Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Show Summary Details
More options …

The Linguistic Review

Editor-in-Chief: van der Hulst, Harry

IMPACT FACTOR 2018: 0.463
5-year IMPACT FACTOR: 0.789

CiteScore 2018: 0.69

SCImago Journal Rank (SJR) 2018: 0.643
Source Normalized Impact per Paper (SNIP) 2018: 0.679

See all formats and pricing
More options …
Volume 34, Issue 3


The many errors of Vyvyan Evans’ The Language Myth

Nicholas Allott
  • Corresponding author
  • Department of Literature, Area Studies and European Languages, University of Oslo, Blindern, Oslo N-0316, Norway
  • Email
  • Other articles by this author:
  • De Gruyter OnlineGoogle Scholar
/ Georges Rey
Published Online: 2017-06-09 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/tlr-2017-0011


Vyvyan Evans’ The Language Myth argues that Chomsky’s program of Universal Grammar (UG) is “completely wrong,” and it has attracted much recent discussion, some of it laudatory. We set out what we take to be its many serious errors, including: (i) a misunderstanding of the empirical character of the evidence that Chomsky and other generativists have adduced for UG, in English as well as in many other languages, coupled with a mistaken claim that the theory is unfalsifiable; (ii) a confusion of superficial typological universals, or features present at the surface of all of the world’s languages, with UG features that are apparent only under analysis; and (iii) a failure to appreciate the significance of Fine Thoughts (the things one cannot say in natural languages, even though it would be clear what they would mean) as critical evidence of UG, and of the difficulties presented by them for the kinds of “language-as-use” and related empiricist theories that he favors. Indeed, Evans also (iv) fails to address the issues of competence and constraints that are raised by Fine Thoughts and that are a central concern of UG; and (v) conflates UG with a computational theory of mind, a Fodorean conception of modules and a Pinkerean interest in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Keywords: Noam Chomsky; language-as-use; Universal Grammar; language universals; Fine Thoughts


  • Ackerman, Farrell & Robert Malouf. 2016. Beyond caricatures: Commentary on Evans 2014. Language 92(1). 189–194.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Adger, David. 2003. Core syntax: A minimalist approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • Adger, David. 2015a. More misrepresentation: A response to Behme and Evans 2015. Lingua 162. 160–166.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Adger, David. 2015b. Mythical myths: Comments on Vyvyan Evans’ “The Language Myth”. Lingua 158. 7–80.Google Scholar

  • Adger, David & Jennifer Smith. 2005. Variation and the minimalist program. In Leonie Cornips & Karen Corrigan (eds.), Syntax and variation: Reconciling the biological and the social, 149–178. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing.Google Scholar

  • Åfarli, Tor A. & Brit Mæhlum (eds.). 2014. The sociolinguistics of grammar. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar

  • Aldridge, Michelle. 2014. The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct, by Vyvyan Evans. Times Higher Education 13 November 2014. Available at https://www.timeshighereducation.com/books/the-language-myth-why-language-is-not-an-instinct-by-vyvyan-evans/2016831.article Retrieved 15 May 2017.

  • Anderson, Alun. 2014. Why language is neither an instinct nor innate. New Scientist 20 October 2014. Available at https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22429911.000-why-language-is-neither-an-instinct-nor-innate/ Retrieved 15 May 2017.Google Scholar

  • Baker, Mark C. 2001. The atoms of language. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar

