Perseverando (by persevering)

My name is Bruce Nevin. My particular interest is language and thought as control of perception. I have degrees in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania (1968, 1969, 1998). One of my teachers, and a major influence, was Zellig Harris. My doctoral dissertation describes the sound system (phonology) of Achumawi, an indigenous American language in the north-east corner of California. One of my long-term engagements is helping them to regain and revitalize their language, using my linguistic database. My involvement with PCT began in 1990 or 1991. The learning has not involved cataclysmic metanoia such as some others have described, because I had no prior commitments in conflict. The methodology of linguistics, as I understand it, is a form of the Test for Controlled Variables. The greatest challenge at the beginning was because at that time Kent McClelland’s clarification of the principles of collective control was only beginning. On that basis the status of the perceptions that constitute language is understandable, and an understanding of some of their peculiar characteristics becomes possible.

That will perhaps do for an introduction. What follows is a much longer account of how I got here.

I can trace my interest in language to early exposure to King James (Shakespearean) English. (Our parents thought sending my brother and me to church with the neighbors contributed to our education; the fact that they didn’t go themselves probably fostered neutral participant observation.) We took up living in a house trailer and left Massachusetts when I was 8. Arriving a year later in central Florida as a ‘yankee’ living on the outskirts presented many recurrent puzzles as to how people who look like they are together at the same time in the same circumstances could have strangely different experiences and conflicting interpretations of those circumstances. We settled in Bartow, in central Florida, deep in the KKK, John Birch Society, apartheid south. Bartow was named after the first brigade commander of the Confederate Army to die in combat during the American Civil War. I heard classmates say “Save your Confederate money, boys, the South shall rise again!” apparently quoting their elders. Some of those folks have never left and would still like to impeach Earl Warren. Spanish was the default foreign language beginning in elementary school, not in deference to immigrants but in strangely perverse celebration of the colonial history of the state. In high school, I took Latin instead.

As an undergraduate at Florida State I lived off campus with two graduate students, because the university was still building out the dormitories for the imminent arrival of baby boomers. Looking back, this had been my experience in every school I had been in, administrators, school boards, and legislators belatedly reorganizing, "The baby boom is coming! The baby boom is coming!’ In my freshman year I became of aware an inexplicably strong desire to become fluent in another language. I was frustrated with how German was taught — class twice a week plus time listening to records on headphones and mumbling. I talked to my roommates about wanting an immersion experience, but how could I possibly afford that? One of their friends was a graduate student in geology who was from Greece. He said “Why don’t you go to the University of Athens? It only costs $100 a year. Here, I’ll write the letter for you.” So he wrote a letter in Greek and I signed it. When the answer came back, he translated it. I was in.

That summer of 1963 and on into the fall I worked in orange groves and then in an orange juice plant in Bartow. When my grandmother died in my senior year of high school, 1962, my father inherited some money, and while I was at the university, my parents bought an acre or so of land east of town and moved our trailer out there. They didn’t understand why I would want to leave school and go so far away, and it surely didn’t make a lot of sense in any obvious or career-enhancing way, but they supported my plan.

It did have the virtue of suspending the university expenses. The university had reduced its tuition to zero. It was worth every Drachma. The authoritarian style of pedagogy depended on memorization. And when I arrived I didn’t know the language. Faculty and students alike were frequently on strike. Greece was in the midst of great political turmoil with Markarios, Cypress, the military Junta deposing the British-installed King (and his mother). Rabid anti-communism and militarism were familiar from Florida. The film Z captures some of the darker side; Lambrakis had been assassinated in 1963.

A significant problem for me was that the university texts, classes, and activities all were required by law to be conducted in Katharevousa (“purified”), a form of Greek that was artificially constructed from classical, Byzantine, and biblical Greek by church and government leaders after Greece won its independence from the Ottoman Empire. Imagine a concoction of Beowulf, Chaucer, and Shakespeare enforced as Standard English by religious and government edict. Church, government, most newspapers and magazines, and most businesses used Katharevousa for all their official communications. The language people actually used in conversation is called dhimotikí, “demotic” (as in “democracy”), the language of the people.

It took me eight months to be able to perceive the boundaries between words in the patata patata patapatata rhythms of Greek, and then suddenly it crystalized. Because of this long listening before speaking, Greeks told me I sounded like a native speaker (until lapses of vocabulary and usage gave me away). I became fluent in speaking dhimotikí, the language of the streets.

