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Chomsky Wrecks His Train Set By: John Williamson
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Suppose that you had been following the work of a scholar or researcher working and publishing in the field of, say, evolution – one who had been doing so for several decades. Assume this scholar to be renowned for his defense and explication of Darwin’s theory, and that all of his or her writings shored up previous writings in support of this theory.

And then suppose that, perhaps for the purpose of memorializing his own career, this scholar publishes a review of his work, outlining the progress made over the years, bringing the reader up to date. Suppose finally that the scholar, in concluding this article, gives the following indication of his future direction of inquiry:

“We are now moving to domains involving the notion of intelligent design.”


You would no doubt be staggered by this suggestion that the ideas behind intelligent design are viewed by anyone as the logical consequence arising out of the theoretical implications of the theory of evolution. For it simply cannot be: the idea of intelligent design is a repudiation of evolution, a theory which posits no conscious designer whatsoever. To “move to” intelligent design is to reject evolution, just as surely as to embrace evolution is to dismiss intelligent design.


It would not be any different – or any more radical – than to read that a scholar whose career was based on the advocacy of the notion that the Earth is the center of the solar system were suddenly to announce: “We are now moving to domains involving the notion of solar centrality.”


Or for a Flat-Earther to proclaim: “We are now moving to domains involving the notion of planetary rotundity.”


Not all theories in any given field are congruent, each an outgrowth or development of previous ones, revealed in seamless progression. Indeed, one of the salient features of the history of science is that it progresses by fits and starts, stops at dead ends, and surges forward by sudden leaps and with complete surprises.


And speaking of complete surprises…I happened to be reading an article published in the July 2005 edition of the Boston Review, an alternative periodical published by students at MIT. The article was written by Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics and anti-Americanism at MIT. The article is impressively titled: "What We Know. On the Universals of Language and Rights."


About half of this article – an article so dully written, by the way, as to recall to mind Mark Twain’s famous characterization of the Book of Mormon: “chloroform in print” – is Chomsky’s recap of his journey of linguistic discovery – a journey which ends in the surprise twist I hinted at above. At the end of Chomsky’s story of his linguistics journey, he posits this new vista, upon the threshold of which he now stands:


“We are now moving to domains of will and choice and judgment…”


Will…and…judgment…and choice. Oh my!


Language as a matter of will? Language as a matter of choice? Language as a matter of judgment? This cannot be. For everything that Chomsky has ever advocated or argued for has been to support the notion of language as an organic function of the brain. As recently as 2004, he has famously compared the language function to “insect navigation.”


There is no will involved in organic functioning: the heart pumps blood even as we sleep.


Biolinguistics, Chomsky’s general theory, argues that the brain is wired to produce language according to certain genetically coded rules. Per Chomsky, there is no choice or judgment involved, any more than there is choice in the color of one’s skin or eyes.


Chomsky’s generative grammar, as its name implies, “generates” sentences according to fixed circuitry hard-wired into the brain. The will is irrelevant.


Descriptivism, the doctrine which Chomskyan linguists adhere to, admits of no judgment whatsoever. Descriptivists describe; they judge nothing. Thus, there can be no grammatical/ungrammatical divide.


In one sentence, Chomsky has wrecked his own train set; for it is impossible to claim that the “domains of will, choice and judgment” are outgrowths of biolinguistics, generative grammar, or descriptivism. They are as opposed to one another as intelligent design and evolution.


To adhere to descriptivism is to eschew judgment.


To embrace generative grammar is to exclude choice.


To accept biolinguistics is to reject will.


With one sentence, Chomsky has repudiated all of the major principles of Chomskyan linguistics. To which I say, Welcome to the party. What took you so long?




But I must say, this new development does have a peculiar odor about it. Chomsky gives no rationale for this abrupt about face, nor does he provide any evidence to justify this turn of events. Did this idea come to him out of the blue like a bolt of lightning? Sprung fully formed from the brow of Jove, perhaps?


