## The Factoid Acquisition Device

In the section on "Theories of Language Development" in Karen Huffman's Psychology in Action, Wiley, 8th edition, 2005 (p. 303), we read that

… Noam Chomsky … suggests that children are born "prewired" to learn language. They possess neurological ability, known as a language acquisition device (LAD), that … enables the child to analyze language and extract the basic rules of grammar.
[…]
Although the nativist position enjoys considerable support, it fails to explain individual differences. Why does one child learn rules for English, whereas another learns rules for Spanish?

(To see the whole passage in context, click on the thumbnail in for a larger image.)

In a linguistic version of the Daily Show, at this point Jon Stewart would look up at the ceiling, point side-to-side to mime consideration of the two pieces of the quotation, look at the audience, start to speak, stop, expel an exasperated breath, and shrug, palms up, with a wry smile.

Unfortunately, I don't know any emoticon for this particular package of non-verbal signals. So please take me to have transmitted verbally that I'm at a loss for words.

^_^J.

12. ### Trent said,

September 20, 2008 @ 9:45 pm

The circled passage is strange. What is needed there, I guess, is a reference to universal grammar, if that is indeed the notion the author wanted to challenge. Who knows?

The tone of the textbook passage bothers me. I realize this tone is common in college textbooks, but good grief, why do textbook authors think they have to address students as if they were children?

The last sentence in the passage is a doozy: "As critical thinkers …" I'd wager the phrase parrots government or institutional mandates that textbooks "enhance critical thinking."

13. ### Lance said,

September 21, 2008 @ 3:25 am

I got curious, and decided to go skim Amazon's online preview. Trent's dead-on about the tone. In layout, the book looks like a sixth-grade social studies book: margin boxes with "Achievements" like "What is language, and how is it related to thinking?"; margin notes highlighting vocabulary words and giving their pronunciations, like "Phoneme (FOE-neem)"; "Assessment" boxes with "check and review" questions.

Then there's the writing style, with section openings like "Do you remember the story of Phineas Gage from Chapter 2?". The paragraph on semantics made my eyes hurt: "If we want to refer to a baby sheep, we use the word lamb, not the word limb, which means something entirely different"—I mean, I know this is a psych textbook that isn't going to cover linguistics in any detail, but seriously, that's the example?

To her mild credit, incidentally, in the section on Language and Thought, she does note that "[Whorf] apparently exaggerated the number of Inuit words for snow (Pullum, 1991)". Maybe that makes it worse, though, to know that she read the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, but didn't internalize it enough to avoid the "Pinto" anecdote. (This is a few pages before the excerpt that opens Mark's post, for reference.)

I'm not enough of a psychologist to evaluate the book in general. I wonder whether it's generally better than it is in the sections I did skim.

14. ### Catanea said,

September 21, 2008 @ 4:50 am

I'm amazed that there ARE "text books" for university courses. When I was at university the "text books" we spent vast fortunes on were collections of essays &c. actually aimed at professionals in the fields in question. Results of research, &c. Even in studying languages, once we got past the basics, our German textbooks, for example, were collections of radio plays that had been broadcast on German-language radio, in German, for German readers. Or maybe for German drama groups who wanted to perform them as readings… Our anthropology textbooks were collections of essays about different tribes, villages, small towns, &c., usually with a unifying theme. The book described here sounds like a high school textbook. How odd.

15. ### mae said,

September 21, 2008 @ 9:34 am

I never thought of questioning the Pinto story. Now I am doubting the analogous tale that Procter and Gamble (a company that didn't hire Jews) ever tried to market a toothpaste named Dreck.

16. ### Oskar said,

September 21, 2008 @ 9:43 am

In terms of poorly named automobiles, there's an urban legend here in Sweden (I have no idea whether it's true, but it's widely told) that the Honda Fit was originally the Honda Fitta, but they changed it.

