Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 14

Hi again, everybody! Back from Yorkshire! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues.


Readers may have noted the exchanges between Goran Hammarstrom and me regarding the ideas of the man who burst onto the linguistic scene at the age of 29 in 1957 with his book Syntactic Structures and in many respects ‘revolutionised’ the field; Steven Pinker and many other younger scholars continue to promote and develop his ideas. (Of course, Chomsky is also known as a political thinker; the degree to which his notions in these two areas of study genuinely relate to each other is debated.) Without embracing Chomsky’s ‘paradigms’, I acknowledge and respect many of his contributions to the discipline, for instance as an English grammarian; but I find other aspects of his work decidedly unconvincing. Goran, of course, has a more squarely negative view and regards some of Chomsky’s main ideas as evidently ‘nonsense’.

One problem here involves the ATTITUDES of Chomskyan linguists to professional disagreement and criticism. Chomsky himself was recently interviewed for the Podcast ‘Skeptically Speaking’. In this interview, he presents a very typically one-sided account of the relationship between him and his followers, on the one hand, and linguists with markedly different views, on the other. As is often suggested in Chomskyan discussion, he states that anyone who rejects his nativism or his theory of Universal Grammar (and is not, for instance, a ‘supernaturalist’ who believes that language arose by way of a miracle) MUST be misunderstanding him. And in places he even seems to equate ‘scientific linguists’ per se and his own specific framework. But non-Chomskyan linguists (Peter Matthews, Roy Harris, Geoffrey Sampson, etc.) would argue that it is instead Chomsky and his followers who typically misunderstand or fail to understand their objections to Chomskyan ideas, and indeed that some Chomskyan thought is in the final analysis unintelligible.

In fact, some Chomskyans are apparently OFFENDED by criticisms, as if their views were analogous to religious doctrines rather than representing scientific findings which (like any such findings) might possibly prove to be mistaken. For instance, Geoffrey Sampson draws attention to the fact that the prominent Chomskyan linguist Neil Smith commented on his own views in terms of distaste. Such a response is indicative of a stance which can hardly be deemed scientific or even rational. Indeed, Chomsky’s early work is sometimes treated almost as an incorrigible revelation of truth.

In his ‘Skeptically Speaking’ interview, Chomsky also sets up ‘straw men’ to attack. For example, no professional linguist known to me holds that language is entirely learned from experience, as he suggests they might (I know only of a few fringe amateur thinkers who adopt this view). And non-nativist linguists such as Sampson do not suggest or imply that language-learning must be ‘miraculous’, or that human minds are totally ‘plastic’ entities which might develop (quasi-)linguistic systems of ANY kind whatsoever. On the basis of evidence ignored or unconvincingly interpreted by nativists, Sampson argues (for example) that humans inherit genetically NOT Chomsky’s highly-specific language-learning ‘module’ but rather a more general ability to analyse complex data and produce systems such as language. He and other linguists who reject UG also point out that very few alleged features of UG, however abstract they may be, really admit of no exceptions; indeed, it is often easy to find counter-examples in varieties as familiar as British English. The fact that humans do seem to have inborn capabilities of this GENERAL nature does NOT imply that these capabilities must be as specific and restrictive in character as Chomsky holds.

Chomsky also ignores the substantial body of professional opinion which imports the position that some non-human mammals have, or can acquire, some of the most significant features of human language (at least to a degree). It suits him to reject this view, because he regards language as species-specific, and he is entitled to reject it; but he should not treat this as a matter of fact and should acknowledge that many well-informed persons think otherwise.

Chomsky talks rather more reasonably about linguistic evolution, and he rightly points out that the popular use of the term ‘evolution’ to refer to examples of linguistic change is misleading. The processes involved are not genetic; and, even if the analogical notion of ‘cultural evolution’ be accepted, most linguistic changes are not adaptive and are thus not parallel at all with biological evolution. But SOME changes (especially in vocabulary) ARE adaptive; and there are also some cases of long-term change (syntactic, etc.) where evolution may genuinely be in question. Again, it suits Chomsky to soft-pedal evolutionary issues, because he regards language as species-specific and the evolutionary aspects of the origins of human language bring this into question. (In doing this, he has inadvertently given comfort to creationist linguists.)

