SKY installed)

Where is the sample survey to support the ‘probability’ that ‘many’ homes of poor children have SKY installed? What does SKY have to do with computers other than to suggest that poor people waste all their money on SKY when they could buy a computer for their children instead?

• … (in the USA welfare rolls of female headed households) dropped from 35.6 per cent in 1991 to 25.4 percent in 2000 … but at 28.7 percent in 2008 …

With selectively and falsely applied statistics you can prove anything, including above attempt to show that the US welfare reforms of 1996 succeeded in alleviating poverty. Historical population statistics only make sense if the population number stays the same. A 10% poverty rate for one million people equates to 100,000. A poverty rate of 10% for ten million people equates to one million. Which one is worse? In any case, the much heralded welfare reforms so lauded by Mitchell have other statistics as well:

• Many people entered poverty wage work

– In 1997 median hourly wage of women leaving welfare was $6.61/hr

• 1/3 back on welfare by1997

• 1/4 were not working or with a partner working by 1997

• 1/4 former recipients reported in 1997 that they were too ill, disabled or unable to find work


No wonder President Obama is having a hard time to convince the American equivalents of the NZ Business Round Table that twenty million Americans without health insurance don’t just have themselves to blame. After all, to be poor is to be stupid - in NZ as much as in the USA. Now who was it that said that women of colour always end up at the bottom of the heap?

Friday, September 10, 2010


... from my Ms The ABC of Neo-feudalism

BRECHT, Bertolt

Only few writers/playwrights have used feudalist backgrounds for their stories/plays but none more strikingly than Brecht. His depiction of characters - be it the Good Woman of Setzuan or Mother Courage - span the transition of feudalism to capitalism as defined by Karl Marx (The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847, chapter 2):

    The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.

The peasant character as eulogized in the Russian and Chinese communist revolutions has never been understood in the Western contexts until Brecht brought them to life. Prior to Brecht even sympathetic depictions of peasants were far from simple heroics: the German writer and playwright Heinrich von Kleist (1777 - 1811) established a most ambiguous scenario with his Michael Kohlhaas as a character who leads a peasant revolt only to be defeated by his uncompromising quest for a minor piece of justice. As compulsory reading for generations of German schoolboys (and girls) it gave rise to the belief that peasants - German peasants at least - deserved a measure of social justice but that they should not be too ambitious in their quest and go as afar as wanting to overthrow the feudal system that sustained them. Brecht’s hero, Georg Büchner (1813 -1837) was perhaps the first to make a working class peasant, Woyzeck, the true hero of a play but there were still some suggestions that the protagonist had some shortcomings. As with Kohlhaas there was the uneasy question whether or not it is right to kill your oppressors (a theme that remains popular till today). Brecht’s peasants are good and intelligent people who never harm anyone even if their quest is opposed by murderous lords and ladies. The peasant as the true salt of this earth finds his voice only in Brecht’s plays.

It may not be a coincidence that Brecht selected far-eastern locales for his transitional peasant characters - e.g. Shen Te’s China for the Good Woman of Setzuan - for it happened only in China that anything approaching a real peasant revolution happened. While in previous revolutions elsewhere there was always much rhetoric about peasants, serfs and slaves being freed, it was basically the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie with more than a little help from disaffected upper classes - often in the shape of intellectuals - who usurped power.

Mao Tsetung in his 1927 Investigation of Peasant Movement in Hunan says that ‘a rural revolution is a revolution by which the peasantry overthrows the power of the feudal landlord class’ and he predicts:

   In a very short time, in China’s central, southern and northern provinces, several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane … they will smash all the trammels that bind them and rush forward along the road to liberation.

Mao Tsetung had sufficient foresight to align his Chinese Communist Party with these peasant movements and thus be swept to power ahead of them. When subsequently the drive to extract the peasantry from poverty and ignorance came to a standstill, Mao Tsetung’s leadership made the dreadful mistake to try to reduce the rest of the population to the status of the peasantry - via the ill-fated cultural revolution - thus violating the basic tenet of all revolutionary movements, namely to bring about a society that does not tolerate poverty and social injustice and where all citizens can enjoy a reasonable standard of living. To punish the upper classes by making them join the peasantry - as tried with disastrous consequences by the Pol Pot leadership in Cambodia - is a retrograde step that in no way helps the peasantry to escape the cruel bonds of a feudal system. If by analogy we would suggest that in order to eradicate disease we first make everyone sick, we would be clearly labeled insane.