Why did they change it? Well, "fitta" in Swedish is an extraordinarily crude word referring to female genitals. Thus, the car in Sweden would effectively have been called the "Honda Cunt".

17. ### Mark Liberman said,

September 21, 2008 @ 11:20 am

Mae: Now I am doubting the analogous tale that Procter and Gamble … ever tried to market a toothpaste named Dreck.

And well you should. The only version of this legend that I could find on the internet is a 1969 Time Magazine article, which asserts (without further information) that

A leather-preservatives manufacturer tried to market a product called Dreck—until he discovered that the name means dirt (or worse) in German and Yiddish.

18. ### Trent said,

September 21, 2008 @ 12:12 pm

I thought this one would be mentioned by now; it's one I've heard for years. Supposedly either Coke or Pepsi tried to use a translation of a marketing slogan (either "Coke adds life" or "Come alive with Pepsi") in China. The results were said to be "Coke [or Pepsi] brings your ancestors back to life" or "Coke [or Pepsi] brings your ancestors back from the dead." I've always assumed it was an urban legend, and a quick Google search suggests it is.

A head scratching name actually used by Toyota for a car is "Cressida." Why would an auto manufacturer wish to use the name of a medieval symbol of inconstancy? Wikipedia tells me those old cars are now used for drifting competitions, which seems oddly apt.

I thought I remembered a car by the name of Cassandra, but can find no internet reference. I did find mention of the Cassandra Financial Group.

19. ### Maria said,

September 21, 2008 @ 12:31 pm

The Pajero story is true. My parents used to own a Mitsubishi Montero in Argentina. When I visited Prague in 1998, I saw an exact replica of my parents' car with the name Pajero. My friend and I giggled quite a bit at the sight. (In our defense, we were 16).

20. ### caio1982 said,

September 21, 2008 @ 2:38 pm

Just my 0.2 cents (I'm a native speaker of Portuguese, linguist wannabe): I'm 25 years old and I've never heard about this Pinto story, ever. I can't hardly believe one would sell a car with this name in Brazil, though it's not because means "little or small penis". Actually it does mean a couple of different things: a not-so-common surname which I believe is indeed related to a kind of horse, small baby chicks (there's even a very popular children's song about them, so definitely it's not a bad word to pronounce), a childish way to talk about the penis. When we want to refer to a small one we do use diminutives forms by appending "zinho", "inho" or "ito" for a male noun so, for instance, pintozinho or pintinho would be more like a "small penis" for native speakers in Brazil.

For the choice of Corcel as the name of this (or another car), nobody in Brazil talks about horses using the word "corcel" and I don't think it has been used in the recent past at all. However, it's quite ok to use this word in Portuguese, depending on the context, as it actually means a very special kind of fast horse used in battles, mostly related to Arabian breeds (the movie called The Young Black Stallion has been translated into Corcel Negro). I believe the origin of this Portuguese word is French, from coursier or something like that, I'm not really sure.

21. ### caio1982 said,

September 21, 2008 @ 2:43 pm

When I said "a childish way to talk about the penis" I forgot to make it clear that is also used to describe any animal's penis in a childish way, it's not exclusive to a human male.

22. ### Randy said,

September 21, 2008 @ 4:08 pm

"A head scratching name actually used by Toyota for a car is "Cressida." Why would an auto manufacturer wish to use the name of a medieval symbol of inconstancy? Wikipedia tells me those old cars are now used for drifting competitions, which seems oddly apt."

How many people do you think are familiar with the medieval symbolism of Cressida? I've no idea what a Corolla or a Camry actually is either. Perhaps when I'm done with this comment, I'll go out into the streets and do a poll on the passersby to see how many are familiar with origins of the names of Toyota's vehicles.

