Monday, October 04, 2004

Chomsky and Linguistics

As Keith Windschuttle pointed out in his recent article:

One of the main reasons Noam Chomsky's political views are taken seriously in universities and the media is because he has an awesome reputation for scientific accomplishment in the field of linguistics.
Yet, as Windschuttle notes Chomsky's contribution, or lack there, to the field of linguistics is rarely mentioned:
The most devastating articles in the Anti-Chomsky Reader are not those that expose the ideological prejudices, factual misrepresentations, and distorted logic of his political writings but the two at the end of the book that tear up his reputation as one of the towering intellects of our time. Two essays about linguistics reveal Chomsky's output in that field to be not the work of a rare, great mind but the product of a very familiar kind of academic hack. His reputation turns out not to have been earned by any significant contribution to human understanding but to be the product of a combination of self-promotion, abuse of detractors, and the fudging of his findings. John Williamson points out that fifty years after the announcement of the "Chomskyan revolution" in linguistics, immense progress has been made in almost every field of science. "We have been to the moon several times," he writes. "Our way of life depends upon the computer chip." The work of Einstein, to whom some of Chomsky's fans compare him, has been confirmed many times and can explain many physical phenomena. But in linguistics, Williamson shows, the results are comparatively trivial. All that Chomskyan grammar can explain is language which is transparent and easily labelled: "first-order" sentences such as The keeper fed the bananas to the monkey. Grammatical formulations of the "second order of difficulty," such as For there to be a snowstorm would be nice, still remain a mystery.
For more information on how the Chomskyan theory of linguistics is flawed please see the following:

Beyond Noam
Chomsky's Minimalism by Pieter A. M. Seuren
The First Idea: How Symbols, Language and Intelligence Evolve by Stanley Greenspan & Stuart Shanker
The origin of language stemmed from relationships, not genes By Ruth Walker


At October 5, 2004 at 12:17 PM, Blogger LukaB said...

Wow Dhimmy, didn't know you are a linguist too...

I mean, you have to be, otherwise you would just be parroting something somebody else said without knowing either what you are parroting or whether it was correct, right?

I have to admit I know nothing of linguistics and had a big headache when I tried to read one of Chomsky's papers on it.

But perhaps this quote will help:
In 1988, Chomsky received the Kyoto Prize [the Japanese version of the Nobel prize, sort of] in Basic Science, given “to honor those who have contributed significantly to the scientific, cultural, and spiritual development of mankind.” The prize noted that “Dr. Chomsky’s theoretical system remains an outstanding monument of 20th century science and thought. He can certainly be said to be one of the great academicians and scientists of this century.”

But I guess Mr. 'I like to leave out parts of quotes that don't support my case' Windschuttle has more authority on the matter.

[As far as the two links provided go, one is a link to a book on amazon; the other is a link to what looks like a dead site (last update in august two years ago) - not very reassuring]

At October 5, 2004 at 5:56 PM, Blogger Dhimmi said...

I don’t consider myself a linguist per say. I am what you call a Computational Linguist; think of it as a engineering linguist. To tell you the truth the first time I heard about Chomsky was through his work in linguistics. Myself, I am more interested in knowledge representation and the impact it has on how people speak and trying to find an effective language model, if there is such a thing. If you are interested in a good work that will be pretty easy to read, that will give you a good premier on the subject of how people thing and produce language, see The First Idea. Though I have to warn you it is not very pro-Chomsky so you might not like it. However if you want a book that is basically Chomsky’s work for dummies with regard to linguistics read anything by Steven Pinker.

At October 5, 2004 at 5:57 PM, Blogger Dhimmi said...

And by the way it's barnes and noble, not amazon.

At October 5, 2004 at 11:37 PM, Blogger LukaB said...


as I said, don't know anything about linguistics nor do I want too in particular.

So fire away.

At October 6, 2004 at 10:51 AM, Blogger LukaB said...

I'll just add that making changes to posts without noting the changes (as you have above - again) is dishonest.