China’s answer was of course - post-Mao Tsetung - to restore the old order and march towards pseudo-capitalist industrialization in the hope that the peasantry will transform into industrious and industrial working class heroes. As such China has caught up with the capitalist West but left to wonder if the change from being a peasant to being an industrial worker has brought any real social and economic advancement for the protagonists in question.

When Brecht - as many other writers/playwrights - tackles the capitalist and/or the communist working classes, he shifts his locales increasingly to the English-speaking bastions, the USA and England - and more specifically to Chicago and London - where the culture of gangsters best illustrates the booms and busts of modern capitalism. Brecht’s Three Penny Opera with its immortal lyrics of

                                       Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne

                                       Und die trägt er im Gesicht

                                       Und Macheath, der hat ein Messer

                                       Doch das Messer sieht man nicht.

epitomizes the capitalist system, its predatory base, its dog eats dog mentality and its hyper-competitive struggle to succeed at every level. We are all caught up, like it or not, beggar, tinker, candlestick maker, rich and poor, movers and shakers, pimps and prostitutes, prime ministers, queens and kings, presidents and circus acrobats - a Shakespearean theatre of the absurd, all idiot players on a global stage. Brecht who is embroiled in a triad of communism (Soviet-style), capitalism (American-style) and fascism (German-style) ultimately takes the most surprising step of all when fascism is defeated: he returns to communist-ruled East Berlin and stages his plays in the Berliner Ensemble.

In 1968, as a senior Gymnasialschüler in Bavarian Hohenschwangau, I took part in a school trip to West-Berlin, including a visit to East-Berlin to see a Brecht play at the Berliner Ensemble, namely Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui. The play is terribly famous in itself - at least for anti-fascist literati - but the personal experience of seeing it during the cold war was totally unique. In the first instance there was something very odd - if not schizophrenic - about the proposition that we, freedom loving Westerners, set foot in the evil empire to witness a great piece of art. As we were ushered through a maze of corridors penetrating the Wall, looked upon by East German border control with guns at ready, we entered a grim looking cityscape on the way to the Berliner Ensemble. No wonder, we thought silently, they all want to escape to the bright lights of the glorious West. Maybe Brecht - when still alive - and his entourage were held hostage, ever ready to set up shop in the West, on Broadway perhaps or on the East End - Munich even - where they could stun the free world with their anti-feudal plays, and make vast amounts of money in due course. Else you’d have to be pretty stupid not wanting to make heaps of money the easy way - or so we thought.

When the play opened - Arturo Ui - a dressed up Adolf Hitler delivered the prologue. We as West German students had never learnt anything about Hitler, the Nazis and WWII. Our teachers, especially the older ones, had lived through these times and yet they all acted as if these events had taken place on a different planet - and certainly without their knowledge. Our school’s director had been interred in India where he met Heinrich Harrer, the Austrian mountaineer who had escaped internment and fled to Tibet (his subsequent book Seven Years in Tibet was infamously made into a film with Brad Pitt). Harrer - as a celebrity - came to our school a few times and delivered speeches about how great it is to believe in high mountains and feudal lords in the shape of the Dalai Lama. Only in our last year at school did some of us find out that Harrer was an avid Nazi - and we suspected that our director and most of our teachers were too (the exception being the teachers that took us to the Berliner Ensemble). In our senior history class we had asked our teacher to let us do a project on the Holocaust - he refused. We clandestinely sent a letter to the Simon Wiesenthal Center and in return they sent us documentation that included the most horrific photographs from the concentration camps. We showed them to our history teacher who looked the other way and reported us to the director of the school who in turn warned us against ‘unlawful’ actions and threatened us with suspension.

It was thus quite a revelation to learn that an anti-fascist play like Arturo Ui was common fare in East Germany - and indeed was a hit around the same time in London with Leonard Rossiter - while in our Bavarian hinterland we were left blissfully ignorant of our German past. Those few of us who had vaguely participated in the political and cultural awakening of 1968 - we wore our hair long and began to experiment with drugs and read about anti-Vietnam War demonstrations - were just about ready to side with Brecht and refuse to return to the West. Still, there were a few aspects of the play we hadn’t figured out. If Arturo Ui as a Chicago gangster represented both Hitler and Al Capone, how come American and English audiences didn’t see such a connection as being highly alarming? Was fascism well and alive in the USA, England and most certainly in Bavaria and only opposed by Brechtian enthusiasts? If US gangsters represent an unadulterated but unlicensed mix of capitalism and fascism, can we deduce that the licensed system still reeks of fascism? Isn’t that what Brecht is warning us against?

