the Chomsky question

Someone emailed me to ask me about the recent Tom Wolfe take down of Noam Chomsky in Harper’s Magazine. (It’s paywalled; you should buy a copy of the physical magazine, because the essay is worthwhile and so is the rest of the issue and because Harper’s is a fantastic magazine and deserves a few of your real dolars.)  A more sensible person than I am would likely turn down this invitation for lack of expertise. But I go where eagles dare.

(This post is long. Really long. If that’s a problem, exercise your right not to read it.)

The relationship between the broader study of language, the subfield of syntax, and Noam Chomsky is complex, and everywhere Wolfe’s essay is entangled in those questions. I define myself as a linguist, and have for a long time, though there are surely some who wouldn’t deign to grant me that self-definition, and some of them are surely syntactitians. Within linguistics, it’s true to say that for a long time, syntax reigned as the most prestigious organ in the field, and it’s equally true to say that Chomsky’s stature loomed large in this cosmology. Like so many other things in small subcultures like academic fields, it can be hard to note where real trends end and the enculturated perception of those trends begin. So, for example, from my very limited vantage, the perception that syntactitians tend to look down on those who work in semantics seems to be the product less of that behavior actually being common than of the idea that this behavior is common. (But then, I’ve never been in an elite linguistics department.) It’s true, though, to say that many in the field of linguistics tend to see syntax in the way that many in the natural sciences see quantum physics – the place where the most essential questions are asked and answered, where researchers really engage with the basic matter of life.

I’m not one of them, or even close to them. I define myself in the broad field of applied linguistics because I am interested in the study of language in use by real human beings in real human situations, and I am interested in that study following certain systemized approaches to the generation of new knowledge. Those approaches will be familiar to anyone with an education in research methodology – I want my work to follow procedures that have been designed to maximize the potential to make true observations about the world around us, and in particular to avoid the constant human tendency to see patterns where there are none. I want to do these things even while I recognize the limitations in both myself and in those procedures. I am interested in speaking the language of p-values and effect sizes and different kinds of validity and statistics for reliability because I have been persuaded that this is important, if not for achieving the truth, then for avoiding certain kinds of untruth. Many of my peers in the humanities are not interested in these things, for various reasons, many of them valid. They work their work. I work mine, and this post is not the right place to spell out for you what I study and don’t.

In any event, I have in bits and pieces acquired the kind of skills that I need in order to do the kind of work I want to do, and I have reached a level of confidence where I no longer drape my self-definition with caveats about what I can and can’t do. Whether or not work like mine deserves to be called science is irrelevant to me. I’m just not interested in the question. But many linguists are very invested in this question indeed. Take this post on the Language Log by Geoff Pullum, in which he says that linguistics “is not a domain in which people’s off-the-top-of-the-head opinions and speculations have to be accepted: there is a science of linguistics, and over the past century it has made a wealth of factual discoveries about the human linguistic capability.” I agree, linguistics is a science, more or less, and I agree with the second sentence too. (I also, for the record, agree with his contention in that particular post, not that he’d care for my approval.) The touchiness here, the sense of protesting too much, is at once natural in an academic world where identification as a science has become necessary for a field’s very survival, and at the same time a problem for linguists of a certain stripe.

Wolfe is right to suggest that Chomsky’s approach is not science as usual. Wolfe makes great hay out of the fact that Chomsky’s inquiry does not require fieldwork. I think Wolfe overstates Chomsky’s aversion to (or disrespect for) fieldwork, but it is the case that the root idea of universal grammar means someone can claim to be doing linguistics work of the first order without leaving the office. And in particular, Chomskyan approaches tend to be disdainful of the notion of a sample in the traditional sense. One of Chomsky’s earliest scholastic wars was with the corpus linguists, researchers who believed (rather sensibly) that to study how language works, one would want to study lots of language – to gather as much of it possible together to look for patterns and features. Central to Chomsky’s approach is that language is potentially infinite, that we can always string more and more words together in grammatical order by embedding more and more clauses together forever, and that there is no limit to the number of expressions that we can produce. There is thus, according to Chomsky, no use in assembling a corpus; any collection, no matter how large, is necessarily incomplete, and thus insufficient for scientific purpose. Chomsky, in his typical style, did not merely dismiss corpus linguistics as a tool for understanding the fundamental nature of language. He dismissed corpus linguistics.

It’s precisely that tendency of Chomsky, and his acolytes, to be so self-assured that makes criticism like Wolfe’s piece inevitable. It gets them into predictable trouble. Take this from Corpus Linguistics by McEnery & Wilson.

Chomsky: The verb ‘perform’ cannot be used with mass word objects: one can ‘perform a task’ but one cannot ‘perform labor.’
Hatcher: How do you know, if you don’t use a corpus and have not studied the verb ‘perform?’
Chomsky: How do I know? Because I am a native speaker of the English language.

Such arguments have a certain force– indeed one is initially impressed by the incisiveness of Chomsky’s observation and subsequent defense of it. Yet the quote also underlines why corpus data may be useful…. One can ‘perform magic,’ for example, as a check of a corpus such as the BNC reveals. Native-speaker intuition merely allowed Chomsky to be wrong with an air of absolute certainty.