More next time!


For my new book Strange Linguistics, see:

Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.

17 Responses to Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 14

  1. Goran Hammarstrom says:

    Dear Mark,
    In your continued discussion you mention that I consider some of Chomsky’s ideas as nonsense. Yes, for instance, The sound pat- tern of English is so weird that there is no useful idea in it. Others of his ideas are less unacceptable and, while discussing them, an- other linguist may improve his own ideas. I have summarised my criticisms on Chomsky’s ideas on pages 59 – 62 of Memories of a linguist 1940 – 2010 (Lincom 2012).

    You discuss Chomsky’s innateness hypothesis. What it says is implausible and unnecessary. It is sufficient to know that humans have a brain that is capable of inventing and using language of our kind.

    You also mention language evolution. This term is unfortunate because it seems to refer to something that develops by its own force. When a new thing is created, one needs to create a new name. That is easy to understand. The “big” more systematic lan- guage changes are a problem which has often been discussed in various usually unconvincing ways. I believe, however, that this problem is not very complicated. Language is part of human cul- ture and humans change their culture from time to time..There is no deeper explanation than variatio delectat – there is nothing like change (see my book Fundamentals of diachronic linguistics, Lin- com 2012)..

    In skeptical studies the diachronic pattern is often a>ab>b, where a is the initial idea, ab is the next step where a and the new idea b exist together and oppose each other and the third step shows the idea b which has won..This pattern can be applied to smoking be- ing or not being a health hasard or the climate change being or not being caused by human activities. Chomskyanism follows a differ- ent pattern, a>ab>a. First there is traditional linguistics, a. Then the traditional linguistics and the new chomskyanism exist together, ab. Finally b disappears, (which is still under way) and the initial idea a continues. This pattern is applicable when b is the work of a delusionist, a false prophet, a scientist falsifying the result of his work or if there is some other major deficiency.

    I believe that your interesr needs a better name than Skeptical Humanities and Skeptical Linguistics. What about Humanities dubiology (or skeptology) and Linguistic dubiology (or skepto- logy)? You would then be a linguistic dubiologist (or skeptologist).

    Goeran Hammarstroem

  2. marknewbrook says:

    Thanks as ever, Goran

    I think Goran’s analysis involving a > ab etc is interesting, but it would need more ‘teasing out’ as it applies to a range of specific cases involving attempted mainstream, marginally mainstream non-mainstream innovations.

    I myself don’t find it possible to regard the matters of linguistic evolution on the one hand and short-term specific linguistic changes on the other as straightforward, and I MAY return to these issues later. It IS interesting that Goran regards language change as analogous to cultural change generally, i.e., as essentially a matter of fashion. This view is not wholly unreasonable and has been proclaimed by others (including the prominent early Chomskyan Paul Postal); but for me and many others such positions leave unaddressed too many apparently (potentially) empirical issues (as they would in any domain).

    The term Skeptical Humanities, as far as I know, is due to the site organisers; but it fits in with existing specific terms such as Skeptical Astronomy and it makes sense given the wider use of the term ‘skeptical’ as discussed earlier. And – while I am intrigued by Goran’s suggestions – I don’t consider that that my own field requires a better name, and I am happy to stick with Skeptical Linguistics.


    For my book Strange Linguistics, see:
    Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.

    • Goran Hammarstrom says:

      There are are certainly many interesting issues to investigate about language change. My point was only that like in architecture, music, dance etc. one cannot find why the changes go one way and not another. In language one cannot find the innovator. And if one found him, he would not be able to tell you why he changed a into b and not into c..
      In Skeptical linguistics the two words are in wrong order. It means that the linguistics is skeptical and not that one con- siders what is said about language in a sceptical way..

  3. marknewbrook says:

    Like many historical linguists, I do not feel sure that we will NEVER be able to determine why specific changes go as they do. In SOME cases, persuasive explanations have already been offered.