Some 40 years later - and having read and seen a few more Brecht plays - I still haven’t found all the answers to these questions, except to say, were Brecht alive today, wouldn’t he be amazed by the slide back - or forwards - into neo-feudalism? Perhaps in the absence of any meaningful revolutions there is only this one pendulum of history that swings back and forth between the extremes of feudalism and capitalism?

Saturday, September 4, 2010




Just one more black night
Before the dawn of the red morning
Just one more fight
Before we see the light

We’re only dreaming
With a clenched fist
Holding on to some secret list

Meaning everything
That was left undone
For ages and ages
Waiting for that pause
And then
The slightly delayed rhythm
Of the blues



© 1975

Looking for the magician
And the ring
To make me invisible at will

Then I’d walk in
Take out the bill
Didn’t have to play
Nobody seen the musician
Oh no

Then I’d walk in
And scare the man
Only had to whisper
Nobody seen the politician
Oh no

Then I’d walk in
And corrupt a ghost
Been jailed too long
Nobody seen the revolution
Oh no

Then I’d walk in
And make love to you
Piccadilly Circus five p.m.
Nobody seen the sensation
Oh no

Then I’d walk in
And take your troubles away
Only robbed the bank of blood
Nobody seen the physician
Oh no

Then I’d walk in
And give you the ring
See what you can do
You being the magician
Me being the musician
Oh yes
You being the magician

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Good investment



Wolfgang B. Sperlich




… this poem first appeared in the Huntly College Mag ‘89

Saturday, August 28, 2010




Lady Fortune
You say you favour the brave
But an audit of your account shows
You favour those you have favoured before
The children of the rich and not the children of the poor

If your selection were random
I’d be happy to accept my fate
My number hasn’t come up
And it never may

You are a lazy witch
If I may say so and incur your wrath
Languishing in the golden temples built for you by slaves
Smiling upon those who have never worked a day in their life
Pouring scorn on those who kneel before you in rags

I pray to you nevertheless to pick me and my lucky number
And if you do
I shall praise you and construct you a little wooden shrine to declare
That once you favoured the one whose luck ran out
                                             Bravely fighting the odds

Thursday, August 26, 2010


           The Chinese version of my Chomsky book (2010, Peking University Press)

Saturday, August 21, 2010



Wolfgang B. Sperlich, 2009

The first of the nine articles by Koji Fujita sets the tone, if not agenda, with a bold and programmatic statement that takes the Minimalist Program to a grand conclusion: all you need is MERGE. His defense of the anti-lexicalist position may be controversial but it is plausible enough. That syntax generates the lexicon may be an idea whose time has come.

One would have thought that the articles to follow would elaborate on these bold proposals and provide empirical support. Oddly enough, only a few articles seems to do that. Some seem designed, by varying degrees, to counter Fujita’s minimalist framework (I will address each one separately below). One wonders if is an intentional design to foster some kind of debate or perhaps follow the Popperian idea that science is essentially concerned with falsifying the latest hypotheses. Biolinguistics seems to have engaged in this concept before in Vol.3, namely in the ‘debate’ between Postal and Collins where the former contribution, The Incoherence of Chomsky’s ‘Biolinguistic’ Ontology, flies in the face of any reasonable debate, what with Postal’s main gripe being that Chomsky cannot be bothered to reply to Postal’s outpourings. Attacks on Chomsky is an industry in itself and I fail to see why Biolinuistics as a fine testament to Chomsky and his work in linguistics has to publish such nonsense just to be seen fair and open to scientific debate.

Since the articles - those that seem to counteract the Biolinguitics program and  Fujita in particular -  are nowhere near as malignant as Postal’s article, one can look at them in terms of a benign debate and as such take issue with the arguments presented.

