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


You've no doubt heard this question raised: “Why do people take so seriously the political commentary of a language professor?”

The standard answer is that Noam Chomsky is simply taking a page out of Einstein's book, using his academic stature or notoriety as a political platform.


However, if you step back and look at his linguistic theories – stepping back far enough to see the forest, not just the trees – there is something that will become dimly apparent – and then perhaps obvious: the linguistic theories form themselves into a cohesive whole which supports not just a scientific theory, but a political one as well. Furthermore, if you look at a competing view of language – one which Chomsky systematically ignores, although there is massive evidence to support it – you will see that the competing theory supports not just a scientific but a political view which Chomsky finds abhorrent.


Now it is easy enough to revile Chomsky for some of his most blatant misrepresentations of fact in the arena of historical or political commentary, and I take a back seat to no one in my contempt for many of his perversions of the truth. However, today I come not to revile Chomsky, but to deconstruct him.


There has always been an assumption that Chomsky’s work in linguistics represents one arena of his intellectual interests, and that his work in political commentary represents another. I mean to show a different view, namely that they are one and the same. Thus:


·        His ideas in linguistics are subsumed under a single overarching idea;

·        That overarching idea aligns perfectly with his political views;

·        His ideas in linguistics are novel and innovative, although flawed and ultimately unpersuasive;

·        There is a competing view of language – and a more powerful approach, I would argue – for which ample evidence abounds, but which has no place in Chomsky’s philosophy of language;

·        The overarching idea behind the competing view is aligned with a political idea that Chomsky abhors.


In short, leaving aside his work that is openly political, his linguistics theory doesn’t merely represent bad science; rather, it happens to be politics masquerading as bad science.


I’ll give Chomsky a tip of the hat: to have allowed people to believe all this time that the linguistics was separate from the politics was – as the British say – “Fiendishly clever.”


It’s the damnedest thing you’ve ever seen. And he almost got away with it.


Part One. The age of Aquarius.


If you had arrived as a student on the campus of one of the elite universities of the northeastern United States in the 1960s, you would have encountered a campus life much different from that which students of the 1950s experienced. You would have been much more likely to be introduced to casual drug use; the “pill” was breaking down social barriers; the dominant political story of the day would have been the growing involvement of the U.S. in Vietnam, and the growing opposition to that war on the university campuses.


One of the most controversial figures discussed on those campuses was Robert MacNamara, the General Motors “whiz kid” who, as the new secretary of defense, was going to bring efficiency and order to the prosecution of the war in Vietnam. High intellect and supreme self-confidence were the salient qualities of those, such as MacNamara, who were deemed the “best and the brightest” and who had confidence that American technology and a rational approach to warfighting would bring eventual victory in the dark jungles of Southeast Asia.


And if you had arrived on campus with the idea of studying linguistics – the science of language – a revolution-ary new paradigm would have been awaiting you there as well. You might have been pleasantly surprised to find that the old prescriptivism had been jettisoned in favor of the thoroughly modern descriptivism. What this meant  to a linguist was that it was no longer fashionable to say that one naturally-produced speech form was right and another one wrong.


According to the new thinking, your high school English teacher, old Miss Bunsenburner, had been wrong to prescribe restrictive rules, such as the one that prepositions were inappropriate to end a sentence with. Well, of course the English language does permit final prepositions and Miss Bunsenburner was probably being a bit pedantic in some of her stipulations, but the new mandarins of linguistics were simply illustrating a general principle: all natural speech – that is, any structure which was deemed to be intuitively correct by a native speaker – was considered grammatical. ‘We describe, we don’t prescribe.’


This new paradigm was associated with the new generative grammar which arose out of the view that the brain naturally generated all grammatical forms and, well, of course no one who called himself a scientist – certainly not a student or professor at a place like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – could possibly dispute the evident workings of the brain. The paramount goal was to understand how the brain generated all grammatical structures; that it did so was not in doubt.


Yes, of course, there would be a few complications to be worked out: among the speakers of any given language there would be individuals who would say the same thing in contradictory ways. What was grammatical to one native speaker was ungrammatical to another. But that didn’t worry the professional linguists very much, since all natural structures had equal standing in the generative paradigm. Any such difficulties were viewed as manageable; generative grammar was so powerful and so revolutionary that it would in time resolve all trivial inconsistencies.