Here we have the crux of it: the native speaker as sacrosanct object of linguistic inquiry. A native speaker has native speaker intuition; this intuition is inviolate because the speaker has a natural capacity for language; this natural capacity is the product of our genetic endowment. Like so much else in Chomsky’s work, this attitude is elegant. It’s also infuriating. An old joke among applied linguists is that to a Chomskyan linguist, a sample size of 10,000 is inadequate, but a sample size of 1 is ideal. It should go without saying: while reference to native speaker intuition may very well be a valid and useful way to investigate language, it is not scientific in the sense that many people understand the term. Linguistics may very well be a science – like I said, I’m not much interested in the question – but it is not science as usual, as popularly conceived. If you asked me whether the average linguist pursues their research according to what we typically define as the scientific method, my answer would be a straightforward “no.” But then, I’m not particularly invested in that framework.

It turns out that there are many insights that corpus linguistics can provide, of a far broader interest than whether one can perform magic. For example, it is entirely true that language is functionally infinite. It is also entirely true that actual language use is very constrained, that most people speak most of the time in preformed phrases that we repeat over and over again without knowing it. Our language capacity is infinite, our language use is limited; we have corpus linguistics to thank for that understanding. People assembled enough language to look at human discourse at large scale and found that, despite our theoretically infinite capacity to produce new language, we tend to rely on old language in actual human practice. That strikes me as a useful observation. We also have corpus and computational linguistics to thank for Google Translate, which is both a magnificently powerful system and a limited one. Yet such things are routinely waved away.

My own particular area of interest is assessment, assessment of learning. I am interested in how students learn, generally, and how we can fairly and reliably measure that learning for various purposes. Naturally, being a linguist, my experience has largely been in assessing student development in the language arts. Most of my past several years have been devoted to the question of how better to assess the ability of students to use language, particularly second language students, particularly in college, particularly in writing. In an internationalizing university, knowing who can use language adequately for their social, educational, and professional need is very important. To investigate that seems like a natural task for researchers. And yet there are people in the Chomsky mold who dismiss it out of hand.

This is from the forward to Chomsky’s recent book What Kind of Creatures Are We?, a generally brilliant book which strikes me as Chomsky’s recognition that his time on Earth grows short and that he wants to leave one last explanation of his project. Akeel Bilgrami writes,

[The theory of language] is not a theory about external utterances, nor is it, therefore, about a social phenomenon. The nomenclature to capture this latter distinction between what is individual/internal/intensional and what is externalized/social is I-languages and E-languages respectively. It is I-languages alone that can be the subject of scientific study, not E-languages.

Though it comes from a Chomsky surrogate rather than the man himself, this is high Chomskyanism taken to the point of self-parody: that which is not useful to the study of generative grammar is simply not worth studying. Never mind that, at my doctoral institution, whether or not a Korean computer scientist can adequately make himself understood to a class of undergraduates can determine whether he continues on in his PhD program or gets shipped back to Korea. Stakes have never been sufficient to move people wedded to the I-languages/E-languages distinction. There’s the object of serious study, and then there’s academic ambulance chasing for the proles.

I said at the outset that this post is a mistake. That’s because, to a certain strata of linguist, I’m inherently unqualified to weigh in on this controversy. I am not a syntactician, and unfortunately, there are those syntactitians who feel that the field is simply too complex for the average mind to decipher. It happens that I’m actually pretty well informed on this stuff for an amateur – and yes, I define my interest in syntax on the amateur level. I have taken graduate coursework in syntax, and I’ve enjoyed close professional relationships with those actively involved in research syntax, and most importantly I read as much as I can on the subject. But I’m not a syntactitian and I find much in the field baffling and thus there are some who would say that I simply can’t grasp the debate being had in Wolfe’s piece and elsewhere. This is not at all universal, of course; there are many in the field who are remarkably open and approachable and humble. But jeremiads like that of Wolfe draw strength from the imperiousness of a few. It should be enough that I’m informed and I care and I try my best for me to be able to speak, in limited and general ways, about controversies in syntax, but too many within the club will simply say “you just don’t understand the complexities of our models.”

The shame of it is that there’s great beauty, in syntax, and that I know there’s beauty far too deeply hidden for me (or Wolfe) to see. It can be a discipline of such incredible elegance…. I’ll never forget the first time I really grasped spec-head movement, the way that the subject slides so perfectly into place. When a patient teacher shows you why English must include the “it” in the sentence “It seems to me,” when that “it” is totally semantically inert – a pronoun with no coindex, a reference to a thing which is not a thing, a word that exists for grammatical purposes alone in the purest sense – everything seems to snap into place.

But then you also learn the kludgy, weird, and decidedly inelegant sides of syntax, too. To learn about syntax is to go deep into a system that is by turns perfectly engineered and shockingly incomplete. For while you’ve got that beautiful subject formation I noted above, you’ve also got, for example, the so-called “unvoiced feature” PRO, an entirely theoretical idea that has no empirical referent at all. Not just doesn’t have a referent – to some people I’ve talked to, could have no empirical referent at all. (It reminds me of those religious types who argue that not only is evidence for God not available, but the very nature of faith means that no evidence can or should exist.) That imagining PRO exists makes the theory work is itself a problem with this branch of linguistics, and illustrates what I mean when I say that linguistics is not a science the way chemistry is a science. Call it what you like: the existence of theoretical structures that we can’t see but which are necessary to preserve our theories are not scientific in the typical sense.