As such we can take issue straightaway with the second paper by Jacqueline van Kampen, somewhat unnecessarily provocatively entitled The Non-Biological Evolution of Grammar: Wh-Question Formation in Germanic,. The author doesn’t actually go as far as the title suggests - how could she? - but grapples with the question of parameter setting to distinguish English and Dutch. Her proposal seems to be that Wh-Question Formation in child language acquisition (English vs. Dutch) as a parameter fixing exercise is not only achieved by language input - how else could it be? - but that the parameter itself is established by language input. Nevertheless she is driven to make vast generalizations:

The learnability approach relativizes Chomsky’s poverty of the stimulus, but affirms his position that language is ‘perfect’ in the sense of being learnable as a cultural construct without the assumption of innate grammar-specific a prioris.   

She does Chomsky no favours at all in claiming that she at least agrees with his idea that language is ‘perfect’, especially as she follows up with equating language as a cultural construct - a really bad idea if only because ‘culture’ seems to be one of the more ‘imperfect’, if not silly, constructs known to mankind. What is interesting in her research is of course the question of how and why parameters seem a key to language typology. Jason Kandybowicz gave a good account in his article Externalization and Emergence: On the Status of Parameters in the Minimalist Program, Biolinguistics Vol.3 No.1, sadly not referred to in van Kampen (nor does she refer to two other Biolinguistics articles on parameters by Thornton & Tesan, and by Uriagereka). Obviously language input cannot create typological parameters, as say between Dutch and English, and then somehow select for one or the other. If language is learnt through input alone it cannot have recourse to UG or any other languages. Van Kampen has discarded many powerful explanations for why this is a most unlikely scenario.

In fact van Kampen’s scenario is much more usefully applicable to Second Language Acquisition (SLA). Assuming that SLA individuals have blocked their access to UG by varying degrees - having fixed their typological parameters via child language acquisition - we can explain the various difficulties second language learners have - with emphasis on ‘learning’. Learners have to reconstruct second language parameters from input and from what their implicit and explicit knowledge is about their native language and language in general.

Van Kampen also might have been wise to consider whether or not her research focus is in fact part of UG - if not, there is no case to answer. This is a point made later in Parrott’s article (Danish Vestigial Case and the Acquisition of Vocabulary in Distributed Morphology), namely that many linguistic phenomena, variables in particular, are outside the narrow syntax:

… general Minimalist perspective (Chomsky 1995, 2000 et seq., see also Hauser et al. 2002), where only the operations of the narrow syntax are genetically endowed; all variation is restricted to ‘lexical’ features and the interfaces between narrow syntax and language-external cognitive and sensory/motor systems.

The third article by Anna R. Kinsella, Gary F. Marcus, Evolution, Perfection, and Theories of Language, also seems to be fully anti-programmatic, and one wonders why. The authors say that

Here it is argued that language is neither perfect nor optimal, and shown how theories of language which place these properties at their core run into both conceptual and empirical problems.

This is of course at odds with various MP proposals that language, as a computational system, is optimally designed. Of course this is quite a baffling assertion and in terms of evolutionary progress one may well ask, as did Kandybowicz (see above), why it is that we have all these different languages with different parameter settings. Wouldn’t an optimal solution have no parameters, i.e. why don’t we have just UG as a fully functioning language? Kinsella and Marcus however focus on various features that purport to demonstrate the general imperfection of language, features such as ‘ambiguity, redundancy, irregularity, movement, locality conditions, and extra-grammatical idioms’. For the question on ‘movement’ they should have referred to Fujita who demonstrates Move as a sub-class of Merge and as such is of optimal design. One can take issue with all of the other features mentioned. For example the question of redundancy: one can quite easily turn the argument around and say that redundancy is an essential element of all complex systems - as is well known in information theory and computer program architecture. It is popularly argued that the human brain consists to 90% of back-up systems (back-up systems are redundant by definition). English 3rd person, present tense, verb agreement is a case in point: in the sentence ‘X sits at the table’, X is at least partially recoverable as ‘he, she’ or ‘it’. One can also use this as an example to show how syntax generates the lexicon. Kinsella and Marcus skate on thicker ice with ‘locality conditions’ as for example the question of reflexive anaphora long distance binding remains a highly contested research item across languages. All in all, this article falls rather flat. Perhaps there is also a hint that the authors fail to make a clear distinction between langue and parole, thus allowing for the quite valid assertion that the functions of language invariably are associated with the ‘imperfection’, if not outright stupidity so widespread amongst the ruling classes.