The next questions that come to mind are these: what would possess someone to come out with a theoretical proposition which completely refutes one’s own life’s work? Why is this earth-shattering revelation buried halfway down this hack-job of an article? Chomsky is not shy, and never in the past has he been unwilling to proclaim from the rooftop his latest theoretical insight. Why practically bury an idea of such revolutionary moment? A couple of possibilities present themselves:


The first is that Chomsky simply doesn’t want to draw too much attention to the fact that he is in effect refuting his entire oeuvre. Understandable, I think. Much better to try to get the world to believe that his new direction merely represents the logical progression of his ideas, that it’s simply the latest wrinkle in his theory. No doubt his brigade of true believers – like Lee’s diehards at Appomattox, believing in him to the bitter end – will buy into this notion.


Another possibility is that Chomsky borrowed the idea from someone else and just doesn’t want to give credit. This is hardly outside the realm of possibility. I refer you to The Anti-Chomsky Reader (Encounter Books, 2004, Collier and Horowitz, Eds.) wherein NYU’s renowned professor of linguistics Paul Postal tells the amazing story of how, after Chomsky had tried to peddle his theory of ‘deep structure’ for years and years*, and after having seen it repudiated in a variety of ways by such academic luminaries as his student John Ross, the University of Chicago’s James McCawley, as well as by Postal himself, Chomsky finally deep-sixed deep structure without even – in the words of Professor Geoffrey Pullum – “…a belated nod in the direction of the literature he resolutely resisted for twenty-five years…but whose central thesis he now adopts.” ** All of which simply proves that there is no ethical standard so low that Chomsky can’t manage to find a way to slither under it.


(A note: Professor Pullum, in his recently published landmark work, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (Cambridge University Press, 2002, Pullum and Huddleston, Eds.) returns the favor: not once in the entire 1842 pages will you find any reference to Chomsky or his theories.)




Having noted Chomsky’s stunning reversal of course, I would like to digress only momentarily in order to comment on another point or two which Chomsky makes elsewhere in the article. He refers to “the act of referring, using words to talk about things and events in the world – that is based on some mystical and fixed word-object relation.”


He also refers to “the mysterious problems of the creative and coherent ordinary use of language.”


Mystical? Mysterious?


Does Chomsky have nothing to say about reference or creativity other than that these are mysterious concepts?


I maintain that there are some very significant and easily understood things which we could say about both reference and creativity which would clear up any mystery that I could think of. In fact, in my article Chomsky: The Theory Unified and Deconstructed , which was published on this website on April 1, 2005, I described three foundational ideas which address these very issues. From Part Nine. Beyond Chomskyan Linguistics:


·        In all human language, the connection between meaning and representation is arbitrary. [I would now amend this point to say that meanings are assigned by speakers through a process which is partially arbitrary and partially logical];


·        There are no limitations on how many or how complex the meanings associated with a word can be;


·        It is the arbitrary nature of language which gives it its labile, or unstable, quality but which at the same time gives it the power of creativity. [At the same time it is the logical nature of language which helps to stabilize it.]


From these fundamental ideas you can deduce many other notions about how language works, particularly with respect to both concepts – reference and creativity. My article details many of them.


You can even show that Wittgenstein’s view of language – that there can be no grammatical/ungrammatical divide due to the arbitrariness of meaning – is incorrect. Wittgenstein conflated the notion of ‘arbitrariness’ with that of ‘indeterminacy’, an understandable mistake which would easily lead to an erroneous conclusion. (To briefly elaborate: once meaning is determined or, as Chomsky says, ‘fixed’, however arbitrarily, it is subject to the laws of logic and, by extension, to the grammatical/ungrammatical divide.) Wittgenstein failed to see that arbitrariness and determinacy were not mutually exclusive. And from there you can see why the Chomskyans’ descriptivism fails.