Meanwhile, there are all kinds of tasks that we need to do which theoretical syntax have proven incapable of doing. Bilgrami is free to think that my interest in teaching a Iranian immigrant how to speak English so that he can secure a better life for himself is unscientific; I’m intent on doing it nonetheless. And while our limited pecking in the world of sample size and confidence intervals may lack the glamour of linguists at MIT decoding the most basic stuff of language through reference to their status as native speakers, applied linguists are trying to solve real-world problems that can’t wait. The fact is that Chomsky and his prodigies have been investigating UG for 60 years, and it remains stubbornly opaque. Ask a follower of Chomsky what the rules of universal grammar are, and they’re likely to say “that’s the wrong question.” Maybe it is, I dunno. But some other people will tell you that in those 60 years, all we’ve found that is genuinely universal are Merge and Move, which are maybe just Move, and anyway we still can’t say if there’s a critical period or when it ends and if a second language is learned or acquired…. What Chomsky and his followers have produced is impressive. Incredible, really. But too many people have students who need help, and we cannot wait for the theory of UG to be fully realized, if such a thing is possible.

There are many stories, among linguists, out there. And the one I hear most often, sometimes loudly, sometimes softly, is this: that it is entirely possible (in fact almost certain) that there is some genetic predisposition towards language in the human species, but that what is actually universal within language may be very limited – that the fundamental language capacity, suggested by the poverty of the stimulus, can exist without inscribing very much at all in terms of necessary or universal rules. My own story is that we’ve got these two remarkable intellectual achievements – Chomsky vs Norvig, theory vs empiricism, sentence trees vs Big Data, science vs engineering, MIT vs Google, the building of sophisticated models intended to draw out the essential structures of thinking vs the building of sophisticated algorithms intended to emulate human language use so perfectly we cannot tell the difference – and that both are incredibly valuable, but neither can talk to each other, and that to really advance we’ve got to bridge them. But I enjoy no prestige or power in either domain, and it seems that the divide is permanent, and that’s the tragedy right now. And, though I admire him as much as any living human, I must admit that part of Chomsky’s legacy is precisely this dismissal of the inexpert voice, because although he’s a genuine egalitarian, his remarkable self-possession has led to generations of linguists that police the boundaries of those who know against those who don’t. I’d fail any sentence tree test you might throw in front of me, and for that reason some influential people in linguistics would ignore anything I have to say, and anyway my project is decidedly not Chomskyan, as Bilgrami’s quote above suggests. So I might be in the market for a Chomsky reconsideration.

But Tom Wolfe is not the guy to do that.

Many people I know have found the essay entertaining, and they are entitled to do so. Myself, I find Wolfe’s… reliance on repeated… ellipses… to be an irritating affect, as I do his constant use of undergraduate interjections (kablamo!). But the basic problem with this essay is both its failure to understand the broader world of contemporary linguistics and, more damningly, its utter lack of empathetic imagination, which is an essential quality in both the sympathetic profile and the truly devastating take down alike.

In the style of Karl Rove, Wolfe attempts to represent Chomsky’s great strengths as an intellect as his weakness. Chomsky has long earned justified praise for his willingness to reconsider past ideas, his adaptability to new evidence. Strange, then, that Wolfe repeatedly paints him as a defensive figure, unable or unwilling to honestly respond to criticism. Chomsky is in fact famous for responding to emails from anyone, from the most established academic bigwig to the most random undergrad. To call him unwilling to change seems particularly bizarre. Indeed, it’s precisely his willingness to adapt to new evidence that has allowed him to remain relevant for all these years. No individual event was more important for Chomsky’s ascendance than his systematic demolition of BF Skinner’s behaviorist theory of language. I recommend you read Chomsky’s famous review of Skinner.  It remains a model of academic ruthlessness precisely because of its intellectual empathy, Chomsky’s willingness to really engage with Skinner’s ideas by putting them in the best possible light. This is what Wolfe won’t, or can’t, provide: the weight of a fully sympathetic reading, the ability to parse the fine distinctions in the work of the person being indicted. I say this with absolutely no belief that Wolfe lacks sufficient expertise to critique Chomsky. This is not about credentials or background knowledge; I am not the linguist sniffing that Wolfe lacks access to the Byzantine theories of contemporary syntax. I am saying that Wolfe displays more than adequate understanding to pillory Chomsky and still fails to do so.

Wolfe represents Chomsky’s idea of recursion as a great leap forward for Chomsky, the completion of the project of generative grammar, the feather in his cap. (It wasn’t, and wasn’t really represented as such at the time, but this contention is essential for the kind of story Wolfe wants to tell. Wolfe has never been one to let the facts get in the way of the story. I hear they call this approach New Journalism.) Wolfe wants to tell you that this idea of recursion was thoroughly undermined; that Chomsky stuck to his guns; and that this shows Chomsky to have been left behind by modern cognitive science. And indeed, it was precisely this inflexibility that led to Skinner’s decline. As unfashionable as behaviorism is, it retains a certain brute logic that I find hard to dispute – that most animals repeat behaviors that are rewarded. Though people sometimes make this claim, Chomsky neither totally rejected all of Skinner’s work nor intended to. Skinner’s problem was that he tried to extrapolate this observation into too many domains, including language, and ended up looking like a fool for doing so, unwilling to admit the limits of his theory.

