Linguistics and Chomsky

Linguistics is a fascinating field; the timeline above shows the main personalities and movements and connections between them.

In the 20th Century, though, linguistics took a wrong turn, down a dead end, and this was down to one man – Noam Chomsky. In 1955 he was awarded his doctorate for work in Transformational Grammar. He then took linguistics by storm and wrestled it away from Behaviourism by criticizing the work of B. F. Skinner. He is known for the Universal Grammar theory, Generative Grammar, Principles and Parameters, and the Minimalist Program. He has had a huge, yet malign, impact on linguistics.

Chomsky’s work is based of a number of assertions. It was asserted that children master a language after 3-5 years, and the input they receive is very poor and so this miracle would be impossible without a Language Acquisition Device (LAD). These assertions made up a ‘logical problem’ of language acquisition. No effort was made to actually prove that mastery occurs at this early age (and indeed it does not if mastery means mastery; complex modal forms in English are not ‘mastered’ until the teenage years; can one have mastered English without mastery of modal verbs?). Chomsky also did not launch a research program to prove the assertion that the input children receive is actually defective and inadequate. He was not actually interested in studying the actual language produced. There was no urgent research program undertaken to locate the Language Acquisition Device in the brain to prove that it was there. It was enough that it was said to be there and it worked. These assertions were not meant to be proved. They were just an excuse for the research program which Chomsky wanted to follow. Indeed, the LAD quickly became Universal Grammar when it became clear that the LAD did not in fact exist; it had outlined its usefulness, and so it was discarded. 

Chomsky wanted to study the so-called deep structure of English (and just English); not the messy defective surface structure but the purer deep structure which underwent transformations and eventually became surface structure, but never mind about that and how it happened. He and his disciples would discover how the language is transformed under the surface. This is hyper-structuralism. Any disagreement with this new orthodoxy was swiftly punished by ridicule, professional disparagement, declining to engage with criticisms, or ostracism. 

The problem with this research program is that it is purely imaginary. The supposed starting point is completely inaccessible. You can posit a starting point (a basic sentence) and then apply transformations to it and take it to something closer to the surface structure, but the starting point itself is a purely arbitrary one. It is impossible to say if that starting point (if there is indeed a starting point as such) is the actual starting point. 

An analogy might help to understand the audacity of this.

You arrange to meet a friend at MIT, the university Chomsky works at, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Your friend arrives. This is the surface structure – your meeting. The deep structure – the basic sentence – is the starting point of your friend’s journey to meet you. The transformations are the turns (left, right, straight on) which your friend took on the journey to meet you. If you do not know where your friend started from on his journey you have no idea of the route he took. Thus, no idea of the ‘transformations’ which were required. If you assume he started from home then he will have used one set of ‘transformations’. If he started from another place then he will have used another set. You need to know the starting point to understand the journey. 

In transformational grammar we do not know the starting point so we cannot explain the journey, that is the ‘transformations’ which are applied to the basic sentence. Any transformational operations we apply to the basic sentence will depend on the original form of that sentence. As we cannot know that ‘original’ sentence then the transformations are pure conjecture. In short: imaginary linguistics. Chomsky assumes a starting point and then devises a’route’ from it to somewhere else. Chomsky wanted to discover the left and right turns of transformations but, with the starting point unknowable, Transformational Grammar is just junk science. There is no evidence for it. No evidence of the starting point. No evidence of the reality of the ‘transformations’. There is also no way to test it. It can explain how to get from one arbitrary sentence to another arbitrary one but so what? 

Chomsky’s Transformational Grammar work eventually devolved down to the Minimalist Program, which can be summed up, apparently, as ‘move alpha’. This seems to mean that you can move what you want to where you want. There are no transformational ‘rules’. But movement of any kind has not been demonstrated, and cannot be demonstrated. If X is the starting point then we need ‘moves’ of alpha to get to where we want but as we do not know what the starting point is we do not know what ‘moves’ we need. 

Universal Grammar itself, another strand of the ‘research’ devolved down to ‘infinite regression’ in a 2003 paper but this was abandoned in a storm of a debate about the Piraha language with Daniel Everette.

Chomsky and his followers have ridiculed and denigrated anyone who has had the temerity to disagree with his ideas. Yet the outcome of over 50 years of research is ‘move alpha’, and ‘infinite regression’,  and even then they are not really going to fight their corner on regression when called on it. 

The Chomskian research program was built on unfounded assertions and has produced nothing of note. It has been a 50 + year dead end of linguistic inquiry. Millions of wasted hours, invective and bile, and wasted careers. 

The real heroes of this story are those linguists who refused to be brow beaten by Chomsky and his fanatical followers. People like Daniel Everette, like Geoffrey Sampson, like Robert D. Levine and Paul Postal (one time disciple turned renegade), like Michael Halliday of Systemic Functional Grammar fame, George Lakoff and others.