Noam Chomsky and Psycholinguistics: A Newcomer’s Rebuttal
Descartes’ meditations are a wonderful introspective look at the human condition and what it means to be a thinking entity. Whether or not Descartes’ work is truly wonderful has been a manner of contention, and slightly unnoticed has gone the debate over whether or not his works were written by a machine. One may be surprised to hear that it is actually commonplace to believe that his works, and all other literary endeavors are actually the byproduct of a biolinguistic machine that resides within each and every human.
This is not to say that humans simply have the ability to learn and use language creatively, but to claim in addition that all members of humanity come pre programmed with the capacity to utilize a language that adheres to a specific universal grammar. The universal grammar, in this case, being a grammar that does not need to be learned or absorbed by the user, but rather simply preexists within the user. Such thinking is largely the product of Noam Chomsky and his thoughts on language and the mind. Chomsky claims that all minds come programmed with this universal grammar just as a computer would come pre-programmed with a word processor. While giving nods to other languages in his works, Chomsky primarily focuses on English. This conceit is strange considering he is speaking about a universal grammar. Chomsky’s ventures into the fields of neurology and behavioral science are limited to relying mostly on the assumption that his analogies can be taken as fact, so he instead highlights deep structures within language to circumvent potential scientific roadblocks. Furthermore, Chomsky places strict constraints on how language can operate, postulating that these constraints are not unlike constraints that would occur when trying to solve a physical problem. Chomsky supports his theory from so many angles that it soon becomes apparent that this heralded linguist has spread himself too thin and strayed from what he truly is, a linguist. It has become convenient to say that language literally evolved as a biological component of humans and did so universally. Chomsky even claims that different languages are simply choices that modify the deeper structure insignificantly, however; this viewpoint does not take into account many complex elements that make it unreasonable to have an all-encompassing candy coated explanation for language.
The prospect of a universal grammar is certainly enticing. From a translator’s point of view, having this at one’s disposal would allow the interpretation of any given language provided the required vocabulary in the form of a dictionary was available. Unfortunately this idyllic form of language comes with one major caveat, Chomsky allows the existence of different levels of structure to grammar, “where D is a deep structure and S is a surface structure” (Chomsky 113). By allowing these different levels of structure to exist within a single syntactical grouping of words the implication is that they are interdependent as opposed to entirely different. Chomsky claims that the deep structure is the universal grammar and the surface structure is connected to the chosen language and he continues to show that the information derived from a sentence is mostly a result of the surface structure. One may wonder what a sentence is useful for outside of the conveyance of information, and following suit wonder why there is a use for this deep structure. Chomsky seems to say that the surface structure is apparent to all, but one must essentially look really hard to find the universal grammar, similar to an imaginary friend. He continues to claim that differences in languages are trivial as they are simply add-ons to the universal grammar. An acclaimed translator has challenged the universal grammar, and thus the idea of the two levels of grammatical structure. Alexander Gross expressed to the ATA chronicle his sentiments that, “As most translators have learned from continued struggles to provide a real equivalent between two idioms, the differences between the world’s languages are definitely not “trivial,” even if one accepts this word in the broader sense encouraged by Chomsky of differentiating human languages from communications between animals or “intelligent machines”“(Gross). Having a universal grammar would surely aid in translation, and as Gross implies would allow for the creation of a universal translator capable of translating between any language that humans could possibly create. Unfortunately, no such machine exists despite Chomsky’s claims that the universal grammar is visible with scrutiny. This is not to say that such a machine must follow from the universal grammar, but to point out that at least some progress should have been made in this area had the universal grammar truly existed. Truth be told Chomsky makes little to no attempt to even link languages together with this universal grammar and instead implies, “a more persuasive kind of evidence bearing on the universal grammar is provided by the study of a single language.” (Chomsky 99). Such a statement would infuriate translators such as Gross, because Chomsky claims there is a universal grammar that links all languages and yet it is very hard to see and is much easier to prove when looking at a single language. The argument he makes acknowledges its paradox and yet he strives to provide compelling linguistic proof of the whole while only looking at a microcosm.