This is precisely not who Chomsky is, and yet this is the brush with which Wolfe seeks to tar him. Wolfe goes on the offensive about recursion, and then dings Chomsky for minimizing recursion his later work. And yet this is precisely what we would hope an honest researcher would do! As this Language Log post suggests, Chomsky changed his presentation of the evidence in response to new information. To develop a theory, publish on that theory, and then respond to critical reactions by no longer highlighting that theory, seems to me to be an admirable willingness to adapt to new information. And yet Wolfe paints it as a kind of dishonesty, rather than as an honest reevaluation of the evidence. He has to, to preserve his story.

Perhaps Wolfe’s biggest problem is in his repeated overestimation of Chomsky’s contemporary reputation, or his reputation 10 or 25 years ago. For Wolfe’s essay to work the way that it works, it’s important for Chomsky to not just be a Goliath but to be an unchallenged Goliath, unchallenged except for Daniel L. Everett, who Wolfe anoints as his official David. But think for a minute about human nature. Could it possibly be that any living figure in any field of human inquiry could loom as large as Chomsky has in linguistics without engendering a lot of resentment and contrary opinions? Chomsky has indeed enjoyed very unusual dominance in his field; he has also enjoyed that other kind of academic respect, which is constant and vocal disagreement. And, in fact, even absent Everett’s particular line of critique, there are plenty of people, including in syntax, who will tell you that Chomsky is wrong to varying degrees and with varying amounts of opprobrium. That he remains relevant, highly engaged, widely read, and deeply influential is indisputable, and astonishing given his age and the length of his career. But to suggest that he is generally unchallenged, or that he was a decade or two ago, is factually wrong.

Wolfe supposes that his line of attack, or Everett’s, is unique, but this is also not the case. As this post at the Faculty of Language says, it’s an old saw. I should say upfront that I admire Everett, and find a lot of his insights useful. I do not, however, find his work an effective dismissal of Chomsky’s. Chomsky is in fact quoted in Harper’s: he makes the (correct) point to Wolfe that the Piraha can acquire Portuguese with ease, in childhood, and that this demonstrates the fact that while the Piraha language may indeed be unique, the capacity for language of the Piraha people is in fact entirely unremarkable. Wolfe’s response is… nothing. Wolfe has spent thousands of words going after Chomsky, attacked him for paying insufficient attention to language itself, and still failed to understand that Chomsky’s interest is precisely in the language capacity, not the language. Wolfe attacks Chomsky’s project by asserting its basic identity and mistakes that for a rebuttal.

Wolfe then goes on to engage in conspiracy theory, arguing that Chomsky has undertaken a concerted effort to suppress Everett’s theories, that he refuses to respond to them publicly. Of course, Chomsky has responded, at length, as have others, so Wolfe crafts a story of marginalization and silencing largely borne out in the unfortunately glacial pace of academic publishing. Wolfe paints Everett as a figure cast out into the wilderness, when in fact he has been cast out into a position as Dean at a well-respected university in Boston and into the arms of the University of Chicago Press. I would very much like to suffer as Everett is suffering.

If you want my take on the likelihood of Chomsky’s theories to endure, well, I’m afraid I’m unqualified. I will only offer this: the notion that language is purely enculturated and social seems dead forever, and should be. That, for example, without a genetically-encoded language capacity a few hundred lingustically-deprived, impoverished Nicaraguan children could spontaneously generate a functioning human grammar in a few months, even as the adults in charge of them tried to actively suppress it, is absurd. The degree to which a genetic predisposition for language actively shapes human languages, the existence of a universal set of rules undergird all languages, the ability of researchers to determine to what degree language is genetic or enculturated – these remain areas of active and essential human inquiry. To take Chomsky’s thoughts on these topics as gospel would be foolish; he’d be the first to tell you so. To ignore what he says on them would be idiocy.

Contrary to what you might have heard, that idea of purely social or cultural language rules was challenged before Chomsky. Whether the many consequences Chomsky has derived from the poverty of the stimulus argument are true is a far larger question, and will likely not have any kind of simple pleasing “all wrong” or “all right” outcome. Wolfe’s suggestion that Everett’s work has comprehensively “KO’d” Chomskyan linguistics is simply untrue. Wolfe is telling a story, a simple story of underdog vs. heavy, and that story is far too narratively satisfying to be true. Beyond that, you’ll have to ask someone far brighter than me to get satisfactory answers.

I don’t believe that I can achieve perspective on Chomsky, his place in linguistics, the relevance and currency of his beliefs, or the ultimate consequences of his legacy. He’s just too big. His political writing invites scrutiny on his academic work, both good and bad, and don’t imagine they play no role in Wolfe’s disdain. His centrality in the field means that many questions are read through him and his work even when not appropriate. He inspires unthinking reverence; he prompts undeserved disdain. His ideas are respected, reviled, dominant, marginalized, orthodoxy, heresy, generative and useless, all at the same time. I can’t judge him. It’ll take history to do that.

