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Chomsky: The Theory Unified and Deconstructed: Part II By: John Williamson
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, April 01, 2005

Part Three. Inconvenient facts.

Chomsky’s theories dealing with the acquisition and development of language, by restricting these processes to the confines of the brain, either minimize or exclude altogether a number of vital aspects of human interaction. We can easily see these aspects of interaction in our daily lives, and we can verify them by a study of history. Below are some examples. For the benefit of those Chomskyans who have been waiting for forty years or more to see some true universals in language, here are a few to consider:

Universal 1: Language choice, acquisition, and development is heavily influenced by inequalities in relationships, such that the less powerful person tends to learn the language of the more powerful person:


·        Infants thrive, in part, by learning the language of those upon whom they are totally dependent for their survival;


·        Students succeed by conforming to the language standards set by teachers and others in authority;


·        Those who wish to rise in corporations, military organizations or in general society learn the vernacular acceptable to and understood by those who are higher up in those hierarchies;


·        A slave learns the language of his master; rarely does the master learn the language of the slave;


·        Those who wish to do business with the wealthy and the powerful learn to attune their grammar, pronunciation, style and usage to conform to the language of the wealthy and the powerful;


·        Conquering nations impose their languages on the conquered, and not vice-versa.


Thus, inequality in power, wealth and status are forces which are vital in shaping language use in the daily lives of each person, as well as in the historical lives of nations, as well as in population subgroups within nations. 


Universal 2: As a corollary to the above, it is also true that less powerful groups tend to use language as a unifying element as they gain power and increase their resistance to the more powerful:


·        Adolescents bond with their peer groups and develop an argot in order to communicate in an exclusive way;


·        Alienated political groups within a country’s borders may try to keep a minority language alive, or may maintain a distinctive accent.


Universal 3: Those in a given cohort of the less powerful – a group of slaves, or students, or junior officers, or new employees – can often gain power over those within their own cohort by learning the language of the powerful more quickly than their peers. Indeed, they often compete to do so.


Universal 4: Language stability is maintained by teachers, editors, and writers, all of who have access to long-standing language resources, such as grammar books, dictionaries, and works of literature.


There is so much evidence that supports the ideas listed above that a library would be required to do justice to it all. Indeed, the universals listed above are so pervasive – so general and unexceptionable, in other words – that we can posit the existence of a super-universal:


If we take language to be the communication of ideas by way of ideas, and if we assume that all human relationships contain a political component, then we can understand language acquisition, language change and language stability to be both the consequence and the expression of political ideation. Thus, among its several functions, language enables Hierarchical Man to acquire or maintain power.


However, if you know anything about the political ideas of Noam Chomsky, you will understand instantly why these inconvenient facts involving power relationships play no part in his linguistics. His stated political view is anarcho-syndicalism, which advocates the elimination of all political, social, and corporate structures; in other words, the elimination of all of the ways by which humans organize themselves hierarchically. The adoption of this political model would mean the end of large corporations as well as military and governmental organizations at all levels, and so forth.


Chomsky argues for this approach in two ways: first, by arguing – quite openly – that the ultimate practitioner of the hierarchical model, the United States, with its globe-spanning corporations, its labyrinthine governmental organizations, and its vast military-industrial complex, is the most evil and vile force on the face of the earth.


His second means of arguing against the hierarchical model – arguing not openly, but surreptitiously – takes place through his linguistics theories. His theories of linguistic acquisition and development discount almost completely the importance – indeed, the existence – of human interaction. If you consider the idea that his theories of language argue strongly for the notion of Autonomous Man, as opposed to Hierarchical Man, and couple this with the idea that language is among the most important features of humanity which demarcates our existence from that of all other species, (all of the other ‘most important features’ being intellectual capabilities as well), then it would be very easy to see how he is in effect aligning his notions of the natural state of language with his notions of what is, for him, the natural political state of man. And to argue for anarcho-syndicalism is to argue against the American model, which is democratic capitalism.