Now I wasn't around during the early 70's (I wasn't released to the general public until the same year as the second generation Cressida was) or any decade previous to that, but rumours have been bandied about that that was an era of free love and whatnot [Primary Source: That 70's Show]. Assuming these rumours are true "drifting" may have been somewhat fashionable. Of course, I'm not advocating inconstancy, but given the obscurity of the symbolism and the reported mood of the era, I doubt it would have caused any significant problems. Plus, without knowing the symbolism, it sounds kinda neat.

23. ### Trent said,

September 21, 2008 @ 5:17 pm

Randy,

Perhaps it is a generational thing, then. I don't know. I would think that some significant fraction of the public would be aware of Chaucer's poem or Shakespeare's play, at least. We could debate what a "significant" fraction is, but I'd think 5 percent would qualify. I encountered either the poem or the play — can't remember which — during undergraduate studies, and I wasn't an English major. At any rate, if you do go out polling, I'd love to hear the results.

I was around during the early '70s, but I wasn't old enough to engage in free love. I'll defer to your TV show ;)

If the word "camry" means anything, I'm not aware of it. "Corolla" actually does have older meanings, but none that should hurt automobile sales.

Many parents name their daughters "Cassandra." I assume they don't know what the name signifies, but I'd bet that most of their daughters learn at some point in their lives.

I seem to annoy some people here. It's really not my intent.

24. ### Randy said,

September 21, 2008 @ 7:12 pm

Hi Trent,

They say TV adds 10 pounds. The internet adds the corresponding quantity of negative tone, in this case annoyance. It doesn't help that I have a strong sarcastic streak and don't often correct for it when writing on the internet. In any case, I wasn't annoyed.

We read Shakespeare all throughout high school, Romeo and Juliet, MacBeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream, King Lear, and Hamlet. I read Hamlet again during my undergrad.

I was just reading an old language log post regarding things that "every schoolboy knows" ( "Every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma, and who strangled Atahualpa"). I think that phenomenon is at play here. There are many Shakespeare plays and much Greek mythology to know, and they can't all be covered in high school, so different schoolboys end up knowing different things. Or perhaps education went off a cliff some time between my schooling and yours.

25. ### Joshua said,

September 21, 2008 @ 10:18 pm

The marketing mistakes site uses as an example the Buick LaCrosse, which allegedly is slang for masturbation in Quebec.

I don't think we can really fault Buick for that, given that lacrosse, which is known in French as "la crosse," is one of the national sports of Canada. If the words "la crosse" are taboo in Quebec now, I don't know how anyone manages to promote the sport there.

26. ### Benjamin Zimmer said,

September 22, 2008 @ 12:27 am

Trent: See Snopes for more on the "Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Dead" story.

27. ### Randy said,

September 22, 2008 @ 1:05 am

"The marketing mistakes site uses as an example the Buick LaCrosse, which allegedly is slang for masturbation in Quebec."

"Pulling the goaltender" is slang for the same, but they still manage to sell hockey in English markets.

Many things can be made to sound dirty if you say them in the right way or context. This doesn't imply that they always mean that in all contexts. I think most people who drive a Buick are classy enough not to associate the slang meaning of lacrosse with the car.

I think perhaps too much could be made about slang terms, especially when there is a non-slang meaning for the same term.

What about cross Atlantic marketing gaffes, where an English phrase on one side of ocean is innocuous, but suggestive, racy, silly, or offensive on the other side? I'm sure we could find some. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if we could find a handful of products that were marketed in the US by Americans (or England by the English, or Australia by Australians, etc.) that had some unintended alternate current meaning that business execs failed to appreciate before the release date.

28. ### Trent said,

September 22, 2008 @ 6:55 am

Randy,

Yes, you're right about tone on the internet. Although I don't really like emoticons, I sometimes use them online for that very reason. 'Tis cool.

Ben,

29. ### Mark Liberman said,

September 22, 2008 @ 8:46 am

The long list of urban legends used in marketing texts leads me to ask: are any of the stories told in marketing courses actually true? It's hard to believe that marketing experts impose falsehood as a necessary condition for their illustrative examples; but perhaps they can't avoid a bit of, um, embellishment?

