May 17th, 2011 by Alan
“Intellectual: ‘A man who takes more words than necessary to tell us more than he knows.’”
I have had it with Noam Chomsky. Enough already! Now this self-proclaimed expert in everything is writing on the Arab Spring’s threat to colonialism. What the fuck does that have to do with linguistics?
Out of his depth
Chomsky has been exceeding his intellectual depth for decades, and I am finally SO fed up with this pompous, self-promoting intellectual pretender that — as a linguist who witnessed Chomsky’s rise — I have to unload publicly.
Apparently I have much company – “criticism of Noam Chomsky” yields three million hits. Mostly it’s about foreign policy. I’m sure I could find writings – after all, Chomsky is nothing if not prolific – on other subjects on which Chomsky is a dilettante who spins his articulate, intellectual BS out to where you actually start to believe it. Click here for a collection of writings on the “Chomsky Hoax.” What next? Chomsky’s Transformational Cookbook?
Noam Chomsky is the most overrated mind of the 20th century.
He wasn’t even original. His distinction between outward form and inner meaning had been noted by earlier scholars and philosophers – notably, in linguistics, Kenneth Pike, whose tagmemics (which made a lot of sense to me) was based on natural-language data – but was overwhelmed by the viciousness and condescension of Chomsky’s acolytes at MIT.
(Back in the day, one razor-sharp critic of contemporary linguistics was a Chomskyite named Paul Postal. I guess “going Postal” has a special, linguistic meaning here.).
I was getting my linguistics education at Brown and the University of Chicago while Chomsky’s “transformational grammar” was transforming linguistics. I heard Chomsky’s presentation at a 1964 Linguistic Institute (Indiana U.). He wore orange socks. He thought – and therefore we were to think – that the distinction between John is eager to please and John is easy to please was a bit of profound knowledge.
Gimme a break. In retrospect, who wouldn’t agree that all Chomsky had was a new way of diagramming sentences, to reflect the paraphrasability of one of the examples (It’s easy to please John), but not the other?
This is an insight that gets you tenure at MIT, as well as intellectual invulnerability? I’ve read – and I challenge anyone to deny – that there was a period (and maybe it’s still true) when ANYTHING the Great One wrote was automatically accepted for publication. No wonder he’s the most-cited living author.
The weird part – the garden path that everybody followed per Chomsky, who defined what was worth knowing – was this obsession with deep structure (never fully defined but supposedly related to certain brain states that, I suppose, immediately precede utterances), tree-like diagrams, and the transformations by which the imaginary deep structure reveals itself as spoken or written language.
Also, according to the Chomsky catechism, grammar must be generative, like a computer program, producing grammatical (or “well-formed”) sentences, just as the brain generates sentences. This was all taken as Revealed Truth, even though the two processes have nothing in common except metaphorically, and all similarities of the brain to a computer are highly suspect.
So Chomsky’s Generative/Transformation Grammar, with all of its unquestioned assumptions (many still unresolved) about language and the brain, ruled the day. There was a kind of knowledge lock-in, where linguistics was about finding answers to the same questions — i.e., writing a GTG of this language or that. Like the MIDI sound and the Windows file (and the VCR, before it died), Chomsky was locked in.
Nobody could say where, neurologically or otherwise, the deep structure and rules were. I remember some discussion as to whether they were recursive (to account for sentences inside sentences). How could you tell, since it was all imaginary?
Not really earth-shaking
Chomsky was an aggressive challenger to the linguistics of his day, but all he really added was a new way of representing sentences and the relationships among their components. Linguists already knew that a grammar had to take meaning into consideration and that it had to account for all the sentences there could be (a potentially infinite number).
As for “transformation of sentences,” I found that exact phrase in a 19th century grammar by Providence (RI) educator Samuel Greene (Greene’s English Grammar, 1867, p. 196), I even published an article in the journal Historiographia Linguistica that traced the history of understanding the relationships between linguistic form and meaning and of paraphrase as a descriptive device.
Originally, I bought into the religion. Took grad courses in English syntax (all transformational) and the like. That’s how you got jobs and tenure. It’s my experience with language in the real world that’s shown how wrong Chomsky was.
As many linguists have noted, many factors shape the intention to produce a particular utterance. You can’t understand language without accounting for what was intended to be said, in terms of the consequences desired and of what was actually heard – they may be quite different, as any speechwriter knows.
Factors that shape choice and structure of utterances
Before - or even as - we waggle our vocal organs, many factors govern the sound-stream that emerges. Relationships between speaker and audience, as well as a variety of other social and contextual factors (e.g., marital vow vs. commencement speech vs. judicial sentencing vs. eulogy vs. free-from conversation) influence the linguistic alternatives (words, grammatical structures, conversational devices) that we select.