I also became more fluent in German than I had in my classes at FSU. Many Greeks are polyglots, and when they would want to practice their English on me I would say that I didn’t speak English; so then they practiced their German on me.

I worked for a while as a proofreader for the Athens News, an English-language paper for expatriots. I taught myself to read French, but with no conversational opportunities, and was starting to look at Arabic when I had a visitor from the Bronx pass through who needed a place to crash. I was astonished when he gained a passable fluency in Greek in just a few weeks. I asked him how in the world he did that. “Oh, I’ve studied linguistics, Sanskrit, I know all the Indo-European vocabulary roots. I did the same thing in Portugal and Italy on the way here.” Wow! Now it looked like what I wanted was to study linguistics and Sanskrit.

My interest in being fluent in another language stemmed from an inchoate sense that it would confer the cognitive equivalent of gaining depth perception with binocular vision. I had some taste of that with Greek. It is an odd experience speaking fluently to monolingual Greeks on one side and monolingual English speakers on the other and repeating to one what I had just heard from the other with my mind and awareness a kind of transparency between them. That kind of experience was not frequent, but the differences of framing and presupposition gave me a glimpse of what might be the cognitive ‘depth perception’ I had imagined.

In the spring of 1965 some suggestions and opportunities led me to take ship to Marseilles, where I thought I might be able to get into the university there. A letter from my draft board arrived there, opening a long tango with them that I have written about elsewhere. What is relevant to this narrative is that I returned to Athens that fall, packed up belongings stored there, went down to Crete and booked passage on a freighter out of Heraclion bound for Savannah, Georgia. I got back to Florida in late November 1965, and my draft board told me just to go back to Florida State and resume my educational deferment.

At FSU, there was one man who could teach both linguistics and Sanskrit–but for reasons known only to him, he refused to teach either. I took some courses in German and in Classical Greek. Then in the summer of 1966, good fortune handed me a brochure from the South-East Asia Regional Studies Department at the University of Pennsylvania for a summer course in Sanskrit. I applied and was accepted. At the end of the term I strongly desired to stay at Penn and not return to Florida, but my grade average was too low due to a C in German and an F in ROTC.

Florida State was a Land Grant College, you see. During the American Civil War, President Lincoln was greatly afflicted by the incompetence of the officers in his army and navy. He provided for Federal lands and subsidies to be granted in each state to establish a college, with the proviso that Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) classes must be a mandatory requirement. That curriculum was revelatory, especially being placed under the authority of fellow students of a certain character. This gave additional reason for going to Greece. The mandatory requirement was declared unconstitutional in a Supreme Court ruling in 1964, but I could not anticipate that when I left for Greece in January of that year.

I enrolled in the College of General Studies, which offered evening and weekend classes for part-time students, with the stipulation that after doing well there for two terms one could enroll in regular daytime classes. I took as many linguistics courses as I could. I worked in the cafeteria, then in the library stacking books, and gave private lessons in Modern Greek, much as I had occasionally taught English while I was in Greece. I remember glimpsing a note in the department office, on top of the filing cabinet, advocating for me as “a genuine case of poverty.” Zellig Harris added me to the students who had research fellowships on his NSF-funded “Transformations and Discourse Analysis Project”, with a tuition waiver. After a few years, I was a teaching assistant for a series of different professors, and then a lecturer cross-posted to Anthropology. I got my AB in 1968 and my AM in 1969. (Penn reverses the initials usually written BA and MA, I suppose from the Latin on the diplomas.)

My thesis extended Harris’s work on the informational repetition-structure in discourses. The proposal was to represent this structure in a subject matter domain as a network of word dependencies. This graphic-theoretic representation of the information conveyed in the sublanguage discourses could be linearized in diverse texts or discourses, including novel discourses. By extension using classifier vocablualry for the domain, this dependency network could serve as an acceptability model for word dependencies, providing a basis for assessing whether or not an input sentence or discourse might properly fit into and contribute to that domain. Generalized to other domains, it could enable identification of the subject-matter of new discourses and generation of domain-appropriate discourses.