    And I altogether deny that the words in the expression ‘Skeptical Linguistics’ are in the wrong order, or that it has the ‘other’ meaning suggested by Goran (I do not understand his sense of ‘skeptical’ here). Like other, parallel expressions with ‘skeptical’, the expression is readily interpreted as having its intended meaning.

    Once again it becomes clear that Goran & I are not going to agree. Let him use his own preferred terminology, explaining it first; my skeptical linguist colleagues and I will use ours.


  4. Richard Wein says:

    Hi Mark.

    The problem with discussing UG is that it’s very unclear what it means to say that there are universal rules of grammar, or that such rules are genetically inherited. The concept of a “rule” is quite problematic. (Wittgenstein had some useful things to say about rules.) It seems to me that Chomsky himself is vague and even equivocal about what he means.

    In the most literal and paradigmatic sense I would say that grammatical rules are symbolic representations (abstractions) of how we speak. That’s the sort of rule that you find in a grammar book. But we also uses the word in a more abstract sense, for example when we say that languages have rules. We would say that every language has rules, even if no one has ever expressed them in any symbolic language. But we may be tempted to think that, even in such a case, the speakers of the language have some sort of symbolic grammatical rules stored in their heads. I think we must resist this temptation. If we needed a set of symbolic grammatical rules in order to understand a language, we would then need a second set of symbolic rules to understand the language in which the first set of rules was expressed, leading to an infinite regress of languages. But, if learning rules does not mean acquiring symbolic rules, what does it mean? I think the reason we say people have learnt rules is because we observe that they have acquired certain patterns of speech, the sort of patterns that we associate with symbolic rules. This then tempts us to think that they actually have such symbolic rules in their heads, although careful consideration should lead us to reject such a view. But, having rejected such a view, we typically don’t have any idea what is really going on inside people’s heads. We don’t need any such idea in order to usefully describe people as “learning rules”. It’s a useful abstraction even if we have no idea what’s going on at a more concrete level. But that makes much of our talk about rules (including Chomsky’s) extremely vague.

    It would help if we had a clear idea as to just what is common to all human languages. I admit that I’m ignorant here. Has Chomsky said just what features of language he thinks are universal?

    Personally, I think it’s very likely that the brain has adapted to language use through natural selection, and this adaptation probably consists of more than just “more of the same”, such as mere increase in brain size. I should think it has elements which are specific to language. But it doesn’t follow that such elements are sensibly called “rules”. It also seems plausible that the course of evolution has had some influence on the type of grammar that we use. If evolution had taken a different route, we might speak differently. But I think that to say we have inherited grammatical rules suggests something rather stronger than just “our grammar is influenced by our evolution”. Finally, none of this depends on (or implies) the “poverty of stimulus”. I find that argument very unhelpful, since there seems no way to judge how much stimulus is needed. I also think Chomsky has misguided views on evolution. All in all, I’m not at all impressed by what I’ve read and heard from Chomsky on this subject.

    To be fair, I think it’s very difficult to talk about the origin of language. The words we use in the discussion are very fuzzy and ambiguous.

    By the way, I couldn’t find the podcast you referred to. Any chance of a link, please?

    • Goran Hammarstrom says:

      Dear Richard,

      The way you argue makes me wonder if your interest has mainly been in philosophy. I will try to add some viewpoints without feeling that I criticise you.

      The way Chomsky discusses UG and innateness is to me a non- problem. As language is a system of communication, it has ex- pression side and content side or form and meaning. It is arbi- trary, There is no motivated relationship between the two sides, In English a part of the body is called head. It could have been called finger. If this had been the convention, it would have worked. In order to construct all the complicated utterances humans have understood the principle of segmentation. In language, segments at different levels can be combined in different ways. The smallest, shortest, segments, the sounds or the phonemes, can be com- bined in different ways so as to form an enormous number of words, which form longer segments, which form an enormous num- ber of utterances. Our brain is good enough to do these things but no animal can do it. In order to communicate humans and also animals can use natural signals but what these can mean is very limited.

