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In the field of linguistics, Noam Chomsky occupies a position close to that held by Isaac Newton in physics during the eighteenth century. Because language is central to being human, Chomsky has also long occupied a foundational role in the cognitive sciences that have burgeoned since the middle of the twentieth century. While Newton had an equally intense and ambitious career as an alchemist and a doomsday Biblical scholar, the politic Sir Isaac kept these careers, largely successfully, a dark secret. Chomsky, however, has published dozens of books and countless articles throughout his life expressing leftist, egalitarian, anarchist views with almost unimpeachable moral authority and meticulous scholarship. Yet Chomsky has insisted that his scientific work in no way supports or “proves” his political views, other than his insistence that humans, in having cognitive command of a discrete infinity of linguistic structures, are beyond the comprehension of the empiricist behaviorism dominant in mid-twentiethcentury American academic circles.
Born in Philadelphia in 1928, Chomsky pursued his undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied with Zellig Harris, a structural linguist who saw linguistics as the compact description of a community’s time-bound finite corpus of utterances (literally, sonic sequences of supposed phonetic atoms). Chomsky completed his graduate work while a Junior Fellow at Harvard University between 1951 and 1954, and he became a professor at MIT in 1955, rapidly advancing to a series of distinguished professorships. His books Syntactic Structures (1957) and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), which have made him the most cited living author, soon revolutionized linguistics.
The opening three sentences of Syntactic Structures tersely render his formalized, mentalist, and nativist view:
Syntactical investigation of a given language has as its goal the construction of a device for producing the sentences of the language under investigation.… The ultimate outcome of [such] investigations should be a theory of linguistic structures in which the descriptive devices utilized in particular grammars are presented and studied abstractly.… One function of this theory is to provide a general method for selecting a grammar for each language, given a corpus of this language. (Chomsky 1957, p. x)
Formally speaking, one cannot describe a human language by listing its sentences, simply because there are an infinite number of them. One must therefore describe a device that would generate these, and only these, sentences. This “device” would display the knowledge that a competent human speaker of this language has. Language is the device, the internal brain/mind device, not the finite behavioral outputs that this device, coupled with others, produces. Linguistics is thus a branch of psychology.
Behaviorists such as B. F. Skinner thought that knowledge of language consisted of associations between particular words (heard sound sequences). Through repetition, humans learn the sound sequences “How are you,” “I would like a red apple,” and “I am fine,” but not “Are you how,” “Red a like would I apple,” “Am fine I,” and so on. An associative grammar like this is called finite state grammar; it fits well with the empiricist notion that humans learn everything through (sequences of) sensory experience, and it makes no use of “dubious” abstractions such as noun, pronoun, verb, auxiliary verb, or adjective.
Yet there is massive evidence that people routinely produce new sentences that they have never heard before and that have never been produced in the history of their language. Even if sentences are limited to fifteen words or less, there are literally trillions of different but perfectly grammatical sentences of English. In fact, Chomsky gave a decisive formal proof that no human language could be generated by a finite-state grammar. We simply have to internalize at least a phrase structure grammar that makes use of rules that deal in abstract categories such as noun phrase, verb phrase, noun, pronoun, verb, auxiliary verb, adjective, and so on. Indeed, Chomsky proved that even a phrase-structure grammar is not all that is needed, and that the surface structure of a sentence is not a reliable guide to its deeper features.
Human languages have in common many principles and processes, word forms and structures, and rules and features. What the linguist describes, therefore, belongs to human language as much as to a particular language (abstracting, of course, from the peculiarities of particular idiolects and dialects toward humanly universal cognition). Indeed, every one of the hundreds of human language that has been described makes use of the same phrase-structural concepts of noun phrase, verb phrase, pronoun, verb, adjective, and so on. In the linguistic theory of the last two decades, it appears that a small number of principles and initial parameter settings determine every aspect of grammar that makes a human language and differentiates it from other human languages (a good thing, too, because the human baby seems equally prepared to take on any human language to which it is exposed). Chomsky has speculated that a Martian anthropologist would regard all human languages as essentially the same language.