And so there you have it. What I have described is not very abstract, nor is it very difficult to see. Indeed, in order to somehow believe that Chomsky’s linguistics theories are not merely extensions of his political views, you would have to believe the following:


·        That all of his various linguistics ideas, with all of their flaws, still somehow add up to a valid and coherent theory;


·        That the vast amount of evidence in support of the importance of human interaction ought justifiably to be excluded from the study of theoretical syntax;


·        That it is merely a coincidence that Chomsky’s linguistics theories dovetail so perfectly with his political theories.


It can hardly be a wonder to anybody, then, that many of the people who choose to look with an uncritical eye at Chomsky’s linguistics theories are enamored of his political views as well. However, the subject under discussion is the science of linguistics, not political science, and for the Chomskyans to simply ignore vast tracts of evidence because it doesn’t fit their political views means that science has been abandoned for the “higher purpose” of social engineering. If the scientific question to be asked is “How does the mind work?” then there is no reason that the corollary question – “How does the brain interact with the human environment?” – shouldn’t be explored as well. No reason at all, unless – for political reasons – one does not wish to deal with inconvenient facts.


[I want to stop right here and note carefully that I am not saying that unequal power relationships explain everything about language. That is certainly not the case. The universals noted above explain an enormous amount about language choice, language acquisition, language change and language stability. However there are other problems in language – which Chomskyan theory cannot resolve – which can be understood in terms of human relationships of other kinds – and I will discuss that in more detail below. Finally, there are still other types of problems which are decidedly not solved by an understanding of human interaction – nor or they explained by Chomskyan theory – but that class of problems is not the primary focus of this section of the article.]


In conclusion, I stated above that Chomsky is opposed to all forms of hierarchy. Actually, there is one specific hierarchy that he is rather partial to. It is the hierarchy made up of linguistics and psychology students, as well as of any number of professors in linguistics and in other fields, of political activists, and of intellectuals with a decidedly anti-American bent – in other words, the hierarchy atop which he sits. This hierarchy allows him to do all the things that he frowns upon when they take place within all the other hierarchies of the world:


·        to create a specialized vernacular which his supporters readily adopt;

·        to accept and acknowledge the obeisance and tributes of the true believers;

·        to reward with verbal approbation those who echo his ideas.


In other words, he uses language to maintain the political power structure that supports him, just like all rulers of hierarchies do. (See Randy Harris’ fascinating book, The Linguistics Wars, for an account of Chomsky’s suppression of a rival school of linguistics that promoted a theory called generative semantics.)


Of course, it goes without saying that all of these power-maintaining activities involve – dare I say it? – human interaction. And if there’s anybody on the planet who knows more than Noam Chomsky does about communicating incessantly with his target audience, I don’t know who that would be. Maybe North Korean premier Kim Jong Il, with his loudspeakers blaring in every public space at all hours of the day.


And so in addition to using language in order to maintain his own personal and quite useful hierarchy – a notion which he is politically opposed to on a theoretical level – by so doing Chomsky disproves the validity of his own theories of linguistics by demonstrating the essential importance of human interaction in the workings of language.


This would be the equivalent, in chess, of checkmating yourself.


Part Four. A failure of imagination.


It’s the easiest thing in the world to see how all of Chomsky’s ideas work together: by claiming that the fundamental elements of languages are the same, and that the brain contains coding for key parametric settings for all languages, coding which can be triggered by a minimal amount of external stimulation, then it is clear and obvious that Chomsky aims to minimize the importance of human interaction as an element in the creation and transmission of language. 


Chomsky was invited to give the keynote address at the annual conference of the Linguistic Society of America in Boston in January of 2004. “Three Factors in Language Design” was an interesting speech. Many of our old friends from the past are still on his dance card: poverty of the stimulus, universal grammar, generative theory – all of which are now subsumed under the general rubric of biolinguistic theory, by which Chomsky declares the language faculty to be comparable to such other brain functions as mammalian vision or – interestingly – insect navigation. For those who do not care to read the speech in its entirety, I’ll paraphrase it for you:


1.      ‘A lot of the ideas we used to propound as flashes of genius have now been thoroughly discredited and so we have scrapped them;

2.      ‘Not to worry; there’s plenty more ideas where those came from;

3.      ‘None of the long-standing problems which we have worked on for decades have been solved;

4.      ‘Nevertheless, I am clearly on the right track and my critics are wrong.’