The fourth article by Hiroki Narita, Full Interpretation of Optimal Labeling, is a technical account of whether bare phrase structure is a good idea or not - siding with the latter conclusion and as such seemingly somewhat anti-MP. On the other hand these is no fundamental disagreement with MP, rather a fine-tuning that favours some level of labeling. I lack the technical expertise to determine whether or not Narita makes a convincing case for labeling but I am impressed with the dense arguments put forth. In fact the article strikes me as a worthwhile technical discussion that may well have implications for future directions in MP.

The next paper by Dennis Ott entitled The Evolution of I-Language: Lexicalization as the Key Evolutionary Novelty, is in stark contradiction to Fujita’s anti-lexicalist stance. While the lexicalist arguments are framed within MP, one would have hoped for a better appreciation of syntax. As such, one can turn Ott’s thesis up-side-down and arrive at a good argument for Fujita. We can do this by a series of quotes from Ott’s paper, his point of departure being:

… Hauser et al (2002) speculating that the I-language (syntax and the lexicon) may indeed be the sole evolutionary novelty that allowed humans to cognitively outplay even their closest evolutionary relatives.

We can only agree, especially as ‘syntax’ is mentioned before the ‘lexicon’. Ott then reverses this order and concentrates on the lexicon alone:

Paul Bloom’s (2000: 242): “Non-humans have no words and a relatively limited mental life; humans have many words and a much richer.mental life. This might be no accident.”

We can only concur if Bloom puts ‘syntax’ before ‘words’. To make amends Ott has ‘syntax’ included in the next quote:

The intricacy of semantic properties of lexical items is enormous (Pustejovsky 1995, Chomsky 2000), and there is no evidence for comparative complexities in animal calls. The same is true with regard to structure: at most, animal calls have linear-sequential structure, but no higherorder hierarchical structure as evidences in human syntax.

Chomsky has always struggled with the lexicon, at times doing his best to ignore it as mere material for insertion, or giving it some credence by postulating some sort of mini-grammar attached to each lexical item. This notion seems to reappear in Chomsky’s latest attempt to come to grips with the lexicon, and Ott seems impressed:

A lexical item (LI)] has a feature that permits it to be merged. Call this the edge feature (EF) of the LI. … The fact that Merge iterates without limit is a property at least of LIs — and optimally, only of LIs, as I will assume.EF articulates the fact that Merge is unbounded, that language is a recursive infinite system of a particular kind. (Chomsky 2008: 139)

Perhaps we should ask Chomsky where this ‘edge feature’ comes from, how it arises. What is certain however is that Chomsky understands the minimalist syntax of Merge as the key generator of sentences. Chomsky has never proposed a theory of the lexicon. Ott however does:

Evidently, if this were true, an evolutionary account of I-language would be significantly simplified, in that syntax itself would follow from lexicalization (assignment of an edge feature).

This seems an extraordinary reversal of the facts. How can a mysterious ‘edge feature’ give rise to an iterative structural system that uses Merge as its primary generator? Since Ott himself uses the metaphor of ‘words being building blocks for syntactic structures’ we can demonstrate by analogy: if squareness is an ‘edge feature’ of bricks one can hardly claim that this feature determines the structure of the building - admittedly it may put some minor constraints on it. Fujita’s innovative and elegant proposal is exactly the other way round: the structure of the building determines the building blocks. As such lexical items acquire their ‘edge features’ from syntax and are then inserted accordingly. If we call lexical categories like ‘verb, noun, preposition’ and what have you, edge features, we have a perfectly good explanation for their origins, namely from syntax.

Following this line of inquiry we can agree with the old fashioned concept of lexicalization whereby structures generated by Merge become lexicalized in some instances. Strangely enough, Ott seems to echo just such a sentiment in his concluding remarks:

Rather, the sudden addition of recursive syntax, paired with a capacity for lexicalization, plausibly led to the explosive emergence of symbolic thought that paved the way for modern human behavior.

Next in line is Jeffrey K. Parrott’s paper entitled Danish Vestigial Case and the Acquisition of Vocabulary in Distributed Morphology. This is an interesting investigation into vestigial versus transparent case features as found in various Germanic languages. The former allow for mismatches while the latter do not. If case was a feature of narrow syntax we would not expect this to happen for even Vestigial Case applications. The solution is of course that the Vestigial Case phenomena are part of the morpho-phonological component - as associated with the lexicon - and as such outside narrow syntax, as stated in general:

… general Minimalist perspective (Chomsky 1995, 2000 et seq., see also Hauser et al. 2002), where only the operations of the narrow syntax are genetically endowed; all variation is restricted to ‘lexical’ features and the interfaces between narrow syntax and language-external cognitive and sensory/motor systems.