But even though Wittgenstein – exile, patriot, amateur philosopher of language, sometime pharmaceutical dispensary clerk – may have been wrong in this particular instance, he was not, unlike Institute Professor Chomsky, utterly clueless.




And so I have to ask: what mystery is Chomsky talking about? Let’s see if we can figure it out from this quote from his article:


“[C]onsider the word river…part of our innate knowledge…it would no longer be a river at all if it were directed between fixed boundaries and used for shipping freight (in which case it would be a canal, not a river) or if its surface were hardened by some near-undetectable physical change, a line were painted down the middle, and it came to be used for driving to Boston (in which case it would be a highway).”

Well, isn’t that enlightening? And I suppose that if we painted stripes on a horse we’d have to call it a zebra. And let’s ignore the impossibly silly notion that if a river were to be somehow “hardened” the physical change would be nearly “undetectable”; and not to belabor the point, but isn’t it possible to ship freight on a river? And aren’t the boundaries of a river generally stable? Doesn’t the Charles River course past MIT? Isn’t it in the same place it was fifty years ago? In short, isn’t the real difference between a river and a canal the fact that the latter is man-made?


And not to put too fine a point on it, but if meaning is innate, as Chomsky claims that it is, then  shouldn’t he – he of all people – know the differences between a river and a canal?


Leave it to me to ask the dumb question.


And let me tell you something else: when some freshman philosophy major realizes that Chomsky has purloined a couple of paragraphs from his or her mid-term essay in order to pad his own article, well, I just don’t know. On the other hand – assuming that Chomsky did pen this claptrap – I submit to you that now you can fully appreciate why Chomsky prefers abstruse, complicated, quasi-mathematical theories: it’s the best way to cover up the fact that he doesn’t have the slightest idea what he’s talking about.


First of all, consider Chomsky’s casual claim that our knowledge of what a river is is innate. Why, of course that’s true, which explains why young children are constantly going around pointing to things they’ve never seen before and naming them correctly. “Why, Mother, I see you have rhododendrons growing next to the gazebo!” Happens all the time. Children never ask what something is. No need to.


And what an amazing coincidence it is that, in virtually every case, babies are born with the same vocabulary contained in the language their parents speak at home, regardless of what language the parents learned as children. What a nightmare that would be for a set of Swedish-born Chinese-speaking parents to realize that their child were, through some fluke, equipped by nature with a Czech vocabulary!


Face it: innate is inane.


Secondly, Chomsky’s comments about how the word river is narrowly defined illustrates, in the most egregious manner imaginable, his fundamental misunderstanding of how we create language: it’s not the attributes which an object has which determine what we call an object; rather, it’s the attributes which we choose to recognize. We make the distinctions which are important to our purposes.


We can call a river a highway if we like: a river is a highway for boats, if we recognize that boats can ferry people or goods, some going east, some west, at varying rates of speed, with numerous stopping off points – the same thing as you might see cars and trucks do on a highway.


Or we can call a highway a river – a river of traffic, unending, continuous, never the same set of cars twice.


The great Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) anticipated this idea. Not only did he discuss the arbitrary relationship between symbol and meaning (“one could just as easily [use the word] arbre as [the word] tree to unite with the concept ‘tree’), but he also pointed out that “one could as easily define the concept ‘tree’ by its woody quality…as by its size.” ***


That said, it is a very short jump from there to say that we can choose certain salient qualities of a known object which we then might use to help us to make a metaphorical reference or allusion to some other object.


At any rate, there is a sort of default meaning we give to the word river which implies a naturally-formed waterway, and there is a default meaning which we give to the word highway which implies a man-made concrete passageway; but to accept that these meanings are innate would require you to accept that their metaphorical meanings are innate as well – since per Chomsky all meaning is innate. (Unless, of course, Chomsky would like to show how the brain differentiates between ‘real’ meaning as innate and metaphorical meaning as acquired. Good luck with that!)