As children, humans acquire their habits through enculturation, it is obviously apparent that people who are raised in different situations behave differently as adults. The sciences, being part of a culture, are also learned. A member of the Natufian culture in 1200 B.C. would have an intimate knowledge of plant life surrounding the Mediterranean, whereas a suburban teenager in the year 2009 would likely not have this knowledge let alone any knowledge of his local plant life. This would be so even if the child was a direct descendant of the Natufian villager, and many would agree that it would be absurd to believe that this knowledge could be passed down in a biological manner over so many years. Yet Chomsky insists that the universal grammar is a product of biological and evolutionary factors that allows it to be engrained in every person’s mind from birth when he claims, “The child must acquire a generative grammar of his language on the basis of a fairly restricted amount of evidence. To account for this achievement, we must postulate a sufficiently rich internal structure – a sufficiently restricted theory of universal grammar constitutes his contribution to language acquisition.”(Chomsky 141). If knowledge is to be retained in this way, why then is a child not born with internal knowledge of how a moment applied axially to a steel beam will cause a deformation depending on the direction of the moment and the coefficient of elasticity of the steel? From an anthropological sense, Chomsky’s theory of how knowledge is acquired is a slap in the face to the ideas of enculturation that many have come to accept. Why should language get a free pass when all other aspects of human knowledge and acquired behavior are attributed to enculturation? Anthropologist Michael Tomasello recognizes that children can indeed learn a language entirely “without the aid of any hypothesized universal grammar” (Tomasello 3). Tomasello’s anthropological analysis of how language is acquired would indicate that humans have the capacity to learn a language, as opposed to the inborn ability to utilize a preformed universal grammar. When Chomsky speaks about language acquisition he acts as if individual languages are just ways to express the universal grammar, he even acknowledges that these individual grammars must be learned. Yet he cannot bring himself to say that language itself may be learned entirely, instead choosing to claim that humans already have the bulk of their
If one is to assume that humans have the universal grammar pre-programmed in them from birth, it would follow that they (like Chomsky) also believe that this universal grammar was literally evolved. Chomsky, in one of his lectures, points out that it could be also assumed that mathematical thinking was evolved simply because of the basic principles shared between mathematical fields. One should know that the fact that the mathematical expression that relates radio frequency and spring velocity/acceleration along with their damping is not similar because man evolved it to be so, but simply because man discovered these physical relationships and has passed them down through cultural means. In 1987 Roy Harris pointed out exactly how ludicrous it is to think that language is physically programmed into the brain as he wrote, “Once rule-formations have been passed off as rules of grammar, and rules of grammar in turn misconceived as inhering ‘in the language’ or else hidden in the brain, the slide down the slope is fast and inevitable.” (Harris 135). Harris notes that the conceit that language is somehow hidden in the brain leads to a certain path of logic that is most certainly incorrect. Namely, “There is nowhere to stop short of constructing a theorists’ set of rule-formations as a valid description of the workings of a linguistic machine” (Harris 135). By recognizing the nonexistent biological propensity towards language many linguists have arrived at the only explanation of there being a universal structure. Harris goes on to show that there is indeed no such linguistic machine, and that the very basis of its invention in modern though is ill conceived. Despite such logic, Chomsky even has the audacity to claim that “the evolution of language may be a very brief affair” (Chomsky 176). This is a marvelous display of ignorance with respect to exactly how evolution works. Every child that has been taught (again, not pre disposed) about the Origin of Species will understand that the prospect of such a complex evolutionary leap cannot come about in any span of time that can be called short. Chomsky’s main source in this area is Ian Tatterstal who calls this event, “the invention of language”. The use of the word invention is crucial, because it is reasonable to assume that knowledge of an invention may spread quickly within a culture, but Chomsky twists this statement to show that the evolution of language was rapid and that the individual languages that sprung forth were just innovations as opposed to inventions. How would it come to be that an entire population would develop a seemingly useless trait that over the span of several generations that suddenly becomes highly developed and useful? The eye did not evolve over the course of one thousand years, and most assuredly it took much longer.
Noam Chomsky uses intimidating syntactical diagrams, convoluted proofs and a myriad of brief allusions to well respected thinkers all in an attempt to back his theory of the universal grammar. His analogies and assertions are spread over a wide range of scientific fields, and what he concludes about human thought has a distinct deterministic taste. While he is highly qualified to speak about the English language, his reasoning that the basic structure of English can somehow be seen in all other languages is a faulty assumption at best. Chomsky applies what he knows about English to all languages, and unfortunately most modern linguists closely mirror his thoughts. While languages may share structure simply due to historical interaction between cultures, Chomsky asserts on top of this that language itself is a physical element of man that has been evolved. To think that our linguistic structure and not just the capability has been inherited physically over a short period of time makes no sense from both an evolutionary and an anthropologic point of view. Chomsky’s theory of the universal grammar is well developed but poorly supported. The next time one sees a child blabbering in their crib one must remember that the child’s gibberish is merely a loose surface expression of their deeper syntactical intuitions. This leads to the irrefutable (excuse the incorrect ultimatum, reading too much Chomsky does this) conclusion that the gibberish of children is the purest expression of the universal grammar, as they have yet to be tainted by the individual languages that sit like a hat atop the universal grammar.
Works cited/ Works that influenced me while writing this paper.
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Harris, Roy. The Language Machine. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1987.
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