Interestingly a logical consequence might be that case - vestigial or transparent - is outside narrow syntax. Parrott puts it like this:

If Case features are checked in the narrow syntax, then Case is endowed by UG and available to the child without any need for learning from environmental input. If that were the case, it is hard to see why anything like the transparency constraint would be operative. Even a small set of pronoun allomorphs ought to be sufficient to signal the correct mappings of phonological features to Case features. But if case features are only assigned/realized postsyntactically, say by morphological rules that refer to syntactic structures (McFadden 2004), then these rules too must be learned on the sole basis of environmental input and would thus be subject to transparency.

Case as such becomes a lexical edge feature, and if we follow Ott and ultimately Fujita, we may assume that since the lexicon arises from syntax, there is always the possibility that in this process certain syntax features get transferred to and/or mapped onto the lexicon.

It is perhaps not surprising that the next offering with the funny/provocative title Sex and Syntax: Subjacency Revisited, by Ljiljana Progovac, also contains some funny example sentences:

(32) This is a book that the more you read, the less you understand.

(34) He is a linguist — (as) you know. Parataxis

(35) He is a linguist, and you know it. Coordination

(36) You know that he is a linguist. Subordination

The author also makes some strong claims, like:

Despite the sustained effort of about forty years to analyze Subjacency, to
date, there has been no principled account, with the most recent attempts
faring not much better than the initial proposals.

An anonymous reviewer upbraids her for it but she is not deterred and goes on the counter attack. At some level one has to admire such self-belief but it carries with it the danger of falling flat on the face - from a considerable height. While this is not to suggest that ‘the more one reads her paper the less one understands it’ nor that ‘she is a linguist, and you know it’ should be attributed to Progovac, her style of writing does invite a certain amount of levity. In any case now that she has our attention, what shall we make of her arguments? Her basic assertion is that language evolved in three steps (see also examples 34-36 above):

(A) Parataxis/Adjunction stage, with no hierarchical structure,
where prosody/suprasegmentals provide the only glue for
merger (Jackendoff 1999, 2002).
(B) Proto-coordination stage, where, in addition to prosody, the
conjunction provides all-purpose segmental glue to hold the
utterance together.
(C) Specific functional category stage, where, in addition to
prosody, specific functional categories provide specialized
syntactic glue for clause cohesion, including tense elements and
subordinators/complementizers. It is in this stage that Move
seems to become available.

This scheme contradicts, as she says, the one-step explanations favoured by the likes of Chomsky, as in:

… the influential language evolution hypothesis, according to which Merge (which subsumes Move) was the only evolutionary breakthrough for syntax: Once it emerged, it was able to apply freely and recursively (Hauser et al. 2002, Chomsky 2005, Fitch et al. 2005).

Her arguments are centered on the proposal that Subjacency/islands are proto-language constructs with no possibility of Move. She posits that Move becomes available only at stage three (or C as above). This puts the erstwhile theory in its head which said that Move was freely available from the start and was perhaps only later constrained by islands. If Merge subsumes Move, I am not sure if there is a logical possibility that Move emerges, as it were, at later stages of language evolution. Once we get Merge, don’t we get the whole package? Progovac’s detailed points about the interpretation of subjacency are quite convincing at times but she really exaggerates her speculative mode when she seriously suggests that the finer points of syntax were acquired via ‘sexual selection’:

This communicative advantage is concrete enough that it could have been targeted by natural or sexual selection.

Surely she must have realized that her source quote from Lightfoot (1991) was in jest:

Subjacency has many virtues, but … it could not have increased the chances of having fruitful sex.

If not, Progovac may have to put up with the frivolous suggestion that current sexual selection does not favour linguists.

The second-to-last article, also by Ljiljana Progovac - with co-author John L. Locke - entitled The Urge to Merge:Ritual Insult and the Evolution of Syntax, must have been selected to enlarge on the entertainment value engendered by her Sex and Syntax paper. The authors’ penchant for foxy titles is amusing enough were it not for the content that must fall into the category of - as Chomsky might say - not impossible but highly unlikely.