No, for Chomsky to prove his basic point, he would have to show us a child who can explain how it is that a river is a kind of highway without the child’s ever having seen or heard of either.


We’ll be waiting.


And now, for goodness sake, this burning question: why don’t we call zebras wild horses? After all, that’s what they are. Is it because they are striped, and North American wild horses are not? Or is it that to call them what the Kenyans call them is to illustrate our own worldliness? Clearly there are judgments involved here which are not governed simply by the animal’s attributes. In fact, there is an American locution zebra which means prisoner. And where does this come from, pray tell? From the striped uniforms prisoners wear, of course; it’s a way of dehumanizing the prisoners, a way of passing judgment on them. But how could anyone come up with that derivative idea, if meanings are innate?


In the most supreme irony – and as further evidence that Chomsky has signed on to the notions of will, judgment and choice without really understanding the implications – we can see that to base our definitions of words on attributes which we choose to recognize is the same as to exercise judgment. But Chomsky, as quoted above, shows that he still sees definitions as rigid and not subject to judgment; in other words, as innate.


And so when I noted above, ‘Chomsky gives no rationale for this abrupt about face, nor does he provide any evidence to justify this turn of events’ I have to amend that by saying: the rationale and evidence he provides in support of a subsidiary claim don’t even support his own main claim! And so that means he is just paying lip service to borrowed ideas which he doesn’t fully understand.




All of which raises the question: how can someone in Chomsky’s position be so far off base with respect to the most fundamental principles of language?


I have for some time begun to suspect that Chomsky is not really a professor of linguistics at all; that his career is in fact a hoax perpetrated – and perpetuated – by succeeding generations of students at one of the secret drinking societies of Harvard; that he was originally a university maintenance man or groundskeeper there – (I have absolutely no problem imagining him in a monochrome utility-worker type uniform with “NOAM” embroidered in the little name tag oval sewn to the breast of the shirt) – his politics are heavily blue collar, not the politics of the upwardly mobile, patriotic, skilled blue collar tradesman, but rather that of the unskilled day worker who can never make his way up in the world because he is being held down by the ‘corporate master’ – (notice all the resentful references in Chomsky’s writings to ‘corporate masters’; they are as ubiquitous as semicolons) – who was egged on by a group of Harvard frat boy pranksters to masquerade as a visiting professor at neighboring MIT for a semester, with the gleeful presumption that the unsuspecting engineers would be impressed as hell with geeky-sounding terms such as ‘deep structure’ , ‘transformation’ , ‘parameter’ and the like, with all of his material being written for him by talented undergraduate editors at the Harvard Crimson in possession of not a lick of understanding of actual linguistics, and then, when the hoax went undiscovered after the first semester, decided to continue it, applying to the Harvard clubbers every few years for a new ‘theory’ and getting a few more years out of peddling it to unsuspecting grad students and naïve reporters.


(Have I just written a treatment for a feature film? Why, yes, I believe I have. I must call my agent.)


I like to think of Harvard students as being capable of pulling off a world-class stunt like that, and Chomsky’s Olympian capacity for deception speaks for itself; still, I suppose I could be mistaken. At any rate, we still must ask: from whom did Chomsky lift the idea that the concepts of will, choice and judgment play a role in language? I’m sorry to say that I am not familiar enough with the vast literature of academic linguistics to state with any sense of conviction which sources Chomsky might have stolen from – or, shall we say, might have been “influenced by” – and so anyone who thinks that he or she knows is free to state an opinion on the matter, or to claim the credit on behalf of himself or someone else. There may be many such people, and I am not in a position to refute or confirm anyone’s claim.


I do know that I wrote a couple of articles along these lines, both published on this website, both published prior to the July 5, 2005 publication date of Chomsky’s article. Of course I would not presume to claim that Chomsky was even aware of my articles****, much less that he read them, and so I make no claim for myself other than that I wrote two articles which stated the following:


Chomsky’s Linguistics Refuted, January 3, 2005. I attacked descriptism, saying that it leads to the formulation of rules which are illogical. I called for the substitution of logical analysis in place of intuition. I noted instances where people intuit grammatical choices which are clearly illogical and thus, I would argue, ungrammatical. I argued for a logically derived grammatical/ungrammatical divide.