But god, to be in that position! What Wolfe doesn’t seem to understand is that his thousands of words in Harper’s Magaine only solidify Chomsky’s place in Olympus. It’ll take decades to sort out his legacy, and a lot more than a white suit to tear him down.


  1. Great post, dead-on on every target, thanks Freddie. I haven’t read the latest Harpers despite being a subscriber, and I might just skip Wolfe’s piece altogether, because fuck Tom Wolfe. I enjoyed The Right Stuff at age 20, but that was before I understood how much of a dishonest hack and a dirty old man he is. Dude needs to hang it up. Has “the New Journalism” been anything but a punchline for at least 20 years?

    Relevant anecdote: when I was a masters student at MIT, Jay Keyser showed up at one of the phonology courses I was taking to open our eyes to the mysteries of syntax and I was thoroughly unimpressed with his “survey a room of five year olds” methodology. He gave us an off-the-cuff example of his native speaker intuition — that the verb “sleep” can’t take a direct object — and I countered with the sentence “I slept my way through grad school”. Annoyed, he waved that away with some comment about it being “a figure of speech” that couldn’t be varied to conform with general English syntactic rules, and I followed up with “I slept my way through grad school, and Owen’s as well”. Enough of my classmates seemed to buy this as an English sentence that Keyser changed the subject. This seemed to me to be a pretty good demonstrations of the limitations of the native speaker intuition methodology: if you were a member of the Chomsky cult, you just polled the fellow kool-aid drinker in the next office over to confirm your intuition, but if you ventured outside of Building 20 you ran the risk of finding subjects whose conception of the English language was more pliable and more playful than your pet theory could accommodate.

    But of course everything you say about Chomsky’s legacy is right. Field-working linguists, like an uncle of mine who spent years living among the Aymara, had a healthy disdain for the Chomsky cult and the lazy, arrogant methodological practices it had given rise to, but none of them would deny that Chomsky’s various theoretical contributions were of tremendous lasting value to the discipline. And of course it’s hard not to sit in awe of the man himself, whatever his imperfections as a scholar.

    1. My least favorite feint by those preserving the cult of native speaker intuition: to say, when confronted by a disagreement between two different native speakers, that they “speak different dialects.” Which they’ll say, at times, even if the two native speakers share every environmental and demographic feature you can imagine. Which means that your observations are not even wrong – if every disagreement about what is syntactically permissible reflects a difference in dialect, then what does the concept of syntactic permissibility ever tell you of value?

  2. I find it quite bemusing that a non-linguist would involve himself with such questions. Unfortunately I don’t live in a place where I could buy a physical copy of Harper’s Magazine even if I wanted to, so I’ll have to rely on your account of Tom Wolfe’s article.

    It is true that there’s a touchiness about linguistics’ status as a science. Randy Allen Harris was already making fun of it in his 1995 book ‘The Linguistics Wars’, which is about the conflicts between Chomsky and his first disciples and which contains an interesting historical summary of all the times linguistics has been (said to be) “made a science” by various people such as the Modistae, William Jones, the neogrammarians, Saussure, Bloomfield, and finally Chomsky, who is indeed nowadays claimed to have been the one who finally “made linguistics into a science”.

    “Just as the middle-class is always rising, linguistics is always becoming a science”, Harris concludes.

    The problem with the contention that Chomsky’s interest is not language itself but a cognitive “language capacity” and its genetic causes is that he has little qualifications to make claims about cognitive science nor genetics, and indeed few linguists do. I certainly don’t.

    However, I feel that Chomsky, even though he was instrumental in kickstarting the study both of the formal, mathematical aspect of grammar, and of its cognitive aspects, has done a great disservice to the field in regarding some questions as settled and/or irrelevant, thereby discouraging people from addressing them, in spite of the fact that some of these questions were actually still in need of an answer.

    For example, the question of whether or not a human language can always be adequately described with a context-free grammar. Chomsky expressed the opinion that it was ‘inelegant’ to do so in his seminal 1957 book ‘Syntactic Structures’, but a rigorous proof that it wasn’t always possible didn’t exist until Shieber’s 1985 article on Swiss-German (and in my opinion this question is still rather under-addressed).
    Nevertheless, you will find plenty of textbooks claiming that Chomsky settled the matter back in 1957. (For more on this see ‘Natural Languages and Context-Free Languages’ Gazdar & Pullum 1982).

    Another example of such questions is that of whether all (or even any) human languages must, as you say, necessarily have an infinite generative capacity.
    As Pullum and Scholz point out in their 2010 article ‘Recursion and the infinitude claim’, a theoretical limit on the number of utterances is not incompatible with creativity, nor is infinity (of the kind implied by generative rules) synonymous with creativity, and this question has *not* been given any sort of definitive answer, as far as I know.

    These examples and these articles cast Chomsky in a rather bad light.
    Indeed the way Chomsky is said (by Pullum, again, in his 2011 article on the mathematics of ‘Syntactic Structures’) to have used Emil Post’s work without ever mentioning it seems very dishonest.

    On the other hand, you are right that Chomsky’s shadow is inescapable and as Pullum himself points out, if there are linguists today who can criticize Syntactic Structures, it’s because of a movement that Chomsky himself initiated.