I have always liked Labov’s (1972) treatment of ritual insults in his Language in the Inner City and it may be worth to remind readers that his point was to demonstrate that ritual insults - as exemplified by black English vernacular - are not some sort of primitive verbal behaviour but instead exhibit complex syntax. The present authors - who have overlooked Labov - seem to hark back to more primitive times when they introduce mouthwatering prospects even in the abstract:

But, is there evidence that such verbal duels, and sexual selection in general, played any role in the evolution of specific principles of language, syntax in particular? In this paper, concrete linguistic data and analysis will be presented which indeed point to that conclusion. The prospect will be examined that an intermediate form of ‘proto-syntax’, involving ‘proto-Merge’, evolved in a context of ritual insult.

Picture the scenario: two cave men ritually insulting each other in front of a cave woman who will then select the winner for sexual procreation - the winner being the one who stumped the opponent with an insult so clever that the other guy was left speechless. No doubt HE was the one who invented ‘proto-Merge’ and had his linguistically modified genes passed on. Never mind that modern-day ritual insults seem to play no more part in ritual courtship - rather being a device for membership of a vernacular culture peer group (as also pointed out by Labov). In any case one would have thought that emerging human courtship rituals would favour linguistic devices that demonstrate compliment (of oneself) rather than denigration (of the other), if only for the simple reason of economy. It is much more efficient to sell oneself by accentuating the positive than waste a lot of energy and time to denigrate a potentially large number of different competitors - this is the first rule of advertising. While there are many examples of the puffed up male demonstrating his superior qualities in terms of physical and mental make-up, there is of course always a final recourse to simple violence. The guy with more muscle wins the lady’s heart. - not that she has a choice if the choice comes down to this level. Another downside to this whole argument must be the role of the female: did SHE not have any input into proto-Syntax? As a cynic one may well congratulate the authors that, conceptually at least, they have hit the nail on the head - a stupidly aggressive male having shaped our linguistic, if not cognitive, evolutionary progress to end up today at the ‘age of stupid’ - in line with the title of a documentary film that seems popular amongst certain sections of intelligent people. Luckily Ljiljana Progovac - with co-author John L. Locke - admit that there could be more to this type of evolution:

It is important to keep in mind that we only claim that ritual insult in the form of compounding was one of the factors contributing to the consolidation of Merge; we are certainly not claiming that it was the only factor. As pointed out by a reviewer, the emergence of (proto-)Merge would have brought about a host of other communicative advantages.

In any case the authors single out VN compounds as ‘living fossils’, suggesting that an item like ‘daredevil’ somehow links back to ‘ancient’ proto-Merge operations. Since Serbian seems to have an abundance of VN ritual insult items, the Serbian language seems to be elevated to equally ‘ancient’ status. I am somewhat concerned about the author’s loose play with historical linguistics, connecting highly speculative terms like ‘proto-syntax’ or ‘proto-Merge’ with synchronic language data. Historical linguistics does conduct serious research on the basis of proto-languages, for example the backtracking from extant Polynesian languages to proto-Polynesian and further back to proto-Oceanic and finally to proto-Austronesian. I say ‘finally’ because historical linguistics is not concerned with speculative time-depths beyond the major language families of the world. The tools of historical linguistics are comparative phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics and it is difficult enough to arrive at a first-level proto-language, let alone reach time-depths of say five to ten thousand years. Furthermore if we accept the tenets of glottochronology - using lexicostatistics - whereby a language tends to change internally every 200 years to be mutually unintelligible, then how can we possibly claim that extant VN compounds declaiming ritual insults are potential ‘fossils’ of a time depth ranging from a 100,000 years to a few million?

Progovac with her fine knowledge of Serbian might have done herself a better service had she at least found supporting items from proto-South Slavic, or better still from proto-Slavic. Even then she could not make the link between any proto-language and the misused ‘proto-Merge’. This is not to say that evolutionary linguistics is not worthy of study - indeed it can be a fascinating thing to do - as attested by some of the papers presented in this special issue. Since this field of inquiry must remain highly speculative, one should test any given hypothesis first on the grounds of common sense in order to avoid highly fanciful accounts that are all possible but are also highly unlikely. Progovac is obviously a very good writer - but is it good science? Chomsky says that science operates like the drunk who looks for his lost keys under lamp post - because that’s where the light is (Barsky 1997:95). By analogy one would wish that Progovac gets a bit closer to the light and subsequently make great discoveries.