Harris’s work was in characterizing the formal properties of language, taken as a naturalistically observed mathematical object. My interest was in understanding how these demonstrated truths about language arise from and contribute to cognitive processes. But I could find no model of cognition that had anything like the same ring of truth.

Pursuing something like that old sense of binocular vision, and probably influenced by Benjamin Whorf’s writings, I told my teachers that I wanted to write a grammar of a language that was structurally and semantically very different from English, but I didn’t want to do fieldwork, because I knew that would take a long time. Dell Hymes suggested that I work up the Yana texts which the brilliant linguist Edward Sapir had phonetically transcribed from the last speakers of that northern California language in the first decade of the 20th century. I got a small grant from the American Philosophical Society (founded by Ben Franklin, who also founded Penn). After I had been working on that project for about nine months, Dell came to me with an offer to write up what I had done so far and present it at the first Hokan language conference. He was unable to go. So in June, 1970 off I went to idyllic La Jolla, California.

After my presentation on an aspect of Yana syntax, Mary Haas approached me. She had been a student of Edward Sapir, and was Director of the Survey of California Indian Languages, which sent linguists out to record and describe languages still spoken by their last elderly speakers, what is called salvage linguistics. She asked me “How would you like to work on a related language that’s still spoken?” Reflecting on some aspects of departmental politics back home, I agreed to start working with Achumawi. I went back to Penn, formally withdrew from the linguistics program (effectively putting my matriculation in mothballs), packed my belongings and my motorcycle in an 8 foot trailer behind my VW bug and headed west. That story is for a different place.

That summer of 1970 I began fieldwork in far northeastern California. I knew nothing of the massive genocide of indigenous people generally, and in particular in northern California during and after the Gold Rush. The Pit River people (Achumawi and Atsugewi) were engaged in active struggle over control of their territory of six million acres along the course of the Pit River from the Sacramento Valley up to the corner where Oregon and Nevada meet, and were riven by internal conflicts as well. That’s another story worth telling in another place. I was there from July 1970 through the late spring of 1974, with occasional time back in Berkeley and one trip back east in 1971. Some of the Indian parents had me teaching the language to their kids in the public schools, even as I was working to get a grasp of it. (The Superintendent said he could pay me $100 an hour, but he could only pay me for one hour. I was living on foodstamps and game.) I helped some of them organize and fund the Eastern Shasta County Indian Community Center, with after-school classes and activities. Immersion in the communal effects of generational trauma, pervasive racism, and unacknowledgeable settler guilt was not so different from the apartheid Florida of my youth.

In 1974, the founder and Director of that nascent and still precarious Center died of liver failure due to prior alcoholism. I helped them establish a new Director, and then, burnt out on Indian politics, I returned to Berkeley. Some apostate students of Noam Chomsky had recently arrived, refugees from an upheaval in academic politics that is described in Randy Harris’s book, The Linguistics Wars.

Here begins a digression on the context for what happened next.

Briefly, Noam was a student of Zellig Harris about 20 years before I was. Zellig had been teaching transformational grammar since 1938 or 1939. Noam was a close student of symbolic (mathematical) logic, and set out to formalize Zellig’s empirical results, that is, to re-state those results along the lines of the formal ‘languages’ derived from mathematical logic. During that same period computers were implemented for the first time (the first public demonstration, ENIAC, was built at Penn in 1945, the year before Noam started under Zellig as a freshman). The computer as metaphor of mind and cognition was and still is extremely seductive. Noam felt that he was getting at the real Platonic Reality underlying the apparent messiness of language.

Zellig and another of Noam’s teachers, Nelson Goodman, got Noam a berth as a Harvard Fellow, and from there at a military-funded computer translation project at MIT, where he has been ever since. In that same period during the 1950s Noam partnered with psychologists who also took the computer metaphor of mind as an organizing principle. In their view, a vague notion of “information processing” intervenes between the stimuli and responses of behaviorism. Generative Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology are Siamese Twins, intimately joined and mutually supporting, like two vines, neither of which could stand erect alone, twining together and holding each other up. Each refers to the other to make their presuppositions credible. “Look at how language works. All cognitive processes work in that same symbol-processing way.” And in The Generative Enterprise (p. 49) Noam says “I have always felt that work in linguistics is simply work in one domain of cognitive psychology.”