    Therefore, in many ways, it seems to me that Chomsky initiated revolutions that will ultimately bring him down.

    1. The problem with the contention that Chomsky’s interest is not language itself but a cognitive “language capacity” and its genetic causes is that he has little qualifications to make claims about cognitive science nor genetics, and indeed few linguists do. I certainly don’t.

      I’m certainly not the person to mount a defense of him on this charge. I suspect that the way it would happen, though, would be through Chomsky’s computer analogy. That is, a computer scientist can identify all the parts of a computer and what they do because they have a theory of computers – that is, they know the basic properties of binary and code and how they work within each piece of hardware. But consider someone trying to reverse engineer understanding of those parts without a theory of how computers work. It would be much harder, maybe impossible. But this is the way that we often approach cognition; trying to work backwards to cognitive science from neurology, rather than the other way around. My guess is Chomsky would defend himself in that way – to say that he’s a cognitive scientist trying to develop a theory of mind first, so that we can then understand the “hardware.”

      1. Probably but the obvious problem with this defense is that it should lead to fieldwork and corpus linguistics.
        I mean if you want to understand how a computer works, either you look inside and poke at the hardware, or you look at its output.

  3. Nice post and good comments all. I thought wolf’s article was pure snark. As you wrote “Wolfe has never been one to let the facts get in the way of the story.” thanks for attempting to getting the discussion
    to a more elevated level.

  4. I studied linguistics under Chomskyan formalists at the University of Minnesota and the University of Chicago around the turn of the century. I lost touch with the field after that, but it amazes me that we’re seemingly still having the same debates about Chomsky!

    This isn’t really important, but I found it curious that you say “syntactitians tend to look down on those who work in semantics.” My (unfinished) masters thesis was in formal semantics, which I understood to be central to the formalist project. Although of course the criticism of that kind of semantics has always been that it reduces the semantic level to merely another kind of syntax, through the use of lambda calculus and similar logical formalisms.

    Ultimately I gave up on formal linguistics because the deeper I got into it, the more it seemed to me that it had no real way of integrating Saussure’s old problematics of langue/parole and synchronic/diachronic. (Later developed by Volosinov in interesting ways.) The scintillating elegance that I first saw in formal syntax gave way to absurdities and kludges like PRO.

    What the field needed was, to take terminology from the Marxist part of my background, some kind of dialectical and historical materialist approach to language as a system. And Chomsky and his followers (which very much includes “critics” like Pullum) just didn’t have useful tools to do that.

  5. I know close to nothing about Chomsky’s linguistic work, but he will always be my favorite academic of all time because of this story:

    A dear friend of mine who is a fan of both Chomsky and Miller High Life sent the good doctor a handwritten letter with $10, and a note asking if he wouldn’t mind buying himself a six pack of High Life and sending back a photo of him drinking a beer.

    Sure as shit, not only did Noam send my buddy back a picture of himself drinking the beer (this was a real life pre-digital photo) but he sent him back the change!

    That is GOAT behavior, imo.

      HOME: Cambridge, Massachusetts
      AGE: 87
      PROFESSION: Linguist
      HOBBIES: Girls, canasta, Cuban cigars
      LAST BOOK READ: “Portnoy’s Complaint”
      LAST ACCOMPLISHMENT: Published “Who Rules the World?”
      QUOTE: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”
      PROFILE: Perhaps the most important intellectual alive, towering figure in philosophy, science and politics, fearless debater.
      BEER: Miller High Life

  6. “Central to Chomsky’s approach is that language is potentially infinite, that we can always string more and more words together in grammatical order by embedding more and more clauses together forever, and that there is no limit to the number of expressions that we can produce. ”

    heheheheh. I had a ferocious argument with my mother about the validity of “constructed” words in Scrabble, versus “can be found in the dictionary on the shelf over there”. Like, if I tie a bunch of prefices and suffices together in a valid manner, is the result a “word” even if it’s something that nobody has ever spoken or written before? Can I put “reroberizationate” on the board and score points for it, even though “adherent to an ideological position which holds that robes should be placed back onto people” is a really weird concept? I held that I could (and I would have quoted Chomsky on the subject, had I known I was following his reasons) but I surrendered to her dictionary-constrained argument after she suggested that, having brought me into the world, she had every right to put me back out of it.

  7. “That imagining PRO exists makes the theory work is itself a problem with this branch of linguistics, and illustrates what I mean when I say that linguistics is not a science the way chemistry is a science.”

    But you *do* have the same thing in mathematics, even rock-hard applied-theory mathematics like electrical circuits or control theory. The “imaginary number”–the square root of negative-one–is something that is utterly theoretical, not even remotely a value that you could point to in reality. And yet, the existence of this theoretical concept allows electrical engineers to take a bunch of resistors and capacitors and batteries, write the whole thing out as a mathematical equation, turn a Laplacian crank, and get a result that you can use to build a radio. You’ve gone from reality, through nonphysical theory, and come back to reality in a different (and useful) place.

  8. Everything Tom Wolfe has written for decades has been animated by his own right-wing political views, so it’s impossible to imagine that the decision to cover Chomsky’s professional/intellectual standing in his field was motivated by anything other than a desire to knock down a leftist.