At October 7, 2004 at 4:21 PM, Blogger Dhimmi said...

Luka, are okay? I mean I just added two links. I think you should chile out a little bro.

At October 8, 2004 at 3:26 PM, Blogger LukaB said...

Perfectly chilled, bro.
I still stand by what I said.
If you change something in the post, make a note of it. Shouldn't be too hard, right?

At December 9, 2004 at 1:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, my wife is a Phd student in Linguistics, so I know something about the field. I also have read Chomsky's writings on linguistics as well as some of his critics. To state that Chomsky's contributions to linguistics "turns out not to have been earned by any significant contribution to human understanding but to be the product of a combination of self-promotion, abuse of detractors, and the fudging of his findings" is just plain wrong.

Previous to Chomsky, it was believed that language was learned by children from their parents and the environment around them. Chomsky showed that there was no way children could pick up language from the fragmentary and incomplete information they get from their environment, and he showed that language, at some deep level, must be innate. His work since has been developing what that innate grammar must be. Because this innate grammar must conform with all the worlds' languages, it is highly abstract and technical. While linguists differ on the nature of this innate grammar, there is basically no disagreement by serious scientists on the truth of the main insight, and in this sense it is comparable to relativity, evolution, and other paradigm-shifting theories in science.

Williamson doesn't "show" anything in his article, (except maybe that he is an embarrassment), he just states it. He basically acknowledges Chomsky's original theory, but says Chomsky has not made any progress since then, comparing it to space flight and computer chips. But those are achievements of technology, not understanding. Chomsky acknowledges that there is much work yet to do, and many linguists are working on these very problems, many who differ sharply with Chomsky's development of his theory. I guess we can wait to see if Williamson (who has no background in linguistics and pursues it as a hobby) has "solved" the "second-order sentence" problems that no other linguists (including those who critique Chomsky) have, but permit me to remain skeptical. If he's actually achieved a major advance in linguistics why isn't he publishing it in a peer-reviewed journal instead of a political screed?

Anyway, this post is typical of the anti-Chomsky writings I've seen. I can't even think of an anti-Chomskian who fairly presents Chomsky's position and then attempts to argue against it, including what I've seen on this blog. I don't agree with everything Chomsky says but the writings of his detractors smack of desperation in their attempts to tear him down.


At March 26, 2005 at 5:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can someone explain in SIMPLE terms (for a beginner) Chomsky's theory of linguistics?
Thanks, Jem

At April 23, 2005 at 1:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I first read about Chomsky and his theories I got interested. Being a psychology student, I went back and read Skinners book on verbal behaviour and then the review of the book by Chomsky. It was this review that made Chomsky famous, is what most people have bothered read. My impression hasn't changed since I did this, Chomsky didn't get it and basically put up a straw man to knock down. Luckily for Chomsky, it was well in tune with the ascending Zeitgeist of the time. I have later had to do some Chomskian linguistics which, to put it mildly, left me unimpressed. Then again I am interested in how things really work and not how they're supposed to work according to Chomsky.

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At February 1, 2007 at 1:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Through Google I found this site. I am a PhD student whose project focuses on grammar processing in human communication. I got to learn Chomsky through linguistics, where he is admired even by many who don't agree with his theories. I heard a lot of negative stuff about Chomsky's Universal Grammar theory. but no one ever said that his workl is not relevant. The theory of Universal Grammar, true or not, changed linguistic completely by opening a lot of doors. Also, should it be correct, it is a very coherent, powerful explanation for so many aspects of language. And yet Chomsky keeps working in the field, providing new impulses, in the last 10-15 years by developing the "Minimalist Program", about which you can find a lot of stuff on the web if you wish.

Chomsky's political views are interesting, but I am not the big political thinker. So ut is intersting when someone like you, who shares his views on several subjects gets to a subject you know about, because then you can learn a lot about how someone works. If your political postings are just like this one, this is a blog not worth reading.

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