Beginning in 1959, and becoming increasingly vitriolic through the 1960s while I was Zellig’s student at Penn, Noam, with Morris Halle and others of his colleagues at MIT, crafted very effective marketing of the Generative/Cognitive package. It was effective in great part because the military wanted what they called ‘command and control’, using computers, and poured money into these fields that seemed to promise it. Think of a Star Trek scene in which a commander says something like “Computer, what is the disposition of the enemy’s left flank?” and gets a prompt answer, in fluent English.

Provosts everywhere wanted some of this influx of Cold War money, and the way to get it was to establish a department of linguistics. (Many of these have now disappeared.) And to attract those funds the new department must attract new faculty who could teach this sexy, revolutionary new stuff with its promise to excite the students, boost enrollment, and please the trustees.

An essential part of the marketing in the rebellious '60s was to represent themselves as revolutionary. Crufty old behaviorists and structuralists were out, revolutionary Cognitive Psychologists and Generative Linguists were in. Who would ever want to labor over tabulations of data in some language, when all you had to do was master the latest revelations from MIT and collect anecdotal example sentences from English and perhaps a smattering of other languages to argue why that proposal within the theory is wrong and this one is correct. One Kuhnian ‘revolution’ after another issued in dizzying succession from Noam’s keyboard, which the faithful adopted like software updates.

Caustic polemics and straw man arguments prevailed. The MIT department taught a course titled “The Bad Guys”, a survey of other views in linguistics tendentiously framed in Generativist terms. Much of this is laid out clearly in the 1994 book Theory Groups and the Study of Language in North America: A social history, by sociologist and historian of science Stephen Murray, and to some degree in the 1974/1981 book American Structuralism by Dell Hymes and John Fought (both of whom were at Penn but not allied with Harris). Harris was particularly scorned as “the great granddaddy of structuralists” (Randy Harris), denigrated as “logical positivist,” “empiricist,” “behaviorist”, bearer if not author of all the claimed defects of pre-revolutionary linguistics. As Noam’s students and followers became the reviewers and gatekeepers, he was in fact blocked from publishing in America and his proposals submitted to federal agencies were no longer funded.

Some MIT students diverged from Noam’s ‘Revised Standard Theory’, creating what they called “Generative Semantics”. The conflict is described in Randy Harris’s book The Linguistics Wars.

This digression now brings us back to the immediate situation when I returned to Berkeley in 1974. George Lakoff, Chuck Fillmore, and a few other academic refugees from the east coast were recent arrivals, intending to establish what they actually did joke about as “MIT West”. It quickly became apparent to me that my prospects for employment in linguistics would depend upon adopting and teaching views that I thought nonsense. At the end of 1974 I left the university.

The 30th year of life is for most people a time of important transitions (Sheehy, Passages). That summer I began a relationship that continues in a marriage today. Two years later, we drove cross country, first to my family in Florida, then to Sarah’s in New York, where we married. I helped my father build a house in Edgartown on his share of land he and his sister inherited when their mother died twelve years earlier, in 1962. Sarah and I lived in it while I did the finish work inside and then managed rentals of half of it for my parents. We were involved in peace activism, community theater, I wrote a book manuscript, and while connecting with my ancestral roots discovered first hand the Martha’s Vineyard way of piecing together a patchwork living in the poorest county in the state of Massachusetts — this despite the annual tide of wealthy summer people (or in some respects because of it).

In 1980 my book was picked up by a small publisher in Rockport, Massachusetts, north of Boston next to Gloucester. He required me to retype the manuscript into his IBM System 34, a business computer somewhat larger than a chest freezer. Then he fired his editor, he hired me in his place, and we moved. He had a revolving-door history and like many an employee before me he fired me after nine months, with Sarah going on three months pregnant with our first child. His reason was he was depending on me too much and he feared I had him over a barrel. Sounded perfectly reasonable to him.

The catapult of economic necessity threw me unwillingly into daily hour-long rush-hour traffic on Route 128, “America’s technology highway.” For 13 years I managed and supported technical writers at Bolt Beranek & Newman, in the commercial subsidiary that quickly came to specialize in telecommunications. BBN, America’s least well-known famous R&D company, was a principal originator of the Internet, among other things. I very quickly had to become proficient with tools and processes in the UNIX environment, and with communications across the Internet.