30. ### Maria said,

September 22, 2008 @ 9:15 am

I may be too confident in the abilities of multinational companies, but local people are usually involved in launching large marketing campaigns, and I would assume that *someone* at *some* point would warn the powers that be about the unfortunate naming choice. I am sure there was more than one uncomfortable conversation in Mitsubishi about the Pajero SUV.

My personal favorite: a brand of bread that is quite popular in Latin America: Bimbo.

31. ### Paul said,

September 22, 2008 @ 9:17 am

Randy,

Unfortunately, the name "Randy" is a good example of "an English phrase on one side of ocean [which] is innocuous, but suggestive, racy, silly, or offensive on the other side".

32. ### Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

September 22, 2008 @ 9:57 am

It occurs to me there might be some truth in the following analogy: We all know that words like "peter", "dick", and "rod" can be slang for the male appendage. But it's not the case that nobody has these names. It's perfectly possible to talk about Dick Van Dyke or Rod Stewart without snickering, and these entertainers didn't change their names before exposing themselves to a wide audience.

33. ### parvomagnus said,

September 22, 2008 @ 10:06 am

I can't imagine avoiding buying a good car that I liked because it was called "Nogo" or "Dungo" or some such. It's impressive how framing these stories as about foreigners speaking foreign languages allow the hearers to avoid considering what they'd do in a similar circumstance. Apparently great swaths of the internet consider this a plausible reaction:

"Sir, you want me to buy this car, yet the name itself clearly states that it will not actually go. While it is perhaps odd that you would be so forthright about this, I would at the least be the object of ridicule among my friends were I to buy it. Sorry, but no."

You might use the name to mock your friends who bought one early, but the idea that a car would flop because the name says something is rather odd. Now, the name simply being weird might hurt it, but the bar for these stories is so low that I wonder if some writers don't just make them up off the top of their heads.

34. ### Chris said,

September 22, 2008 @ 10:11 am

This reminds me rather strongly of a Stephen Jay Gould essay on the same phenomenon occurring in science textbooks. Gould was rather understandably peeved.

The title of the essay was "The Case of the Creeping Fox Terrier Clone", but since it's from a fairly recent print book, I doubt you'll be able to find it online.

IIRC, the phenomenon of textbooks plagiarizing textbooks was so common, some books included *both* a discussion of the discrediting of Cyril Burt *and* data copied from someone who copied it from someone… who copied it from Burt.

35. ### wally said,

September 22, 2008 @ 10:19 am

“are any of the stories told in marketing courses actually true?”

I’ve been led to believe by someone that actually worked for Exxon in
Japan that the story about “Enco” is true.

As far as for the orignal quote at the top of this post, I guess I don’t
see the reason for all the eye rolling. Sure, if that was say a posting
on this list, where presumably everybody already knows the answer, it would
be pretty lame. But for an introductory course, if you first state that
there is a prewired aspect to acquiring language, it makes sense to at
least be explicit about how then people in diffent settings will do
it differently. Am I missing something?

36. ### Maria said,

September 22, 2008 @ 10:21 am

I agree with parvomagnus that there is an implicit condescension towards the "natives" in these stories. One thing that irks me on top of that, is that no Spanish speaker would ever confuse "no va" with "Nova". The stress is different ("no VA" and "NOva"). It's like saying that the Chanel brand loses value in English speaking countries because it reminds people of TV channels.

37. ### Jonathan said,

September 22, 2008 @ 10:21 am

I believe that the "Enteron-Enron" story is true. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enron And see how much better that name worked out?

38. ### Steve said,

September 22, 2008 @ 11:49 am

@ Randy 'What about cross Atlantic marketing gaffes, where an English phrase on one side of ocean is innocuous, but suggestive, racy, silly, or offensive on the other side' The film 'Free Willy' was marketed in the British market with its original title. It was very successful, but certainly provoked a lot of giggling among schoolchildren. ('Willy' of course, means the same as 'pinto' for Brits.)