    If Wolfe were someone with a solid reputation for intellectual integrity, then it might be worth giving some attention to the article. Otherwise: clickbait (or its physical, paper-magazine equivalent).

  9. This post captures much of my irritation with the Wolfe piece.
    I’m glad you mentioned the part of the essay in which Wolfe quotes Chomsky on the capacity of Pirahã children to learn Portuguese just after berating him for refusing to respond to Everett’s anomalies and enlisting his cronies to smear him (which, of course, never happened). Chomsky’s counter-point strikes me as completely legitimate, and the performance/competence distinction is a ready-made rejoinder to Everett’s critiques. Chomsky has also argued that a single anomaly does not negate an entire research program, and that also strikes me as a legitimate and specific rebuttal.
    And wasn’t it just embarrassing how funny Wolfe thought it was to, I guess, ‘mock’ political correctness by repeating the “native––ER––indigenous” joke about a dozen times?

  10. Hey Freddie, you blocked me on Twitter and it sucks! I’m a huge fan and fear a poorly worded sarcastic tweet of mine may have been misinterpreted. Please unblock me! Love your stuff! @nickexperience

  11. I think in some ways Chomsky is right to dismiss corpus linguistics as far as the concept of universal grammar, mostly because most corpora are written language and to write really isn’t innate. That’s why we study it at school and for most of human history only a select few did it, once we finally got around to putting quill to paper, before then we drew pictures. To find a large corpus that reflects how we speak naturally for field study is neigh impossible. There are transcripts, but again usually an unnatural setting: interview, presentation, speech, dialogs in books/screenplays. That’s not to say corpus linguistics doesn’t have a role as long as we’re clear that it deals with one area of language, an area that is often subjugated to arbitrary rules that can be broken and changed. (Can’t end sentences with prepositions, start with conjunctions,etc.)

    I personally don’t think humans are the only species with the innate capacity to communicate orally. There have been lots of studies involving dolphins that show they have a rich and complex language with different dialects. Same with elephants and primates. I read recently killer whales can even learn dolphin. These animals might not be able to speak as we do but that’s because they aren’t built the same as humans. Language starts in the brain but it requires a tongue, teeth, vocal cords and more body parts to produce the various sounds. So maybe we should change the field to human linguistics!

    Rather than Tom Wolfe, I’d be interested to hear from linguists who aren’t English speakers regarding their views on Chomsky. The reason being that in many ways English is an anomaly: no gender, just the most basic of verb conjugations, the use of auxiliary verbs for questions/negation, an almost nonexistent subjunctive.

    1. Chomsky and his followers have been at times criticized for their focus on English (rightly so at the beginning but since then there have been generativist accounts of many diverse languages), however those characteristics you cite are not really that anomalous across languages. For example, a majority of languages across the world have no gender system (see ).

      1. Thanks for pointing out the map. Interestingly, it says English has three genders so I wonder what it exactly it’s counting. Is it he, she, it or use of gender (masculine, feminine, sometimes neuter) for nouns. Not the same thing, right? It’s also missing languages for this map (Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Catalan, Irish & Norwegian are six I noticed right off the bat) All use gender (Romance/Gaelic 2, Germanic 3). So it doesn’t really seem like a good source. That said, I should’ve probably prefaced “major languages”. As far conjugating, it’s also a bit unclear. Based on the color code it would seem English and Dutch are the same, yet while Dutch isn’t as complex (for lack of a better word) as Spanish, it does require more conjugating than English. I’m sure there are generativist in other languages. Which is why I mentioned it would be interesting to hear their take. If you can find some articles, please pass them my way

        1. Yes WALS doesn’t account for all the world languages, many of which are yet undescribed anyway.
          Its chapters are based on a sampling that tries to be representative of the actual worldwide linguistic diversity, which means it won’t necessarily include every Indo-European language. Otherwise the account would be skewed towards them. (and yes it’s uneven at times, some chapters survey about 1500 languages and others less than 300).
          The way they count the number of genders in a language is discussed in the article itself and further in the others that are cited (see Greville Corbett’s various works on the matter).

  12. By not counting every Indo-European language, not even Portuguese, and their offshoots, it would seem to skew towards the minority languages of indigenous people, would it not? That was the first thing that popped out when I looked at the map. Which is fine and interesting from a linguistic diversity point of view. However, I’ve always understood gender as subscribing sex to nouns which English doesn’t do (my point in the first comment). And while gender also applies to persons (he, she, it) it seems to mix two very distinct areas of grammar (article/adj + noun agreement vs personal pronoun in lieu of noun). Which is why they are treated separately if you study a language (that uses gender!). For example in Spanish, I could say, “sabe que es la repuesta / el jardin”. A perfectly correct statement but we’d only now if “he”, “she” or “it” “knows” from context while “the answer” is a feminine noun, “the garden” masculine. Very different things going on grammatically. I guess that’s my issue with the map and using it to support your argument/disprove my point, same with it’s determination of conjugations. As I mentioned earlier, how the map groups English & Dutch together with how the two languages actually conjugate their verbs is quite different. English is super simple with only base + s for third person sing and doesn’t conjugate at all in the past while Dutch requires a bit more in both present & past. It can also use the compound form of some verbs or separate them without changing the meaning, whereas in English this is hardly ever the case. It seems you’ve taken issue with me calling English an anomaly 😉 So rather than hijack this comment thread, might I suggest looking into John McWhorter who is eminently more qualified to support this point than I!