So certain of their powers were these new world beaters that, even when, during field studies, native speakers of various languages under study were asked to provide sample sentences – otherwise known as data – for analysis, the attitude toward the native speaker was summarized thus: “Accept everything a native speaker tells you in his language, but nothing that he tells you about his language.” In other words, a graduate student from MIT, through the powers conferred by the new theory, was more capable of discerning the subtleties of any language, Indo-European or otherwise, than was a native speaker, even someone, such as a teacher or storyteller, in possession of an expert knowledge of his or her own language. It was as if what was being said was, “Despite our professed respect for you as equals, we’re not really interested in your insights.”


Such attitudes would be justified in time, there was no doubt. It was important not to lose sight of the ultimate goal: showing how the brain generated sentences would be the key to understanding how the mind worked; and, of course, although only a few realized it, the way the mind worked was a subject which had not just scientific ramifications, but political ones as well; but I’m jumping ahead.


And so, in this new paradigm of this new age a close observer could have seen the first inklings of an emergent political philosophy which was very much in keeping with those revolutionary times. The first element of that philosophy was that there was no distinction between good and bad: there was only that which was natural. And since there was no good or bad, there was no need for any petty authority to mediate between two competing views. Sayonara, Miss Bunsenburner. Generative grammar would resolve any conflicts that came up. Enjoy your retirement.


Finally, one might have also discerned in their approach the barest glimmerings of an elitist attitude with respect to the non-academic world, but perhaps I’m imagining things there.


I said there was no petty authority, didn’t I? Well, actually there was one emerging authority in the world of the new science of language – although it was hardly petty – and that was the department of linguistics at MIT, which sat like a little Pentagon not too far from the banks of the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This was where the orthodoxy emanated from; from here the freshly-minted young lieutenants in the army of generative grammarians were sent out on a regular basis to colonize other universities, to establish and dominate their departments of linguistics, and to recruit and promote those who accepted unquestioningly the views of the central authority back in Cambridge. The poet Wordsworth would have understood well the heady times those scholars of four decades ago lived through: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very Heaven.”


In the E-ring of this Pentagon-on-the-Charles sat the pre-eminent figure in this new war on language, the best and the brightest himself, the Robert MacNamara of linguistics, Professor Noam Chomsky. Like those of any high official, his every pronouncement was analyzed, his every utterance scoured for meaning. He would be leading the troops in one direction only: straight ahead and directly to the front lines. Conquering the mysteries of language – specifically the syntax of the English language and, after English, all the languages of the world – would be Noam Chomsky’s campaign – a campaign of Alexandrian proportions.


Of course, in those days it would have been impossible to look ahead forty years and see how things would actually turn out. And how did things turn out?


Although he did not realize it at the time, Noam Chomsky was in the process of leading his troops into their own linguistic version of the quagmires of Vietnam.


Part Two. It’s all in your mind.


The grand strategy of Chomsky’s linguistics revolution was embodied in generative grammar. But it was going to take some time to work out all the details and resolve all discrepancies so that the grand theory would encompass all languages. In the meantime, Chomsky realized that a grand strategy was not enough; powerful intellectual weaponry would need to be developed in order to smash through the vast jungles of language and tame them.


All of the tools he created over the next several decades could be subsumed under one overarching theme: language exists in the brain; language happens in the brain. The idea that an individual’s intuition was paramount – his personal reflection as to how he or she would structure a linguistic utterance – meant that grammar was simply there in the mind’s eye, or the mind’s ear, as it were. One had only to consider one’s own speech patterns and recall them from memory.


From there, it hardly seemed more than a modest step to suggest that the rules of language were a permanent part of the brain’s structure. They were hard-wired in. Let me be clear: I am not saying that Chomsky was merely suggesting that the human ability to produce and understand language was neurologically or genetically encoded; that would hardly have been a revelation. He went far beyond that: it was the grammar itself that was encoded in the brain. Chomsky eventually took to calling this idea the biolinguistic view.


Now, a countervailing view of grammar is to see it as a set of ideas: the idea of the simple past tense, for example, is expressed by each language in its own internally consistent way, although of course the details of the expression differ from language to language. But what Chomsky was saying was that the ideas of grammar were hard-wired into the brain, not as ideas but as circuitry.


To challenge Chomsky’s theory, an obvious rejoinder might be this: suppose you took a Chinese couple – husband and wife both descendants of Chinese forebears going back fifty generations – and you brought this couple to Brooklyn, where the wife gives birth to their child. The child looks Chinese in every way, but learns to speak English just as readily as the American kids of English descent living next door. If the Chinese language is so deeply wired into the brain, how can this be?