Last but not least we have The Third Factor in Phonology by Bridget Samuels. This contribution returns to the full support of the Biolinguistics program:

… I explore the idea advanced in many recent Minimalist writings that phonology is an ‘ancillary’ module, and that phonological systems are “doing the best they can to satisfy the problem they face: To map to the [Sensorimotor system] interface syntactic objects generated by computations that are ‘welldesigned’ to satisfy [Conceptual-Intentional system] conditions” but unsuited to communicative purposes (Chomsky 2008: 136).
No doubt considered by many (e.g. Pinker and Jackendoff) a radical proposal but logical enough when one follows the likes of Chomsky and Fujita. Samuels provides convincing arguments that a wide range of animals are capable of phonology. Her references are spot on; for example its is interesting to learn that ‘we know that rhesus monkeys are sensitive to pitch classes — they, like us, treat a melody which is transposed by one or two octaves to be more similar to the original than one which is transposed by a different interval (Wright et al. 2000)’. That some humans should have chosen tone as a major phonological feature, thus becomes somewhat less mysterious. The Dr Doolittle scenario also becomes less of a joke: given our shared capacities to vocalize, we can arrive at a rudimentary communication with our pet animals in particular. There is a funny Francis of Assisi sketch where he figures out that he cannot talk to the birds by imitating their singing but by hopping around as birds do when on land - well, according to the present theory he should have stuck with singing. Samuels is however cautious when she says that ‘the organization of bird song is particularly clear, though it is not obvious exactly whether/how analogies to human language should be made’.

Samuels also does well to reference a number of studies that make the point that human language is not necessarily predicated on our erstwhile ability to vocalize but may instead have emerged from ‘action’:

Perhaps, then, the precursors of linguistic syntax should be sought in primatemanual abilities rather than in their vocal skills” (Byrne 2007: 12; emphasis his). I concur that manual routines provide an interesting source of comparanda for the syntax of human language, broadly construed (i.e., including the syntax of phonology). Fujita (2007) has suggested along these lines the possibility that Merge evolved from an ‘action grammar’ of the type which would underlie apes’ foraging routines.

Samuels in her conclusion points out that the popular perception of language = speech is in fact based on a false premise:

Perhaps we should amend the ‘speech is special’ hypothesis: speech is special (to us), in just the same way that conspecific properties throughout the animal kingdom often are; but there is nothing special about the way human speech is externalized or perceived in and of itself.

This approach also buries all the silly arguments about Chimsky vs. Chomsky since it is now clearly established that syntax (Merge) was the evolutionary leap that distinguishes humans from animals.

Perhaps above conclusion should equate with one for this whole review. Nevertheless since the editors of Biolinguistics, Kleanthes K. Grohmann & Cedric Boeckx, ‘encourage everyone, as with anything else published in Biolinguistics, to submit commentary and criticism’, I’ll add a few more words. Was it a good idea to have a special issue? Sure, it was, notwithstanding some of the papers that were off the mark. It is good to read contributions from emerging talents - especially as the selected papers came from a conference on Biolinguistics, Acquisition and Language Evolution (BALE), organized by post-graduate students. Since I have omitted to mention the Guest Editorial: Introduction to BALE 2008 by Nanna Haug Hilton, allow me to make amends by way of this postscript and quote her raison-d’être:

The research interests and backgrounds of us doctoral students on the committee varied across a number of linguistic sub-disciplines. It soon became apparent, therefore, that finding a topic for the conference could prove problematic. After some debate, we concluded that instead of addressing a subject that a few of the students specialized in, the conference theme should be one that unites different linguistic disciplines. The topic that emerged deals with a question that, in our opinion, is at the core of all linguistic research: What are the biological underpinnings of language, and what is the interaction between the innate knowledge of linguistic structure with the language input to which we are exposed?

My only gripe with her question in italics is that the second part of the question seems strangely redundant: since the ‘language input’ we are ‘exposed to’ arises from the ‘innate knowledge of linguistic structure’ in the first place, we are faced with a feedback loop rather than an ‘interaction’ between seemingly independent phenomena. I doubt this was the author’s intention as her first part of the question addresses the crux of the matter.

NOTE: all references but two are from the original articles and not listed below


Barsky, Robert F. 1997. Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent. Cambridge MA: The MIT

Labov, William. 1972. Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English
 Vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.