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Chomsky's Empty Suit By: Charles de Wolf
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, September 29, 2004

According to the legend taught to my generation of graduate students, early 20th Century American linguistics, prominently led by the formidable scholar Leonard Bloomfield, fell under the restrictive spell of behaviorism, resulting in a dull, mechanistic, and highly restrictive approach to language analysis. Then in the 1950s came Noam Chomsky, whose theory of language and mind brought a liberating and exhilarating revolution to the field. Moreover, as with other intellectual giants such as Marx and Freud, it can be said that even his detractors are his children; whatever Chomsky's failings and inconsistencies, he has made us all think about language and approaches to its study in new and different ways.

If even linguists are taken in by this argument, it is not surprising that non-linguists should accept it as well, particularly if they are predisposed to be (a) trusting of professors and scholars in general and (b) sympathetic to liberal and left-wing pundits in particular. If in his political polemics Chomsky is widely regarded as a trifle "shrill," as even his supporters will sometimes delicately admit, he is at least not to be associated with that awful rightwing riff-raff.

Chomsky has also benefited from the prodigious growth within the field of linguistics of what John Williamson calls "undecipherable symbolism, mumbo-jumbo jargon, and algebraic formulae." (TACR, p. 236) Hesitancy to declare the emperor or his heirs naked is undoubtedly increased when an exalted clique of couture cultists raves in an incomprehensible language about the latest robe.  

In the interests of full disclosure, I might say that I too was first drawn to linguistics in no small measure by the allure of Chomsky's mentalism ¨C his attempt to reduce the complexities of language to a science of abstract ideas. Furthermore, though well-versed in Latin, traditional grammar, and elementary structuralist linguists and proud to be fluent in five languages, I was dismayed to discover, as I contemplated entering the field, that technical linguistics journals were as incomprehensible to me as Linear A. At the same time, I was thrilled by the thought that I too might myself eventually master that code and thus enter into the true science of language, as opposed to schoolmarm grammar and hoary philology.


The fact that Noam Chomsky was also a hero to the New Left was a further inducement, for I was then a fervent socialist and a bitter opponent of "American imperialism." Graduate school proved to be a chastening experience. By the time I had completed my Ph.D., I had come to hold conservative political and cultural views and to reject the Chomskyan linguistic model.


In all fairness, it must be said that linguistics, perhaps like all fields of study, has never been immune to ideological fashion or personality cults. In the 19th century, an extraordinarily fruitful period in the history of language science, including detailed reconstruction of the Indo-European, the discovery of other language families, and the exploration of grammatical typology, Hegelian and Darwinian ideas about historical and natural development led to erroneous generalizations about linguistic evolution, "primitive" vs. "advanced" languages, and the alleged relationship between race and language. And while American structuralism later came to be seen through the distorted prism of Chomskyism, it is also true that in their insistence on the "scientific" and "objective" nature of linguistics, the self-styled descriptivists reduced the range of acceptable inquiry.


Ironically, Chomsky was himself a model structuralist in his initial exclusion of meaning from linguistic analysis. John Williamson understandably finds this "inexplicable" (TACR, p. 243), but Chomsky's reasoning is nonetheless solidly within the tradition: "Meaning is a notoriously difficult notion to pin down." (Syntactic Structures [1955])


Yet by making a theory of syntax the cornerstone of his work, with its free-wheeling transformational operations, Chomsky paved the way for the "heresy" he came so fiercely to oppose: generative semantics. As Levine and Postal point out, any detailed application of the proposed active-passive transformation leads to ungrammatical outputs. Yet it was also shown early on that active and passive versions of supposedly the same deep structure do not always have the same semantic content, thereby raising ipso facto the dread issue of semantics. Let us consider, for example, the following pairs: "Last year not a single high-ranking state official witnessed the execution of more than three convicted killers" -- "Last year the execution of more than three convicted killers was witnessed by not a single high-ranking state official."