Chomsky had an answer for that. Actually, he had several answers. The first answer was that there is a fundamental grammar which underlies all grammars – a universal grammar – and that there were setting switches – parameters, in the parlance – which activated Chinese for a child of parents born to Chinese parents, if the parents were speaking Chinese. All that was needed was a minimal amount of verbal and visual stimuli – this idea, by the way, is called poverty of the stimulus – and the settings would be set to ON for Chinese and OFF for all other languages. However, if the Chinese parents happened to be speaking English to their Chinese baby, the settings would be set to ON for English and OFF for Chinese and every other language.


The second idea was that – again, referring to the universal structure which they share – all languages are fundamentally the same anyway, with only superficial differences to distinguish them.


Nifty-keen as these all ideas are, there are a couple of minor problems with them.


I’ll start first with the idea that all languages are fundamentally the same. Actually, this is true, but only in the most banal manner of speaking. All languages have words which express action or being (verbs); all languages have words which describe substantives or abstract ideas (nouns); all languages express color, and time, and size, and shape. All languages have words that express relationships between nouns and other words, verbs and other words, and so on. But beyond that, pretty much all bets are off. When talking about features that are universal, it’s hard to get very specific. Chinese uses an elaborate tone system; English doesn’t. Which is part of the universality – having tones or not? The Chomskyan troops who marched out to find the universal grammar returned to report that no such thing existed. Or if it does, they have yet to figure out what it looks like.


Harvard linguistics professor Steven Pinker, in his essay “Natural Selection and Natural Language,” noted a number of commonly accepted linguistic universals which have been amassed by the biolinguists over the years, but when you look at them closely, they are all quite general and quite logical. To give one of the more specific examples, Pinker notes that when verbs have endings for tense and aspect, they are in a universally preferred order, i.e. the aspect ending is closer to the root-verb. (Aspect just tells us information such as, when I say, “I walk”, I mean “I walk every day” as opposed to “I am walking now”. Some languages use verbal affixes (“add-ons”) to make those distinctions; English uses extra words, as in my example.) But of course since aspect tends to color – that is, modify somewhat – the meaning of the verb, whereas the tense does not, it seems logical that people all over the world would tend to put the aspect marker closer to the verb. It’s just common sense.


And so all that the so-called universals really show us is that people all over the world think logically when they create their languages. If these vague universals are intended to show that there is some fundamentally universal language, then what the Chomskyans have come up with so far doesn’t even come close. You could without doubt find some commonalities in musical works, in various sports, in novels and plays, in legal systems and so forth, but that would hardly prove that there is a universal symphony or sport or legal code, except in the most banal sense.


Another argument which I would advance against the idea of universal grammar invokes the parallel idea of universal morphology (UM). No one tries to argue for ‘universality of vocabulary’ simply because the notion is absurd: the Samoan word for fish (i’a) could not possibly be related to the English word fish or the Swahili word for it (samaki). And yet all of these languages have a word for fish. Thus, we can easily see that commonality of experience produces the same idea – the idea of fish – in all languages without any necessity for commonality of morphology. We ought to be able to postulate, then, that commonality of experience ought to be able to produce in all languages the same idea of the past tense, or plurality, or other grammatical ideas, and that what the Chomskyans insist is a common universal genetic encoding of grammar is in actuality a commonality of experience in the perception and expression of ideas. However, that’s just a hypothesis. I’ll say more about it in a section below.


As for the notion of parameters or settings to be turned on and off, what the Chomskyans found out was that – gee whiz, a language certainly did have a lot of settings, didn’t it? If every grammatical feature of a given language required a setting, what about the exception to the rule? That had to be represented by a setting, too, didn’t it? And what about the exception to the exception? Another setting? This started to remind people of the old transformational grammar – another Chomsky idea – that seemed very promising until the Chomskyans found that in order to describe any given language one had to create an enormous number of transformations, many of which contradicted one another.


And so, with the failure to find universality and the impossibility of taming language with a succinct set of parameter settings or transformations, the Chomskyans were finding themselves bogged down in a quagmire of their own making, with no exit strategy. The powerful weaponry was breaking down and rusting in the field.


Meanwhile, how were things going with the overall strategy, the generative grammar?


