9 June 2019 **** Front page

Reply to the Quora question “Have Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories been discredited?”

Hannu Reime

To say that a theory has been discredited contains the presupposition that there is something suspicious or dishonest about the “theory” in question or about the people with whom it has been associated. So for example, you can say that the “racial biology” of the early 20th century has been discredited, not only disproved – as could be the case with serious scientific theories – but simply shown to have been charlatanry, motivated by supremacist political ideology.

There’s absolutely nothing comparable in “Chomsky’s linguistic theories”. Chomsky and other linguists working in the framework of generative grammar have presented various hypotheses and more or less formal theories about the information structures that every normal person has in her mind/brain concerning her language. Some of them have been partially confirmed, some partially disproved, as always happens in science.

I wrote “Chomsky’s linguistic theories” in quotes, because a better term would be a ‘program of study’ that Noam Chomsky and some of his co-workers started in the 1950s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from where it has spread to universities and research institutes all over the world.

There’s a lot of confusion about these matters. So, for example, in newspaper columns of popular science, one often finds claims that this or that language has disproved (if not discredited) Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar, or that neurologists have not found any Universal Grammar in the human brain, and so on. But ‘Universal Grammar’ is simply a term that refers to the correct observation that Homo sapiens, to the best of our knowledge, is the only species that has language. This observed fact, the human language faculty, is the object of study of generative grammar. Of course, other species communicate but they don’t have such language as we have. You may call their various communication systems languages but that’s only playing with words, not dealing with the subject matter.

Chomsky and his two younger colleagues, Ángel Gallego and Dennis Ott, write in a recent paper that “[t]he term Universal Grammar is a label for… [the]… striking difference in cognitive capacity between ‘us and them [other species]’.” The linguists Ian Roberts and Anders Holmberg write that – contrary to what is often claimed – it is those who deny the existence of Universal Grammar that have the burden of proof. They would have to show that there’s nothing special in the human capacity for language, that the ability to acquire and use language is simply a reflection of our superior general intelligence, whatever that means exactly. If it were shown that Universal Grammar is empty, it would be an interesting fact about the world, not a discredit of generative grammar. But the hypothesis on which it is based is extremely improbable.

So nothing to this day has disproved the approach of generative grammar in the study of human language, let alone discredited it.

June 5, 2019

Archive: Hannu Reime, Languages, Noam Chomsky


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