The linguistics revolutionaries had become the establishment gatekeepers, but the Internet opened alternative pathways around them for learning and communicating ideas and knowledge. It gradually became apparent that because I did not have an academic post, with its necessary compromises for survival, I could think and write more freely — in my ‘spare time’.

In 1982, Harris published A grammar of English on mathematical principles, which I reviewed in Computational Linguistics in 1984. In the fall of 1986, I learned that Harris was giving a series of lectures on language and information at Columbia University. I arranged time to drive to New York for the four lectures, spread over two weeks, overnighting at my mother-in-law’s house in Scarsdale. At the reception after the first lecture, I saw many familiar faces from the faculty at Penn, and met Maurice Gross, from Paris, for the first time. Henry Hiż praised my review of Harris’s grammar. “I would give you an A for it. I use it to teach my students.” Hiż was a Polish logician who had come to America after the war and joined Harris at Penn in the late 1940s. It was actually a quarrel with him, over his imperious demand that I become his student (which I didn’t want to do), which tipped the balance of my decision to switch from Yana to Achumawi that day in La Jolla. Now I mentioned to him that I had been unable to get NSF funding to renew fieldwork on Achumawi. I described how reviewers had liked my proposals, but because I had not completed the PhD, the final committee doubted that I would deliver anything for their money. “You would be welcome to return and complete the degree,” said Hiż. Well, not so easy, with a family, job, mortgage … “You could do it in absentia. It has been done before. I would have to examine your dossier.”

Because my matriculation was in suspension but still in a sense ‘alive’, I had some seniority. I did course work locally in Boston and Cambridge, and remotely by ‘Oxford tutorial’ method with Penn faculty while working at BBN and entering my Achumawi field notes into a DOS-based linguistic database program called Shoebox. I did the written PhD exams over four days and nights in 1993, camping in an office at BBN.

I was part of a telecommunications subsidiary of BBN that Cisco Systems acquired in 1994-1995. My father died in 1994, and my mother asked for help managing the house in Edgartown, while she stayed summers in a cabin they had built on a piece of the old farm in Chilmark that she had bought from her mother. Since Cisco supported telecommuting, we sold our house in Gloucester and moved with our two daughters back to Martha’s Vineyard. I focused as much of my spare time as I could on my Achumawi database, upgrading to a completely re-engineered Windows-based database system from the same maker. I finally got the PhD in 1998, 29 years after I had left Penn for California.

Throughout this period I wrote and published a number of reviews and critical essays correcting the prevailing distortions of opinion about Harris, and throughout this period I kept looking for a respectable and comprehensive way to understand the psychology and cognitive process of language, how the brain constructs language and how it relates objective form and information to what we subjectively apprehend as meanings more generally. In 1990 or 1991 on the net I came across the “A Manifesto for Control Theorists” and then other writings by Bill Powers, and connected to the CSG discussion group not long before Gary Cziko set up CSGnet hosted on the listserv at UI. It did not take long to realize that this, too, has the ring of truth.

Ever since, I have been working to explain perceptual control to linguists, to explain to PCT folks the perceptions that constitute language and how they are controlled, and to understand and describe how control of language perceptions is tested and verified in processes of collective control, and how the universe of non-language perceptions provides subjective meanings. My particular interest is language and thought as control of perception.

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Hola,

Me llama Mary o Maria. Soy esposa de David. Vero qu no tengo un doctorate. Ni yo tambien no tenga ningun idea como obtenrrle.

Pero, me gustaria que tener algun dia para mi esposo y yo.

Me encanta escuchar la musica de ahora y ayer. De todos partes. Frances, ingles, alleman, canadia, folk :guitar:, rap music, qualquiera. Spanish y ingles estan mis idiomas, pero me gustaria aprender mas y mas.

Greek mythology y la idioma me fascina. Tengo miedo de tratar y aprender a la greek.

Es posible que. Una pareha pueden mover all Greco? Con nuestra President senior Trumpo especially. Es seguro vivir en otro piaes y tierrasahorita?

Hi Maria,

Welcome to the community!

I am afraid that I don’t know Spanish and can only google translate, so I can only understand part of your response.

I find Greek mythology fascinating as well. It is quite similar to Egyptian mythology. Some suggests that Greek had a lot of influence from Egyptians when Greek mythology was written.

Although we can’t help you on learning Greek but I do hope you can learn something new about PCT here!