No better, actually. Those pesky little contradictions weren’t so easy to get rid of. If one person says that “Larry and I went to the races” is intuitively correct, and the other person says that “Me and Larry went to the races” is intuitively correct, how do you resolve it? How do you create a principle which encompasses both structures and makes them both right?


To illustrate the problem another way, suppose that one person said that she believed that two plus two equaled four but someone else declared his own belief that two plus two equaled five. Imagine the creativity it would require in order to describe a mathematical system that would accommodate those contradictory ideas. Or suppose I say that E=(m) x (c-squared) and you happen to feel that E=(m) x (c-cubed). How does a physicist create a theory that would reconcile both ideas? The task would be enormous or – more accurately – impossible.


What the Chomskyans found they had to do – in order to be true to their dogma – was to create ever more complex and sophisticated explanations that might encompass all the contradictions found in natural speech.


Given that analytical ability and judgment go hand in hand, then by refusing to be judgmental about what was grammatically correct and what wasn’t, the analytical abilities of the Chomskyans atrophied at the same time their creativity soared.


And so now – thirty years after the last Americans choppered out of Saigon – the Chomskyans are as deeply bogged down in the syntactic swamps as they ever were. And it’s not just these contradictions between two opposing views of what is grammatical which has them stymied. There are also numerous basic English structures which they can’t seem to figure out. To name some of the most notorious: the there is construction, as in There is talk of a snowstorm; the for construction, as in For him to arrive on time would be helpful; and, of course, seems. Every issue of Linguistic Inquiry – the house publication of the MIT department of linguistics – arrives on my doorstep bringing with it yet another young Chomskyite springing eternal with yet another fresh theory about how Chomsky’s now ancient ideas can be twisted in yet another direction in order to squeeze some sense out of English, or Italian or Tagalog. And inevitably these new theoretical frontal assaults get bogged down in complications – often involving there is or for or seems.


In fact, if you made up a sentence which included all three, i.e. “For there to be a snowstorm seems likely” and you gave it, along with a couple hundred reams of paper, to a Chomskyite, locked him in a cell and told him he had a reasonable amount time to solve it – thirty years, let’s just say – I’m fully convinced you would find him hanging by his bedsheets the very next morning.


In sum, an awful lot of intellectual weaponry created an awful lot of powerful explosions of creativity, and yet nearly half a century later and the jungle has reclaimed it all: the universal grammar was never found, transformational grammar became hopelessly tangled up, the parameters are an artifact, and all the myriad contradictions of natural language never got tied together by generative theory.


War is hell.


So what am I saying…that maybe language isn’t generated exclusively by the brain? Before I move on to the patently heretical view of language – which Chomsky never talks about – I want to say a bit about the quintessentially Chomskyan idea called poverty of the stimulus. I am fully sympathetic to the notion that the more ludicrous an idea is, the easier it is for Chomsky’s followers to get suckered in by it; nevertheless, among the many ludicrous ideas in the armory of Chomskyan theoretical can(n)on – and there is a battery of them to choose from – this one has to take the grand prize.


Poverty of the stimulus asks, in effect, ‘Isn’t it amazing how it is that young children need to be exposed to so little verbal stimulation before they are running around speaking in complete sentences?’


Now, of course most parents love to brag about how smart their kids are and I suppose it should go without saying – but probably never does – that the offspring of linguistics faculty members and graduate students are in the very uppermost tier of kids in terms of verbal precocity. Nevertheless, your Average Kid says his first word at about ten months of age or so. How many words do you suppose it is that Average Kid hears – spoken by parents, siblings, relatives – spoken to him, near him, in front of him, etc. – before Average Kid coughs up the historic Coherent Word Number One? A million? A couple million? Let’s just say, for argument’s sake, that it’s a million heard to one spoken. How can this be poverty of the stimulus in any meaningful sense?


And of course, once Average Kid spits out the first word, he’s going to be under constant pressure to crank out a few more. He’s just been entered into the “I’ve Got the Smartest Kid in the World” Sweepstakes, and there’s a whole lot of people who need to be impressed. The coaching and encouragement is non-stop. In short, this cardinal Chomskyan precept called poverty of the stimulus is a myth; there is no person on the planet – excluding the profoundly deaf, of course – who hasn’t – at any point in his lifetime – heard far more words than he or she has spoken.