Now as Levine and Postal say themselves, there is nothing wrong with making sweeping generalizations and then modifying them. Yet Chomsky not only formulated broadly powerful syntactic rules; he also made extraordinarily bold claims about the evidence that could be drawn concerning the nature of human language. The notion of deep structure was thus much more than a useful gimmick for relating one grammatical pattern to another; it was a key to his theory about the human mind itself. Moreover, it was quickly borrowed (having been conveniently misunderstood) by non-linguists as a chic new term to refer to fundamental reality, in contrast to mere appearance (surface structure). Similar dichotomies are, of course, already quite familiar in Marxist and Freudian thinking as well and have great appeal to intellectuals, academics, and all those seeking "the theory of everything."


Attempting to relate Chomsky's linguistics to his politics is a risky venture, particularly when one is far better acquainted with the latter than the former. In Modern Times (1983, revised 1991), the historian Paul Johnson makes a brief reference to Chomsky's syntactic theory, mistakenly implying that it is deterministic. In Intellectuals (1988), he suggests that Chomsky's notion of linguistic universals and innate ideas, together with his rejection of the empiricist (and by implication behaviorist) concept of the tabula rasa, ought to have made him an opponent, not an apologist, for totalitarian social engineering schemes. Johnson's intention is no doubt commendable, but Chomsky is a master of "no, that's not what I meant at all."


My point here, however, is less about Chomsky's linguistic theory than the general mood to which it greatly contributed. As with other political revolutions, the new freedom that the overthrow of the linguistic ancient regime brought was soon replaced by a new and arguably greater restrictiveness.


I have never met Noam Chomsky, but I have had both teachers and friends who have known him and years of exposure to his theories. I can thus testify with some confidence to what can only be called a cult of personality. I remember one of my mentors exclaiming in awe that he had never seen the great guru lose an argument, even when he was obviously wrong and probably knew so himself. I am ashamed to say that at the time I took this to be admirable and encouraging. To that same mentor's credit, however, he more than once shook his head over the state of syntactic theory: "They keep revising it every five minutes."


Marx famously declared that "philosophers have only interpreted the world¡­; the point is to change it." Chomsky claimed that while traditional grammarians had merely sought to describe language, the true goal was to explain it." While such, as he conceded himself, was well beyond the means of current research, the new order encouraged an aggressively optimistic radicalism. The plodding and meticulous "antediluvians," fussing with petty problems created by self-imposed theoretical constraints, could not compete with the exuberant and ideologically correct. The general anti-establishment ethos of the 1960s likewise encouraged the rise of the instant expert.


There was, it must also be admitted, a distinct element of intellectual snobbery in it all. I came to see this most clearly in the study of East Asian languages, two of which I was already able to speak by the time I entered graduate school. Chomskyism, with its abstract, pseudo-mathematical rules, came to have an enormous impact on the linguistic world in Japan and Korea. The eagerness and willingness of young Japanese and Korean scholars to abandon or utterly ignore their own descriptive grammatical traditions to accommodate Chomsky's theories was astounding and troubling. (Some years ago, while sitting through a particularly absurd lecture on Korean syntax in Seoul, I leaned over to a young Korean woman sitting next to me and asked: "But all of these example sentences are totally ungrammatical!" Looking somewhat alarmed, she glanced at me and then said haughtily: "He is talking about theoretical Korean!"


Now Chomsky is obviously not responsible for all of the nonsense propagated by wannabe linguists or outright charlatans. Yet it is hard to imagine how the blithe acceptance of "theoretical Korean" by a speaker of real Korean would have been possible had it not been for the "Theorie ¨¹ber alles" mentality that Chomskyanism encouraged the pressure to toe the ideological line that such brought with it.