      You think that there could be adaptation to language use by natur- al selection. I do not find this plausible. The two principles of arbi- trariness and segmentation may have been difficult to find but they are not difficult to understand and use once discovered. By the way the size of the brain is unimportant. Women have smaller brains than men but they are not less intelligent. Here I had to criticise you

      Considering universalness the two basic principles mentioned are universal. As soon as one starts looking at the details of languages some very general things may also be found to be common and perhaps universal. The more detailed the description becomes, the more different one finds various languages to be. The problem with UG is that one does not know all languages and even if one had known them, I do not feel it would have been a major interest to know that it would have a major interest to know that a few details are innate, The innateness hypothesis is unnecessary and im- plausible. Even if some bits of some kind of grammar were innate, as a linguist I am not very interested. It is rather a problem for genetists but they do not seem to approve of the idea..

      You are not impressed by Chomsky’s ideas about UG. I am not impressed by any of his ideas. I have recently summed up my criticisms in Memories of a linguist 1940 – 2010 (Hamburg: Lincom Europa 2012, p. 59 = 62).

      Goeran Hammarstroem.

      • Richard Wein says:

        Thanks for your reply, Goran. You’re quite right that I’m approaching this question from the direction of philosophy. I’ve long had a modest interest in language and linguistics, and I read a little Chomsky back in the 70s. But my interest lay dormant for a long time until I started thinking about philosophy a few years ago. I gradually came to see that language issues play a critical role in philosophy, and my thoughts about language developed in a direction I would now call Wittgensteinian, though I didn’t read Wittgenstein (“Philosophical Investigations”) until a year ago.

      • Goran Hammarstrom says:

        Dear Richard, Unlike some linguists I am not impressed when philosophers say things about language. I think you should read and think about simple things about language. Read a couple of textbooks. If there are still ideas influenced by Chomsky do not read them. He is an imposter. If you find one of my latest books published by Lincom Europa there is nothing complicated in them, I believe. Wishing you enjoyment and satisfaction in your linguistic studies. Goran… .

      • Richard Wein says:

        Hi Goran. The broad questions about language that we’re discussing here are very difficult, as is much of philosophy, and I find it understandable that philosophers (and linguists) often get these things wrong. We have to work hard at separating the wheat from the chaff. Best wishes, Richard.

      • Goran Hammarstrom says:

        Dear Richard, You think there are difficult questions in linguistics. If you want to discuss details with me, a more private discussion might be more appropriate. After having thought of linguistic problems every day for the last 72 years of my life, I believe that, I’ll always be able to give you some kind of answer to your questions.. My email address is Goran

      • Richard Wein says:

        Hi Goran. To clarify, I’m referring to the sorts of questions raised by Chomksy’s claims, such as questions about the evolutionary origins of language ability. As you yourself seem to agree, these are not the sorts of questions traditionally addressed by linguists.

      • Goran Hammarstrom says:

        Dear Richard, I wonder if you are still wasting your time and effort attempting to be elucidated by reading Chomsky. You can’t learn anything that way.. Any number of the best linguists have said that his linguistics is meaningless. Presently the most important critic is Paul Postal, who was Chomsky’s most important collaborator. He is honest and for more than ten years he says what he now thinks. In Skeptical linguistic essays (2004) he uses the word “junk linguis- tics. It could not be stronger. Goran.

      • Richard Wein says:

        Hi Goran,

        “I wonder if you are still wasting your time and effort attempting to be elucidated by reading Chomsky.”

        I don’t think it’s a complete waste of time to learn about a widely held view, even if I don’t agree with it. (I read about creationism too!) But I doubt I will spend much more time on Chomsky’s views.

  5. marknewbrook says:

    Thanks a lot! I agree with most of this! UG is indeed a hard concept to elucidate. For example, readers of Chomsky tend to imagine that UG is something like a TEMPLATE for basic grammar, but this is in fact more like the ‘case’ theory of the ‘rebel’ Fillmore (seen at MIT as one of the ‘Bad Guys’); Chomskyan UG is more abstract, a set of CONSTRAINTS upon the possible forms of a grammar. More generally, one sometimes gets the idea that Chomskyans will do almost anything to ‘defuse’ challenges to UG. And of course Chomsky’s ideas have changed over the years, sometimes (as it seems) opportunistically or in near-panic.