(The distinguished theoretical linguist Paul Postal noted in his chapter of The Anti-Chomsky Reader that Chomsky never credits those who first point out the flaws in his theories. Critics! Who needs ‘em?)


Just to give you a flavor of the new ideas being worked on by the Chomskyans, there’s one concept called uninterpretable features which has to do with the notion that the latest theory won’t work if you actually read meaning into certain grammatical characteristics of words – meaning which is actually there but which must be ignored! Another idea is something called probes and goals, which is the idea that there is an invisible entity – the probe – which travels the length of the sentence and finds the goal so that there can be some sort of grammatical connectivity.


It’s all perfectly inane and the only reason the Chomskyans actually buy into this is that they are under the mind control of their leader and they are programmed to believe whatever they are…oh, sorry, that’s the American public, isn’t it? Never mind.


At any rate, Chomsky’s position has hardened rather sclerotically: language is generated by the brain, as an organic function of the central nervous system. Just like insect navigation, in other words. That’s his story, and he’s sticking to it, claiming even this:


[My] basic assumptions are tacitly adopted even by those who strenuously reject [my arguments].”


To which I say: Not so fast there, Bubba. Not everybody is bowled over by your basic assumptions.


Indeed, Chomsky had the arrogance to throw down the gauntlet and defy anyone to prove him wrong:


“The arguments advanced against the legitimacy of [my] approach have little force…”


Now, I for one do enjoy a challenge now and again. Those of us who merely criticize are subject to the reasonable response: Well, can you do any better?


And so I will take up this challenge because, well, all it takes in order to pop a highly inflated balloon is one little prick; and so if Chomsky’s theory is the balloon, I shall be honored to play the role of the little prick.


I refer you to last page of his triumphal speech in Boston. He refers to “the annoying lack of [examples]” of sentences of this type:


*There seems a man to be in the room.                                                                                      

Annoying? That would be the understatement of the century, I would think. I’m sure that Chomsky finds this problem more than merely annoying. Infuriating would be more like it. After all, if he can’t understand why the sentence above is ungrammatical, then it stands to reason that he can’t understand why the sentence below is good:


There seems to be a man in the room.


Remember there is? Remember seems? Remember “For there to be a snowstorm seems likely”?


I mentioned them in Part Two. These problems are to Chomskyan linguists what kryptonite is to Superman. These problems drive the Chomskyans up the proverbial wall. They twist themselves into knots trying to work their solutions to these problems into their theories. Alas, to no avail.


It’s more than merely annoying: all of the theories Chomsky has concocted over the years have failed to make a dent in the problems noted above and others like them. It’s like throwing eggs against a brick wall: it makes quite a mess, but the wall never moves. And so I might as well just come out and break the bad news to the Chomskyans: you folks will never solve:


For there to be a snowstorm seems likely.


using biolinguistic theory. Never. Can’t be done. You can send your little probes all the way to Uranus and back and you still won’t get anywhere.


I’ll tell you why: the seems structure describes a human relationship – that of a third party observer. The relationship between the observer and that which he observes is built into the structure; it is the purpose of the seems structure to acknowledge this relationship. Thus, the structure was consciously created by humans in order to solve a problem: the problem of how to indicate within a sentence the notion that what is being described is not absolute fact, but merely the observation of a third party. It’s a useful construct. It serves a purpose. It wasn’t wired into the brain by evolutionary forces; it was invented. It was created from an idea – just as the verb tense called conditional future perfect was created from an idea. (And for those who wish to understand the structure of seems in more depth I’ll give you a hint: all seems sentences contain three mandatory elements, one of which may be ellipticized.)


You say, “Oh, well, this just cannot be. How can grammatical structures acknowledge human relationships?”


I reply: “Well, haven’t you noticed how commonplace this is in ordinary vocabulary? Why not in grammatical constructs as well?” Take the word coronation. It refers to an act – the placing of the crown on the head of a monarch, of course, but in fact it refers to much more than that: the relationship of the monarch to his subjects, separated from them by divine right, that right conferred by religious authority, with the existence of a deity implicit in the deal; implicit as well is the idea that the deity approves the monarchical appointment, with the further implication that the peasants better think twice before revolting.