39. ### Mark Liberman said,

September 22, 2008 @ 12:01 pm

Wally: …for an introductory course, if you first state that
there is a prewired aspect to acquiring language, it makes sense to at
least be explicit about how then people in diffent settings will do
it differently. Am I missing something?

Yes. The problem is one of logic: you can't refute the claim that children are born with a device "that … enables [them] to analyze language and extract the basic rules of grammar", by observing that this device works exactly as advertised, in that given different languages to analyze, it learns different rules.

The nativist (or in Chomsky's case, rationalist) claim might be false on other grounds; but this argument is… well, as I said, words fail me.

40. ### Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

September 22, 2008 @ 2:28 pm

It seems like the textbook's authors didn't really appreciate what the nativists claim. If somebody says we're "hard-wired for grammar", they of course don't mean that we come hard-wired with specific rules such as "add an 's' to make a noun plural" or even "add a suffix or prefix to make a noun plural".

If we have some kind of innate language acquisition hardware, then it must be something very abstract and skeletal, for lack of better adjectives. Maybe we're hard-wired to extract rules of grammar from utterances we hear, but the particular rules we extract will of course completely depend on what rules are actually present in whatever language we happen to be exposed to. If our community speaks a language where nouns can be pluralized but adjectives cannot, then we'll extract that particular grammatical fact from the utterances we hear.

Does this make sense? I'm not actually a linguist.

I suspect that elucidating the position of the nativists in an introductory textbook would actually be rather subtle and difficult.

41. ### Tim Silverman said,

September 22, 2008 @ 6:37 pm

@Randy, Steve: I was in the cinema when a trailer for Free Willy was shown. It must have been early in the marketing campaign, because I don't think anyone had seen it before. The film we were waiting to see was a children's film, but also one enjoyable for older people, so there were people of every age in the cinema, toddlers, older children, teenagers, young parents, right up through white-haired grandmothers. So this trailer for a film about a whale came up, we watched it, and right at the end, the name came up: Free Willy. And the entire audience, of every age, from the little three-year-olds right up to the white haired grandmothers, burst out in a fit of giggles, and continued giggling for two or three minutes, before they all turned to each other and I guess started saying things along the lines of "Good grief, didn't they do any research?

So it wasn't just schoolchildren. It was a joke that could be enjoyed, on much the same level, by everybody.

42. ### Tim Silverman said,

September 22, 2008 @ 6:43 pm

@Wally, Skullturf (may I call you Skullturf?):

It's kind of like saying that visual system is hardwired to extract the form of surfaces from the pattern impinging light rays, and then say this doesn't explain how people see different things when looking at different objects.

43. ### Trent said,

September 22, 2008 @ 8:54 pm

Skullturf,

I was waiting for a linguistic expert to say this, but I think the notion of Universal Grammar is what you are looking for. You can Google the term for lots of information, but essentially the theory holds that there are principles shared by all languages that the human mind innately grasps. Chomsky moved away from his early formulation of LAD to a version of universal grammar. At least that's my understanding. As I said, I'm no linguist, having taken in the mid-80's exactly one linguistics class, which was concerned with transformational generative grammar.

44. ### Emanuel said,

September 22, 2008 @ 11:27 pm

Another Brazilian posting here.

As far as I know, Ford Corcel was produced earlier than Ford Pinto (which was never sold in Brazil, by the way). The first is from the 60s and the latter from the 70s, so the story could not have been true.

45. ### Roger Lustig said,

September 22, 2008 @ 11:52 pm

Automobile names constitute a deliciously inscrutable genre. With luck, they'll remain so.

The legendary Chevy No-va and the Matador must have raised a few eyebrows when someone drove one down the lane in Latin America–never mind whether they were actually sold there.