  • Beaumont, Bertrand. 1954. Hegel and the seven planets. Mind LXIII(250). 246–248.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Behme, Christina & Vyvyan Evans. 2015. Leaving the myth behind: A reply to Adger (2015). Lingua 162. 149–159.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Berent, Iris. 2016. Evans’ (2014) Modularity myths: A mental architecture digest. Language 92(1). 195–197CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. 1959. Review of B. F. Skinner, ‘Verbal behavior’. Language 35. 26–58.Google Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. 1965. Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.Google Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. 1979. Morphophonemics of modern Hebrew. New York: Garland.Google Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. 1981. Lectures on government and binding. Dordrecht: Foris.Google Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. 1988. Language and problems of knowledge: The managua lectures. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.Google Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. 1995. The minimalist program. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.Google Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. 2000. New horizons in the study of language and mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. 2002. On nature and language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. 2013. Problems of projection. Lingua 130. 33–49.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Chomsky, Noam. 2015. Some core contested concepts. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 44(1). 91–104.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Churchland, Patricia S. 2013. Preface to Quine, Willard Van Ormson. 2013 [1960]. In Word and object, 2nd edn. Cambridge, Mass: MIT PressGoogle Scholar

  • Cinque, Guglielmo & Richard S. Kayne (eds.). 2005. The Oxford handbook of comparative syntax. Oxford: Oxford University PressGoogle Scholar

  • Cornips, Leonie. 2014. Socio-syntax and variation in acquisition: Problematizing monolingual and bidialectal acquisition. Linguistic Variation 14(1). 1–25.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Cornips, Leonie E. A. & Karen P. Corrigan (eds.). 2005. Syntax and variation : Reconciling the biological and the social. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar

  • Deen, Kamil U. 2016. Myths, magic, and poorly drawn battle lines: Commentary on Evans 2014. Language 92(1). 197–200.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Dennett, Daniel C. 1975. Why the law of effect will not go away. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 5. 169–187. Reprinted in (1978). Brainstorms : Philosophical essays on mind and psychology, 71–89. Montgomery, Vt.: Bradford Books.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Evans, Nicholas & Stephen C. Levinson. 2009. The myth of language universals: Language diversity and its importance for cognitive science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 32(5). 429–448.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Everett, Daniel. 2005. Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã. Current Anthropology 46(4). 621–646.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Fitch, W. Tecumseh, Marc D. Hauser & Noam Chomsky. 2005. The evolution of the language faculty: Clarifications and implications. Cognition 97. 179–210.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Fodor, Jerry A. 1968. The appeal to tacit knowledge in psychological explanation. The Journal of Philosophy 65(20). 627–640.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Fodor, Jerry A. 2000. The mind doesn’t work that way: The scope and limits of computational psychology. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.Google Scholar

  • Goldberg, Adele E. 2006. Constructions at work : The nature of generalization in language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • Goldberg, Adele E. 2016. Another look at the universal grammar hypothesis: Commentary on Evans 2014. Language 92(1). 200–203.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Gross, Steven & Georges Rey. 2012. Innateness. In E. Margolis & S. Laurence (eds.), Oxford handbook on cognitive science, 318–360. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • Haegeman, Liliane M. V. 1994. Introduction to government and binding theory. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar

  • Hauser, Marc D., Robert C. Charles Yang, Ian Tattersall Berwick, Michael J. Ryan, Jeffrey Watumull, Noam Chomsky & Richard C. Lewontin. 2014. The mystery of language evolution. Frontiers in Psychology 5. 1–12.Google Scholar

  • Hinzen, Wolfram. 2016. Is our mental grammar just a set of constructions? Commentary on Evans (2014). Language 92(1). 203–207CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Hofmeister, Philip, Laura Staum Casasanto & Ivan A. Sag. 2013. Islands in the grammar? Standards of evidence. In Jon Sprouse & Norbert Hornstein (eds.), Experimental syntax and island effects, 42–63. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

  • Hornstein, Norbert. 2013. Three grades of grammatical involvement: Syntax from a minimalist perspective. Mind & Language 28(4). 392–420.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Karimi, Simin (ed.). 2003. Word order and scrambling. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.Google Scholar

  • Kegl, Judy, Anne Senghas & Marie Coppola. 1999. Creation through contact: Sign language emergence and sign language change in Nicaragua. In Michel DeGraff (ed.), Language creation and language change : Creolization, diachrony, and development, 179–237. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.Google Scholar