Chomsky: The Theory Unified and Deconstructed, April 1, 2005. I stated that Chomsky’s overarching theory of biolinguistics is profoundly flawed, since the processes of the brain produce utterances which range from the perfectly grammatical to pure gibberish and everything in between, and that we must make judgments and choices in order to communicate effectively. I stated that a language –  including its grammatical structure – is not a circuitboard, but a vast web of interlocking ideas, and that that which we think of as grammatical language is simply the logical usage of the ideas of the grammar. The formulation of the ideas of language involves the interaction of the brain and the external world.




At this point I will make one further claim which works against Chomsky: that literature is possible only if language is a set of ideas. If language were a genetically encoded organic function, the creativity associated with literature would not be possible. Literary ideas can be manipulated in seconds; changes to the genetic code occur at a comparatively glacial rate: from generation to generation. Indeed, the connection between literature and language is so immediate, so profound, and so complete that the fact that Chomsky has never written one word about the literary aspects of language means that in a half century of grandstanding he has never fully addressed his subject.


And this failure of Chomsky’s is directly related, I believe, to the question of why it is that MIT, an engineering school, has dominated the field of linguistics – specifically the subfield of syntax – for several decades. It may have to do with the fact that Chomsky and his followers took as their operating assumption the idea of language as a biomechanical process, and detached it entirely from any considerations of language qua literature. Effecting that disconnection made it easy to create a number of novel and innovative approaches to the field – none of them, ultimately, successful.


It would be the same as having the Julliard School – not known for its prominence in the sciences – undertake a program in astrophysics using an intuitive, artistic approach. Without a grounding in physics, the musicians could no doubt come up with any number of amazing theories about the workings of the universe, although the value of those theories would be highly dubious.


It is hardly surprising, then, that the guiding figure of the biolinguistic movement should exclude all considerations of the artistic side of language; after all, I have read that Chomsky’s idea of a night of high culture is to flip on the tube and catch an episode of COPS, a reality show which you would have no trouble convincing me is hugely popular with the maintenance worker and groundskeeper set.




Finally, I wrote in my April 1 article about the connection between Chomsky’s political theory of anarchism and his theory of language, which does not admit to pervasive social influences which are, by and large, anti-anarchistic, or hierarchical. (See Part Three: Inconvenient Facts.) I would extend the political theme by noting that his theory of biolinguistics, in which language


·        is generated from a centrally located cerebral organism;

·        is closed off from the external world; and,

·        admits no consideration of its literary aspects


parallels in an eerily perverse way the political systems which he has expressed admiration for, systems such as the Soviet, Chinese and Cambodian governments which are characterized by central control, by xenophobia, and by a rejection of free expression in all its forms. We need not politically metaphorize to any great extent the opposing view of language, which admits to a constant generation and discarding of ideas in the interplay between the brain and the external world, a kind of “free, open and competitive society of ideas”, as I would characterize it; it will suffice merely to say that Chomsky’s view of language simply – but fatally – fails to account for the myriad literary aspects of language, and the opposing view does not.




I believe that Chomsky’s claim that “there has been considerable progress in moving toward…a clearer grasp of the universals of language” is nothing more than wishful thinking. Indeed, after forty years of these promises, Chomsky sounds like he is pitching a Five Year Plan. Alas, after forty years not even the Soviet nomenklatura believed in those silly pronouncements.


For it is no more possible to “explain” language without a consideration of its literary aspects than it is possible to “explain” art without discussing art history; and Chomsky has about as much chance of linking literature to language in a comprehensive manner as I have of becoming the prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet Company. Sometimes you just have to recognize the limitations of your capabilities.