Spanish being spoken in many countries, the Mitsubishi Pajero brings joy to millions all over Europe. I also like the Daihatsu Charade.

Frisch weht der Wind im Daihatsu…

46. ### Nathan Myers said,

September 23, 2008 @ 1:20 am

Mark wrote: It's hard to believe that marketing experts impose falsehood as a necessary condition for their illustrative examples

Why? What are they supposed to be teaching, instead?

Seriously, the job of advertising is BS, by the exact technical definition. A false example is equally as illustrative as a true example of otherwise equal value, but only one can be improved upon without becoming the other. A teacher interested in quality wants the best possible examples, which by the process of incremental improvement makes all examples of any maturity false. QED.

47. ### Alex B said,

September 23, 2008 @ 3:26 am

Hmm

Explaining how the world functions by using stories, isn't that what myths are supposed to do?

48. ### Ken Brown said,

September 23, 2008 @ 11:10 am

Nintendo Wii

Everyone laughed when they first heard the name. Well, everyone in England did anyway. But it still sells.

49. ### Christy Mason said,

September 24, 2008 @ 4:26 pm

A variation on the story that went around Southern California: local pharmacy chain Sav-On was bought by larger chain Osco. Osco had to change the name on the Southern California stores back to Sav-On because they never noticed that Osco means nauseating in Spanish until there was a large drop in their sales. Osco did buy Sav-On, and didn't market themselves here as Osco, but whether they ever changed the name then changed it back, I can't say that I actually noticed personally. At the time, I shopped at the independent and well-named "Better Drugs." I'll take Better Drugs over nauseating ones any time.

50. ### Trent said,

September 24, 2008 @ 7:50 pm

Oh lord. As an undergraduate I attended North Texas State University; its radio station was KNTU. You can imagine the snickers when the school changed its name to the University of North Texas.

51. ### Randy said,

September 24, 2008 @ 8:39 pm

Trent:

This reminds me of when the Reform Party changed its name to the Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance Party. Naturally, with such a long name, it was shortened to an acronym. Naturally with such an acronym, the party changed its name.

Later on, one of the Liberal Party MPs, Reg Alcock, got his name as a domain name, without any spaces or other intervening punctuation.

More recently, I saw an advertisement for a company called Beaton Meats.

I knew if I thought long and hard enough I would come
up with some examples where English speakers have made marketing mistakes before an English audience.

Tim: I remember hearing this about Free Willy, but I wasn't sure if was true.

Paul: So should I go by Randall if I ever hit up the mother country?

52. ### Stephen Jones said,

September 25, 2008 @ 1:54 am

The Iranians manufacture a detergent called Barf.

On another irrelevant tack Pajeros are the politician and gangster vehicle of choice in Sri Lanka. In fact the word is often used to mean any luxury vehicle.

Osco means nauseating in Spanish

No it doesn't; the word is asco.

53. ### Cath the Canberra Cook said,

December 10, 2008 @ 7:10 pm

On my first visit to the US, I kept taking photos of drugstore signs. Because, man, how hilarious! Drugs! In a store! Git yer mary-jane and coke right here! (I was young.)

In Australia a "chemist" fills your scripts for your meds. Or a pharmacy sells medication, pills, tablets, pharmaceuticals, cough mixture etc etc. "Drugs" was used pretty much only for illegal substances. Usage is drifting more towards the US these days, but it's still mildly funny and we antiques can make "drugs are goood mmkay" jokes as we pop our cold & flu tabs, or our valiums and anti-cholesterol pills :)

54. ### David Harmon said,

December 10, 2008 @ 9:52 pm

A trans-Atlantic embarrassment: Way back in college years,I took a tour across America with a busload of European and British au pairs. I learned very quickly to call my "fanny pack" a "bum bag" instead.

55. ### transport said,

January 31, 2009 @ 3:26 am

Huh.True or not, anything named fitta would not be a success in the Scandinavian market Maybe they could use Honda Fitta as an example instead