“A general method for selecting a grammar for each language,” given a sample corpus, would also be the knowledge a human child brings to the samples of a language to which the child is exposed. A vast body of evidence about child language development has persuaded nearly all linguists and cognitive scientists that the human child is preprogrammed with a “language acquisition device.” To give an example from personal experience that is familiar to investigators of language learning, the twoyear-old daughter of this author, Casey, exploded into using auxiliary verbs and tag negations over the space of two weeks, saying “I am going,” “I can’t,” “Susan isn’t here.” All of the auxiliary verbs came in at virtually the same time, and Casey tag-negated only those verbs, no others: She never said “I eatn’t,” “I gon’t,” “Susan walkn’t,” or “The cat grabn’t the bird.” She also said “I amn’t” and “I am going, amn’t I.” No one around Casey ever said “amn’t,” but she went on happily using the construction, and it wasn’t until she started school two years later that she realized no one else talked that way. Of course, Casey was doing what comes naturally. In some sense, she (or some part of her brain/mind) knew what auxiliary verbs and regular verbs were, and she knew that you could tagnegate (put “n’t” after) auxiliaries but not after other verbs. She also never said “I am going, aren’t I,” because she knew that “am” is a singular verb, that “are” is a plural verb, and that “I,” being a singular pronoun, could not take a plural verb (“are”).
Now, of course, Casey had never heard the English words “noun,” “verb,” “auxiliary verb,” “tag-negate,” “pronoun,” “plural,” or “singular.” Nonetheless, she (or some part of her brain) knew perfectly well the word kinds that these English words name, just as a monolingual speaker of Urdu knows what nouns, pronouns, and verbs are, although he may have no idea what spoken label (in Urdu or English) to use for these perfectly familiar word kinds. It is this sense of knowing, of linguistic competence, that linguistics now clearly emphasizes.
But how did Casey know about these things when no one around her ever tried to explain them to her? The linguist’s answer is that hearing something is an auxiliary verb or a pronoun is just like seeing that something is a red ball or a small animal. So Casey, just like any other human child whether in a literate or tribal community, identified the different word kinds present in her environment, although no one was explicitly coaching her to do this. She recognized that auxiliary verbs, but not other verbs, could be tag-negated, so she said “I amn’t,” just as she said “I can’t” or “He isn’t,” because she saw that “am” was an auxiliary verb, and so could be tagged with “n’t.” Speaking and hearing a natural language is a competence acquired naturally (in the first several years of life), while reading and writing requires—unfortunately—years of effort and explicit instruction. Similarly, our basic visual/motor competencies come to us naturally in our first years. Our recently burgeoning “cognitive sciences” attend to this central aspect of being human, the characteristic competencies or faculties that make us homo sapiens.
Chomsky maintains that his work in linguistics, and cognitive science generally, have virtually no connection with his political and moral views—views for which he claims no expertise, although he has published countless articles, books, interviews, and commentaries on political and moral matters. He claims no professional expertise in such matters because he believes that no one really has such expertise. To Chomsky, political and moral matters can and must be understood by all citizens, not just by elites or would-be professional apologists for elites (or, more particularly, corporate wealth and power). Chomsky rose to public attention (and the Nixon White House’s “enemies” list) for his opposition to the Vietnam War, although his subsequent opposition to U.S. imperialism more generally, particularly in the Middle East, and his criticism of the U.S. media bias have muted his ability to address the U.S. public. Hence, Chomsky and his political and moral views are better known outside of the United States. It should be said that Chomsky has consistently maintained that U.S. behavior, as a dominant world power, is no worse than previous dominant world powers, such as Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and Imperial Rome.
- Barsky, Robert. 1997. Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Chomsky, Noam. 1957. Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton.
- Chomsky, Noam. 1965. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Leiber, Justin. 1975. Noam Chomsky: A Philosophic Overview. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
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