There’s an awful lot of meaning in a single word such as coronation. Why can’t seems similarly convey the structure of human relationships? Seems is a word, and coronation is a word; one is a noun; the other a verbal construct; but what difference does that make, if language is constructed out of ideas, as I suggest that it is?


The important thing is this: you can solve the problem of seems if you look at it as an idea that denotes a way in which humans relate to one another. Using biolinguistic theory, you can’t get anywhere. So Chomsky needs to put his party hat away: one cannot celebrate the supremacy of one’s theory if other theories can point the way to solving problems that one’s own theories can’t resolve.


As a way of further illustrating this point, consider the following complex grammatical idea: the above-mentioned conditional future perfect structure: would have been as in I would have been X. where X = successful, mayor, defeated, etc. What is the idea communicated by this grammatical structure? It is the notion that:


from the point of view of some future moment, a given state, which had been expected to come about, did not in fact come about, due to the fact that some condition had not been met.


That’s a complex idea that, by the precepts of Chomskyan theory, is encoded in the brain. Since all languages have this structure, Chomsky would say that this structure is encoded universally. Now let’s take the word disappointment. This word refers to


the response to the failure of an expectation to be met, an expectation placed on the achievement of a certain condition at some future point in time, which was not achieved due to some unexpected factor.


Does that complex idea sound familiar? Of course it does: what we see is that the word disappointment conveys morphologically almost the identical complex of ideas that would have been conveys syntactically!


It can reasonably be assumed that speakers of all languages experience disappointment, and therefore this word exists in some form in every language as the representation of common experience – just as the idea of fish does. (See above.) In fact, let’s consider the number and variety of complex ideas, expressed morphologically (as vocabulary), which depict the variety of human relationships: dependence, independence, terrorism, solipsism, agreement, enmity, constitution, monarchy, democracy, autocracy, anarcho-syndicalism, conflict, repudiation, inquisition, reconciliation, confirmation, approval, we, you, y’all, they, to rely, to disavow, to pontificate, to respond, to join, to govern, to rebel, to placate, to promote, to defer, to refer, to confer, and on and on and on. The English language has many thousands of such words.


Since, as we can see, a complex idea which can be expressed morphologically can also in some instances be expressed syntactically, and since – as we can also see – we can express a vast array of complex ideas morphologically – many of them describing various human relationships – it should stand to reason that ideation alone – or the representation of grammar as a set of complex ideas – ought to be able to provide for the entire complexity of grammar in all languages.


This is an argument which by itself suggests that Chomskyan theory is inadequate to explain language, since there are many problems which biolinguistics famously cannot explain – (See above and below.) – and there are no grammatical concepts which ideation cannot explain. Is there really any grammatical concept which cannot be shown to be the representation of an idea, however complex? I can’t think of one.


The great failure of Chomskyan linguistics, then, is not that there are not tools sophisticated enough to measure brain waves and see the hard-wiring or the probes or the parameters inside the brain.


The great failure of Chomskyan linguistics is a failure of imagination.


Indeed, when we consider how so many aspects of the imaginative use of language address human concerns and the human condition – poetry, drama, and every other form of literature, including song lyrics and rap music, not to mention so many nouns, pronouns, verbs and other parts of speech – then how can it be that the Chomskyans simply exclude the notion that grammatical constructs can be used to depict in an imaginative way certain aspects of human relationships, consigning grammar instead to the organic level of insect navigation?


‘Tis strange, ‘tis passing strange.


As for the there is problem, that is a problem of an entirely different class. It is a problem of pure logic, not of human relationships. The for problem is one of meaning. Thus, the Chomskyan biolinguistic approach is wholly inadequate to the solution of  “For there to be a snowstorm seems likely” because the Chomskyans do not recognize that there are several problems involved, each of a different class, none of which is susceptible to explanation through their methods. It would be the same as trying to use musical theory to solve a problem which involved algebra, trigonometry and calculus.