  • Lidz, Jeffrey & Annie Gagliardi. 2015. How nature meets nurture: Universal grammar and statistical learning. Annual Review of Linguistics 1(1). 333–353.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Lidz, Jeffrey & Alexander Williams. 2009. Constructions on holiday. Cognitive Linguistics 20(1). 177–189.Google Scholar

  • Maynes, Jeffrey & Steven Gross. 2013. Linguistic intuitions. Philosophy Compass 8(8). 714–730.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Müller, Gereon. 2011. Constraints on displacement: A phase-based approach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar

  • Musso, Mariacristina, Andrea Moro, Volkmar Glauche, Michel Rijntjes, Jurgen Reichenbach, Christian Buchel & Cornelius Weiller. 2003. Broca’s area and the language instinct. Nature Neuroscience 6(7). 774–781.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Nevins, Andrew. 2009. On formal universals in phonology. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 32(05). 461–462.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Nevins, Andrew, David Pesetsky & Cilene Rodrigues. 2009. Pirahã exceptionality: A reassessment. Language 85(2). 355–404.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Pinker, Steven. 1994. The language instinct. London: Penguin.Google Scholar

  • Prinz, Jesse J. 2002. Furnishing the mind. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT PressGoogle Scholar

  • Radford, Andrew. 2009. An introduction to English sentence structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

  • Rey, Georges. 2002. Searle’s misunderstandings of functionalism and strong AI. In John Preston & Mark Bishop (eds.), Views into the Chinese room, 201–225. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

  • Rey, Georges. 2003. Intentional content and a Chomskyan linguistics, in A. Barber (ed.), Epistemology of language, 140–186. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Rey, Georges. ms. Representation and Other Philosophical Issues in a Chomskyan Linguistics. Under review at Oxford University Press.

  • Roberts, Ian G. 1997. Comparative syntax. London: Arnold.Google Scholar

  • Sag, Ivan A., Thomas Wasow & Emily M. Bender. 2003. Syntactic theory : A formal introduction, 2nd edn. Stanford, Calif.: Center for the Study of Language and Information.Google Scholar

  • Sandler, Wendy. 2010. The uniformity and diversity of language: Evidence from sign language. Lingua 120(12). 2727–2732.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Smith, Neil V. & Nicholas Allott. 2016. Chomsky: Ideas and ideals, 3rd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

  • Smith, Neil V. & Ianthi-Maria Tsimpli. 1995. The mind of a savant: Language learning and modularity. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar

  • Sprouse, Jon & Norbert Hornstein (eds.). 2013. Experimental syntax and island effects. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

  • Sprouse, Jon, Carson T. Schütze & Diogo Almeida. 2013. A comparison of informal and formal acceptability judgments using a random sample from Linguistic Inquiry 2001–2010. Lingua 134. 219–248.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Wijnen, Frank. 2016. Not compelling: Commentary on Evans 2014. Language 92(1). 207–209.CrossrefGoogle Scholar

  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophical investigations (Gertrude E. M. Anscombe, Trans.). New York: Macmillan.Google Scholar

  • Yang, Charles. 2002. Knowledge and learning in natural language. Oxford: Oxford University PressGoogle Scholar

About the article

Published Online: 2017-06-09

Published in Print: 2017-08-28

Citation Information: The Linguistic Review, Volume 34, Issue 3, Pages 1–20, ISSN (Online) 1613-3676, ISSN (Print) 0167-6318, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/tlr-2017-0011.

Export Citation

© 2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston.Get Permission

Citing Articles

Here you can find all Crossref-listed publications in which this article is cited. If you would like to receive automatic email messages as soon as this article is cited in other publications, simply activate the “Citation Alert” on the top of this page.

Éva Dékány
Acta Linguistica Academica, 2019, Volume 66, Number 3, Page 309

Comments (0)

Please log in or register to comment.
Log in