Weekly Worker, Letters **** 9 September 2016 **** Front Page

Chomsky misunderstood

By Hannu Reime

Chris Knight has some serious misunderstandings on the nature of Noam Chomsky's linguistic work and the research programme of modern generative grammar, initiated by Chomsky, Morris Halle and others at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 60 years ago. In two previous letters, I tried to correct two of them, with no apparent success. One dealt with the US military's funding of research at MIT in the 1950s and early 1960s (March 18 2010); the other concerned speculation on the origin of human language (February 12 2015).

In his new article, Chris Knight again presents wild and fantastic claims about Chomsky's scientific work (‘Two Noam Chomskys', September 1). He quotes Chomsky to the effect that a child has “all possible languages in its head” and “As the data comes along, that class of possible languages reduces.” Chris Knight calls this “the most amazing statement”. Well, I think it's simply a statement of fact.

Recall that the object of inquiry of generative linguistics has always been the human language faculty and its various manifestations in speech or signing. A newborn human has all the possible varieties of (human) language in her head, in the sense that she is predisposed to acquire any one of them - in fact, many of them, if she happens to grow in multilingual surroundings. A child born into a Japanese-speaking family will start speaking Japanese; if she is moved to Cairo and grows up in the local speech community there, she will start speaking Egyptian Arabic, and so on and so forth.

There should be nothing controversial in these statements. They are based on simple observations, and belong to the starting points of the scientific research programme, which Chomsky and his colleagues have been following for close to 60 years now.

Much less, practically nothing, in fact, is known about how growing children pick up the meaning of words or word-like atomic elements of their language. Anatomically and behaviourally modern humans in the Stone Age could not know the meaning of such words as ‘book', ‘bureaucrat' or ‘carburettor', but they had the same mental capacity to know them as we have. Or at least this is the view of many paleoanthropologists. See, for example, Ian Tattersall's Masters of the planet: the search for our human origin (London 2013).

The claim that Chomsky has separated humans' intuitive knowledge of language from its material and organic basis, comparable to the separation of software from hardware in computer science, is also wide of the mark. Chomsky has never advocated such a view. On the contrary, he has collaborated with such eminent biological scientists as Salvador Luria and Richard Lewontin. Eric Lenneberg's classical work Biological foundations of language (New York 1967) contains Chomsky's essay, ‘The formal nature of language', as an appendix.

As for human social interactions, politics, communications and culture, surely language is highly relevant for all of them. A human being would not acquire language without interaction with other humans, as the tragic cases of so-called wolf-children show. However, chimpanzees interact with each other too, and still they don't have language.

In fact, there would not be a human society as we know it without language. But, however much we repeat this truism, it does not help us understand the nature of the human language faculty. Only a rigorous analysis of its manifestations can show the way forward.

The title of Chris Knight's article is ‘Two Noam Chomskys', and he criticises Chomsky's separation of linguistics from politics. I don't understand what's wrong with this separation. There are important and interesting formal aspects of human language that are politically irrelevant, and Chomsky's work is mainly concerned with them.

My friend and comrade, Moshé Machover, who is well-known to the Weekly Worker readers for his progressive socialist views, is a mathematician by profession. One of his areas of interest in that field is mathematical logic. Would it have been a sign of progress if he and his co-author, John Bell, had devoted a chapter to the ‘social and political relevance' of, say, the axiomatic set theory in their textbook A course in mathematical logic (Amsterdam 1977)? Maybe Chris Knight can tell.


Archive: Noam Chomsky, Languages, Hannu Reime


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