In summation, then, we can say this much about the place of Chomskyan theory in the grand scheme of things:


·        Neurolinguistics can tell us important facts about how the brain processes language;


·        Unequal power relationships explain an enormous amount about language choice, acquisition, and stability. Scholars of historical linguistics and sociolinguistics amass much data which support this notion;


·        Complex ideas – some depicting human relationships and some not – exist within languages as grammatical constructs;


·        Pure logic can be used to solve many problems of linguistics;


·        Biolinguistics supports the political views of Noam Chomsky. 


Part Five.  Why language is not like insect navigation.


Chomsky’s complaint about the annoying lack of examples of the sentence type:


There a man seems to be in the room.


tells us something quite interesting about biolinguistics, which is that the hard wiring of the brain is capable of producing end-products which are rejected as not employable in normal speech. The sentence above is comprehensible, although it is not a structure that is employed in speech. Indeed, we can create a kind of scale in which we can rank sentences for grammaticality, comprehensibility, and employability:


·        Grammatical: Larry and I went to the races.   There seems to be a man in the room.

·        Ungrammatical but employable: Me and Larry went to the races.

·        Comprehensible but unemployable: Me went to the races.   There a man seems to be in the room.

·        Syntactically correct but semantically contradictory: Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. (Chomsky)

·        Syntactically correct but semantically incomprehensible: Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe. (Lewis Carroll)

·        Ungrammatical gibberish: The is navigation laughable idea language to insect that comparable is.


As a comparison to another hard science, consider that any product which is the end-result of a chemical reaction must be regarded as a chemical compound, regardless of whether the compound was expected to be produced or whether it is useful. If it is a product of a chemical reaction, it is a chemical compound. So too with biolinguistics: if we accept Chomsky’s contention that the capacitors for language production are hard-wired into the brain, then we must accept that any representation of meaning which the brain produces is language.


Thus, there can be no question that all of the structures above – even the ungrammatical gibberish – are products of the hardwiring of the brain. Thus, all of these are the end-products of biolinguistics. That has to be true, if we follow Chomsky’s theory to its logical conclusion.


However, in normal everyday language we would likely use only the first two types of sentences (grammatical or employable), and some people would use only the first type. And so we must use other intellectual mechanisms in order to filter out sentences that we do not want to employ: the ungrammatical, the semantically contradictory or the incomprehensible. Therefore if we must use other filtering mechanisms in order to look at various end products of the biolinguistic mechanism and distinguish usable from unusable, this means that Chomsky’s biolinguistics cannot be the correct answer to the question “How is language processed?”


I find it interesting that the entire focus of Chomskyan research is the set of mechanisms which work together inside the brain in order to produce language: deep structure, merge, copy, parameters, probes, and all the rest.


If all of these hard-wiring mechanisms worked together to produce structures that were nothing other than consistently grammatical, then there might be some point to all of that. However, if a perfectly functioning human brain can produce perfectly metered poetry and incomprehensible gibberish and everything in between, and if other types of brain functions are required in order to determine which end-products of the biolinguistical process are useful and which are not, then it seems to me that the language function is something altogether different from other organic functions such as mammalian vision or insect navigation, which do not require reasoned judgment or the benefit of experience.


Insects do not live long enough in order to gain the experience that might allow them to make reasoned judgments about what they are doing. If they did, they wouldn’t fly around in the open air like a bunch of idiots where birds can gobble them up; rather, if they had capabilities anywhere close to the human capability of speech, they would communicate intelligently regarding the presence of certain winged dangers. Alas, dragonflies, moths and beetles depend not on individual intellectual capabilities in order to survive but on sheer numbers and the evolutionary process.


And as for mammalian vision: regardless of age or experience, we all see the sky as blue. But mastery of language to the point where one can detect semantic ambiguity or contradiction, or in order to be able to distinguish grammatical subtleties and inconsistencies, requires capabilities far beyond mere organic functioning. 

And so the only thing that makes sense to me is that humans are possessed of an infinite capability in the formulation of ideas, but that all that we can say for sure about language production is that it combines the abilities to associate meaning and sound, sound and symbol, symbol and meaning, as well as memory and logic and that these capabilities can produce everything from gibberish to fine literature. From logic and memory come the ability to make ever more subtle and sophisticated judgments about language. Developing these skills takes a great deal of time as well as a great deal of experience in language use, a fact which is a further refutation of the notion of poverty of the stimulus.

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

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