Moreover, the Chomskyans are apparently unaware of the multiplicative power of language structure, whereby if you take the structure Put the book on the table (six words) and you learn a few more verbs: lay, set, place; a few more nouns: chair, floor, book, box, etc. and a couple more prepositions: in, under, beside, before you know it your twenty word vocabulary can produce hundreds of sentences. A language limited to just a couple of dozen structures and a couple of hundred words of vocabulary can produce millions of sentence possibilities. That’s how kids learn to speak so many sentences so quickly. Well, that and the total immersion program.


OK, you get the picture. None of this stuff adds up. In fact, the more you think about it, the more problems you can find with it:


·        If Chomsky is correct, then why is it so difficult for an adult – with all those extra years of additional stimulus enrichment – to learn a second language? It ought to be much easier. Why isn’t it?


·        If there is a universal grammar hard-wired into the brain, and it’s the same for all languages, it must by necessity be very spare. But if poverty of the stimulus holds for all children speaking all languages – in other words, if the settings are set with just a minimum of stimulus – then where do the myriad superficial features which make Chinese uniquely Chinese – its vocabulary, its tones, its grammatical quirks, its idioms – come from?


Move along, folks. There’s nothing to see here.


But perhaps I should add one clarification: I’m not saying that there isn’t a certain element of truth in each of his theories. There is. You can look at any of his ideas and find some applicability somewhere in the vastness of human language. You can also see patterns in the stars – Orion’s Belt, for example, the Big Dipper, or the Southern Cross, but that knowledge doesn’t tell you very much about how the universe is constructed. For theories to be accepted as important, they have to be general and unexceptionable, and these properties simply do not describe Chomskyan theory. To accept the truth of his theories, you would have to operate under the assumption that six half-truths (generative, universal, and transformational grammar; poverty of the stimulus; hard-wiring; parameters) add up to three truths.


To give one more example along these lines, Chomskyans like to make a big deal out of the fact that kids sometimes say things that they haven’t been taught. I would submit that what kids say falls into two categories: what they have already learned, or what they derive in their own logical way from what they have been taught. Their logical derivations many times do not accord with how adults talk, either because the established language is full of inconsistencies, or because meanings are not always obvious in every context. As an example, one of my sisters, when she was young, learned to say, “Pick me up!” She apparently decided that if she wanted to get down, she should say, “Pick me down.”


Of course we would all laugh at this, because it was funny; but it is easy to forget that she was simply using what she knew and drawing logical conclusions from it. Her brain obviously did not automatically know, as Chomsky’s theory predicts, that put is associated with motion away from an agent (down) and that pick is associated with motion toward an agent (up). These distinctions have to be learned. And so each time she said something that happened to be correct, we would accept it; each time she said something which to her was logical but which did not accord with the actual workings of the language, she would be corrected. This is how children learn languages; it’s the same way adults learn languages in a total immersion environment.


Of course, many times a child’s logical derivations do coincide with how adults talk, in which case the Chomskyan researchers are fooled into thinking that this means that the language is hard-wired into the brain. Unfortunately, the fact that children think logically is no proof that the grammar is already there.


(Chomskyans will also argue that the fact that pre-coherent children babble quite a bit stands as evidence that children are speaking some sort of universal language. To the contrary, this makes much more sense: children learn to get attention by making noise – any kind of noise. Children learn to get sympathy by crying. Getting adults to respond to these actions is important for their survival. As humans are social animals, children add to their repertoire of social interaction skills when they realize that talking – whatever talking is – is a way by which adults socialize. And so they socialize by imitating the sounds of adult conversation. That doesn’t mean they are speaking real language. I could listen to people speaking Chinese for a few minutes and I am quite certain that I could do a pretty good imitation of someone speaking Chinese. That doesn’t mean that I have absorbed the rules of Chinese grammar as I was listening.)


And so what role does the brain play in language acquisition and development? The brain provides memory. The brain provides logic. The brain provides associative capabilities between meaning and sound, meaning and symbol, and symbol and sound. (Except for the deaf, who associate only symbol and meaning.)


The brain perceives forms through the eyes – formulaic symbols which it associates with meaning. (The blind perceive these forms through the fingertips, using Braille.) The brain perceives sound through the ears – sound patterns which it also associates with meaning. The brain creates ideas which it encodes into language, which is transmitted by speech or by writing (or by signing, or by Morse code, etc).


If we need to know how the brain does all these things, we can ask a neurobiologist. But if we want to fully understand language acquisition and development, then we need to look beyond the confines of the cranium. 

Aye, there’s the rub: the prohibition against looking outside the brain has always been based, for Chomsky, not on science, but on politics.

To continue reading, click here.

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

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