And so my fanciful claim involving a possible Harvard hoax has at least an element of plausibility in it: it is much more likely that a typical Harvard liberal arts student would see the intricate and ineluctable connection between language and literature than would a typical MIT student – or faculty member, for that matter.


Whereas I do believe that MIT’s department of linguistics deserves to be credited as a champion of the principle that “all languages are created equal” – meaning that all languages are capable of an infinite capacity for expression and nuance – and this I attribute to their admirable egalitarian principles as much as to their never-say-die quest for the Holy Grail of universality as the central feature of their cause – I would at the same time add that I think it takes a Category Five level of arrogance to ignore the fact that all cultures which have language have as well literary forms of some type, and that the connection is both profound and vital to an understanding of linguistics. I do sometimes wonder whether it is the resentment toward the magnificent repositories of literature associated with the great empire-building Western nations – from the ancient Mediterranean empires to the more recent ones of Western Europe – a resentment currently in vogue in many quarters of academia – which has led them to keep their blinders on and to consider language only from a purely biomechanical perspective. Or perhaps it is simply their realization that their ‘universal principles’ are so fragile and so exceedingly tenuous that to attempt to apply them to the work of writers as diverse in their styles as Shakespeare and Joyce, or Virgil and Tacitus, would be like trying to run an oak tree through a sausage grinder.




Ultimately, I really don’t care who gets credit for Chomsky’s change of direction – pardon me, his complete reversal – and I categorically refuse to insinuate any connection to myself. The publication dates of my articles on this site, FrontPageMag.com, predate by several months the publication date of Chomsky’s article in The Boston Review, and that’s all that’s important to me. Draw what conclusions you will.


I’m gratified that David Horowitz, as well as his associates Peter Collier, Ben Johnson and Jamie Glazov, have understood from the beginning the importance of taking on not only Chomsky’s political ideas and his ethical standards but the very foundation of his standing – his linguistics theories – as well, and for generously giving me an opportunity to state my views. My attacks on Chomsky are motivated by political considerations, not by any interest on my part in influencing his thinking on linguistics. The only thing that I want to do “for” Chomsky is to make sure his clock is working as well as possible, by cleaning it for him.


John Williamson is a contributor to The Anti-Chomsky Reader and is writing a book on linguistics.


* I would suggest that Chomsky’s latest fixation on I-language, or internal language, is just as flawed and just as open to attack as was deep structure. In fact, it’s just another version of the same idea. Here’s the key, football fans: any time Chomsky “goes deep”, he’s just punting.


** For more information on this injustice by Chomsky against his fellow scholars, Pullum directs you to see Newmeyer 1986, 107ff, and references cited there. For information on this work, see below.


***Ronald Schleifer, The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.


**** The only person within the Chomsky camp who I can state with any certainty was aware of my articles was an individual who contacted me via this website, who called himself “the linguist” and who stated that he was a scholar in the Chomskyan tradition. I called him “Chom Ling” and referred to him in my articles. I have not positively identified Chom Ling, but if he is who I think he is, he is a professor of linguistics at a major Atlantic coast university and he has ties to MIT.


For further reading:


Wittgenstein’s Poker. Edmonds and Eidinow, Ecco, 2001, 352. pp. From Publisher’s Weekly: [a] debate [which] has turned into perhaps modern philosophy’s most contentious encounter, largely because none of the eyewitnesses could agree on what happened.


The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Cambridge University Press, 2002, Pullum and Huddleston, Eds. An amazingly thorough description of the language, its only limitations are imposed by its descriptivist approach, whereby a number of highly technical and abstruse problems are left unresolved or unchallenged. Still, this is not something that the layman will even notice, much less be concerned about. Even at $150 (USD), it’s very much worth owning.


The Politics of Linguistics.  Newmeyer, Fredrick J. 1986. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 171 pages. 556 p. Interest level: specialist.


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John Williamson is a contributor to The Anti-Chomsky Reader.

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