Levine and Postal focus on syntactic issues in Chomsky's theory, but examples can also be drawn from phonology. Though not an expert in the field, Chomsky co-authored with Morris Halle a massive tome entitled The Sound Pattern of English (1968), which quickly became the bible of the "standard theory." Previous analyses were dismissed, misrepresented, or simply ignored. The result was that phonology became a substantially expanded ¨C and much more abstract component of the overall grammar. One spoke of "underlying representations" of words, these being supposedly the form in which native speakers encode them before applying complex rules to arrive at the "surface representation." To account for the vowel variation in the words sign and signify, for example, one postulated /i/, which then undergoes lengthening and diphthongization in one environment (becoming [ai]) and shortening and laxing in another (becoming [i] as in big, fig, rig etc.). The problematic [g] that appears in signify but not in sign was included in the underlying representation of both words but then eliminated according to a rule deleting nasals in final position.


As it happens, such forms correspond rather closely, at least in regard to the vowels, to the pronunciation of English some 600 years ago. The changes that took place over the following centuries are summarized by what the great Danish linguist and Anglicist Otto Jespersen called The Great Vowel Shift.


The idea that children who grow up hearing English somehow design such an ingeniously elaborate and abstract phonological system would have struck an older generation of linguists as laughably absurd. Yet Chomsky and Halle's work, known as SPE to most any beginning graduate student of linguistics in the English-speaking world, was taken with the utmost seriousness.


For the linguistic layman, Chomsky's mentalism undoubtedly had an inherent appeal, celebrating as it did both universalism and the creative freedom of the human mind. For the professional student of language, on the other hand, it became an oppressive ideology, with all the circular reasoning and indifference to scientific precision that typify such.


Sooner in phonology than in syntax, a reaction set in, so that even by the time I finished graduate school in 1978, SPE was discussed either defensively or with a knowing wink. As with the A-Over-A principle, lucidly discussed by Levine and Postal, however, it has not gone away, and as with Chomsky's political views, it never seemed to matter how outrageously wrong a particular claim whether grandiose theory or scholarly detail happened to be. The Chairman was always right. And, unlike Mao's Little Red Book, SPE (a large, expensive tome) still winds up on reading lists.


It can be argued, of course, that none of this should be of great interest to non-linguists, that whatever SPE's implausibility, it has had a stimulating effect on budding linguists, acquainting them at the very least with such significant phenomena as the Great Vowel Shift. Here again, like the ideological titans of yore to which he is compared, Chomsky has had the status of a "Teflon intellectual." The more fantastic the claims, the more eagerly they are believed: "Greater thinker (fill-in-the-blank) may have been wrong about (fill-in-the-blank), but he still had a deep insight into (fill-in-the-blank). Now, for 30 points, explain to me why you are a bourgeois reactionary with an unconscious longing to kill your father and sleep with your mother."


The fundamental question that should be raised is whether Chomsky's overall theory has, over the years, provided the basis for honest and fruitful inquiry into human language. A definitive conclusion can obviously not be drawn from the findings of two relatively short articles intended for non-specialists, but at least for this reader they point decidedly in the right direction, the answer being no.


Chomsky, who once audaciously described true linguistics as a "branch of cognitive psychology," thereby relegating traditional language scholars to the status of mere "grammarians," has in truth, as Levine, Postal, and Williamson point out, done nothing to advance the theory of language and mind beyond the realm of philosophical speculation. His grammatical theories have proven to have all the consistency of Maoist economics. The fact that each new permutation has been greeted with a mixture of jubilation and reverence by the gullible and the sycophantic may say as much about academic conformism in general as about Noam Chomsky in particular, but these two articles serve to demonstrate that the imperial lord of generative grammar has, as it were, been his own cynically self-promoting tailor.


Levine and Postal are undoubtedly paying a heavy price for pointing out in decidedly non-leftist publication what many of their colleagues either deny or dare not say. I salute their courage as well as the clarity of their analysis. I should also wish to thank John Williamson for daring to pose fundamental questions that too many professional linguists are either too distracted or too timid to confront. I would urge him to continue his own study of language, which, prominent bullies to the contrary, remains an endlessly fascinating endeavor.

Charles de Wolf has a PhD in linguistics and is a professor at Keio University in Japan.

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