    And, yes, the notion of a ‘rule’ is complex and varied, in linguistics as well as in the philosophy of language. This is not only a matter of degree of abstraction. For instance, one always has to be aware of the PRESCRIPTIVIST use of the term; my students in Singapore took ages to understand that it was NOT this use that variationists found and objected to in dealing with Chomsky specifically (as opposed to folk-linguistic thought). But until the concept IS made clear in context, it is indeed hard to discuss the possibility of genetic inheritance (etc).

    I agree that rules can be abstract (or fairly abstract) patterns in language OR symbolic representations of same developed once grammar comes to be itself a focus of study. And, as Matthews and others have pointed out, one does NOT have to assume, with Chomsky, that language-users have such a set of representations in their heads; even if the philosophical problems involving regress can be overcome, that remains only ONE theory of how all this works. On the other hand, by no means everyone will be able to accept a behaviourist account of linguistic performance. These matters remain rather impenetrable.

    Even if we knew very well what is common to all human languages, this would not show that the EXPLANATIONS for these shared features were themselves linguistic. SOME universals might involve e.g. general psychology, as Sampson argues.

    One example of a supposed Chomskyan universal is the principle that sentences in all languages must have basic structures involving a division into Noun Phrase + Verb Phrase, analogous to the traditional analysis into Subject and Predicate. In addition to the Verb itself, the VP/Predicate often contains a further NP, the Object. ([The man] [saw[the dragon]]) This would appear to preclude any analysis of a given sentence in which the Object NP and the Verb are separated from each other, in a linear sense, by the Subject NP. Chomskyans therefore have to deal with languages such as Welsh and Tagalog, where the Subject NP normally separates the Verb from the Object NP (Verb-Subject-Object word order, as in Welsh gwelodd y dyn y ddraig (‘the man saw the dragon’; literally, ‘saw the man the dragon’), by adopting contrived and sometimes empirically indemonstrable analyses of such sentences involving covert underlying/abstract NP+VP ordering; or at least they struggle to analyse these structures. Linguists who advocate/accept other general analyses (as universals or merely as valid for particular languages), such as a three-way division into Subject, Verb and Object with different languages adopting different word-orders, do not meet with such problems.

    I agree also that Chomsky is not strong on evolution, though I do think he is correct in pointing out that most local linguistic changes do not seem to be strictly evolutionary in nature. Of course, most discussion of genuine linguistic evolution is inevitably speculative.

    I’m not sure that that podcast I referred to is yet in the public domain. I’ve asked for permission to share it. Watch this space.

    Thanks again!


    For my new book Strange Linguistics, see:

    Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.

  6. marknewbrook says:

    Hi again, Richard! I’m advised that the Chomsky podcast is indeed not yet in the public domain and I’m not authorised to pass on the link (I had it myself because I’m to do a podcast on that site too and it was relevant). Please watch Skeptically Speaking for the interviews. Sorry about this! Mark

    • Richard Wein says:

      OK, Mark. Thanks for trying. I’ll take a look at some other interviews there too.

      • Goran Hammarstrom says:

        Dear Richard, It occurs that one can learn from finding counterarguments but hardly in this case. Chomsky is incredibly intelligent, finds impressive formulations and ideas. You do not have enough experience to understand what is wrong in his ideas. Earlier he may have deceived as many as half of aii young linguists. Finally we are now at the stage where he would hardly deceive anybody who is not already deceived. In the sixties and seventies the best established linguists such as Jakobson, Hockett and Martinet said this is meaningless. He just did not respond and I am sure the young linguists thought: they are the old ones and Chomsky is the next generation, even revolutionary. The situation is now new because the next generation does not accept him: Langacker, Givon, Sampson et al. The worst for Chomsky may be Postal’s “junk linguistics”. Now Chomsky is the old generation. Goran.

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