So does the context of our utterance. If not a monologue (of which there are many kinds), then maybe it’s a two-way, with its own rules. What sort of two-way? Free-form conversation between equals? Therapist and client? Police officer and traffic-stoppee? Minister and congregant? Three or four people? What are the rules for turn-taking?
Almost everything we say in conversation is situational, a reaction to what was just said. This is how a conversation-generating computer can seem human – by constantly going off-subject with generic reactions (”Why don’t you write something worth reading, asshole?”).
There is not, as Chomsky led everyone to suppose for decades, “a” grammar of English, such that any utterance can be generated from a capital S. There is only an intention, acted out in language behavior. The latter is our only data. We may never find the fleshly reality of the intricate brain and motor activities involved in using language. We have only the foggiest notion that there’s something going on in the brain.
What is the difference between the neuronal activity accompanying a statement, versus the same brain asking a question? Until we answer that question, all linguistic theory is just another way of diagramming sentences, of assigning a nomenclature and postulating imaginary entities, like tranformations, making reality claims for them, rather like religion. Deeper observation has made linguists aware of the interplay among the many factors that interact to produce real-life, sometimes interactive speech.
For a linguist, Chomsky is pathetically careless about language, spewing forth his ruminations, whether they make sense or not, like a divine oracle. “A grammar of a language L is a theory of L” was the early mantra, intoned with great gravitas. What does that even mean? It’s more pompous BS, an effort to make linguistics seem more scientific.
Indeed, Huddleston and Pullum’s massive Cambridge Grammar of the English Language is only loosely organized – but it does one more thing that Chomsky’s meager toolbox cannot accommodate: it accounts for a huge variety of sentences, with an assembly of essays that are exquisitely precise but do not pretend to spring from a single tree diagram.
Beyond his expertise
Chomsky’s first step beyond his expertise, such as it was (even his PhD thesis was cribbed from what his mentor, Zellig Harris, was doing with Hebrew morphology [the study of word-parts – prefixes, roots, etc.]), was to decide that he was now a brilliant cognitive scientist, pretending know what goes on in the mind to produce language, pretending that there’s hard neurological evidence that we’re predisposed to learn a language by creating an internal grammar of the language in a certain way (an astonishing claim with, as far as I know, with no compelling evidence, no support except the most general neurological confirmation about where language is happening).
I don’t think so. Aside from the aforementioned generalities, the intricacies of language production — from neuron firings to meaningful sounds — are poorly understood. Even more mysterious is the way the brain comprehends language, often drawing inferences, filling in meaning from context, or hearing what was not even said.
Language takes place in the brain, but no one knows just how. To use a Daniel Dennett example, if you and I both believe that George W. Bush is a bumbling, incredibly lucky idiot, are our brains somehow physiologically similar?
Somewhere along the way, as Chomsky piled up books as fast as Tony Robbins or Isaac Asimov, his expertise grew and grew, along with his ego, and, just like any celebrity who’s too full of himself, he becomes an expert on everything, including foreign policy.
We get it.
OK, OK, American foreign policy is stupid, counter-productive, and appallingly expensive. And I agree with Chomsky that there’s evidence that America has its share of empire freaks, many of them in government. Military ventures may bleed us dry.
But come on, comrade Chomsky (MS Word just automatically capitalized you!). This is the 21st century. Bring your language up to date. Nobody wants colonies anymore. Empires are a pain in the ass. America does want security from terrorists, so it decides that the best way to achieve it is to have American troops everywhere.
There’s no evil, no conspiracy (well, maybe Cheney’s evil)…just jingoism and defense contracts. We’ve got to elect different people to Congress, just for starters, people with a more modest and realistic — and less bloody and expensive — view of America’s place in the world. And eliminating pork — every defense plant is in someone’s Congressional district — has got to be part of a large-scale government reform.
A cultural phenom
Chomsky is a cultural phenomenon, as has been often noted: a professional intellectual. Everything that comes from this brain is pure gold and must be reprinted and quoted. And the Great One is only too happy to provide more, especially if the topic is “Evil America.”
When I was in college, Chomsky’s groundbreaker was a slim blue-gray paperback, Syntactic Structures, published in the Netherlands because no American publisher would take a chance on it. I read it in college, as just one more emerging approach. But transformational grammar was destined to be much more than that.
It was either a new way of diagramming sentences (my opinion) or a linguistic revolution (almost everyone else’s). It was certainly the breakthrough publication of the most overrated mind of the 20th century.