Hi again, everybody! Back from Yorkshire! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues.
14 NOAM CHOMSKY (!)
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!
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