  13. I do have a dislike of claims regarding purported uniqueness of a language unless they’re very well supported (sometimes they are, the McWhorter article is not).

    In my experience, people are all too eager to believe that their own language is more super-special (more complicated, more nuanced, more logical etc) than the others and the assumption lurks that it is therefore “better”, which is, needless to say, a bit chauvinistic.

    Regarding gender, again, see the WALS link, they address your questions and specifically point out that what makes English special in this case is not that it has no gender (which as I said would be unremarkable), but that its gender agreement system is limited to pronouns (which is rarer).
    Of course if the only form of gender agreement you find interesting is noun-adjective agreement, then English has no gender at all, but it would make for a very unnatural and inelegant theory.

    And we have not strayed as far from Chomsky as you might think, given the potential importance of linguistic typology in discovering so called language universals.

  14. McWhorter didn’t write just an article but an entire book on the subject, where he supports his claim. “My Magnificent Bastard Tongue”. It’s an interesting read if for no other reason than it explains how English evolved (basically as the second language for the various peoples on the British Isles). I like to know the “why”, not just the “how” & “what”. But my point wasn’t that English is better, it’s that it requires more words to relay information than most languages. You can’t have a single word sentence in English but you can in Spanish. (I’m going / voy). And maybe this is why English speaking syntacticians view their discipline in such high regard while looking down on others, because there are more words to analyze even in the simplest sentence. That’s why I mentioned how I’d have preferred to hear from linguists from other countries regarding Chomsky, not a novelist whom I’ve never really enjoyed. As far as gender, it’s tough for me to unlearn how I’ve always looked at the issue, whether it be learning Latin & French in high school, to Spanish, Dutch & Catalan as an adult. You can make a mistake with gender assignment with nouns & it doesn’t impact understanding but not with pronouns. Spaniards, for example, struggle with this aspect because it’s not as clearly defined in their language, so often times they’ll use a feminine pronoun when talking about a masculine / neuter subject, completely changing the meaning. I find both forms of gender equally interesting, but think that they are different areas of language study. I’m not sure if I’m making my argument clear. Just woke up and only had one cup of coffee. And for the record, my favorite language is Dutch, simply because I can say whore (hoor) & cunt (kunt) without offending anyone 😉 But it’s nice to know we haven’t strayed too far Chomsky and the search for linguistic universals.

  15. Forget “perform magic” – Google turns up numerous hits for “perform labor.” The top ones are actually dictionary definitions of “labor” as a verb, but by the bottom of the first page real uses by real authors begin to appear. Some are from books written more than a century ago, so this is not a modern debasement.

  16. When I say “real authors,” however, I mean non-fiction authors, often writing dry works with a tone of legalese (and sometimes literally law codes). I looked through a dozen pages of Google Books and found not a single use of “perform labor” by a novelist and very few by non-academics. So perhaps Chomsky was right that it is not fully idiomatic even if it sometimes used.

  17. “Skinner’s problem was that he tried to extrapolate this observation into too many domains, including language, and ended up looking like a fool for doing so, unwilling to admit the limits of his theory.”
    Weird, as a behavior analyst whose clinical work completely relies on teaching language and thought to previously non-verbal individuals, I find this statement rather odd. Behaviorists have been flourishing, implementing the principles outlined in Verbal Behavior for decades, yet are still seen as somehow having been refuted by a single paper Chomsky wrote, which – as far as I can tell – generally misunderstands verbal behavior. That I was able to get a M.Ed. without having ever having been seriously exposed to Skinners work is frightening. I routinely work in schools now as a BCBA, and the lack of knowledge of even basic principles of ABA is astounding.

    1. You are, of course, free to endorse Skinner’s linguistic work – it’s healthy for us to have people embracing alternative theories – but please understand that there’s nothing weird about me, as a linguist, describing Skinner’s linguistic work as discredited. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong! But Skinner’s approach to linguistic behavior is certainly far out of the mainstream in contemporary linguistics.

      1. Hi Freddie,

        To follow up on your reply to Eli, while there is nothing “weird” about you, as a linguist describing his word as discredited, I would say that for many behaviour analysts, what is strange is that Chomsky’s criticisms of Skinner are not questioned within linguistics and some other fields. Chomsky’s review had a few good points, but on the whole, it is clear to anybody who had a basic understanding of radical behaviourism, that Chomsky was talking about a subject he simply did not understand.

        Some reading on the subject for those who might be interested:

        This is a article by Kenneth McCorquodale outlining some of the issues:

        Here Chomsky is interviewed by Javier Virués-Ortega on the subject of his review:

        Last, this is a reflection on the interview by David Palmer:

  18. For while you’ve got that beautiful subject formation I noted above, you’ve also got, for example, the so-called “unvoiced feature” PRO, an entirely theoretical idea that has no empirical referent at all. Not just doesn’t have a referent – to some people I’ve talked to, could have no empirical referent at all. (It reminds me of those religious types who argue that not only is evidence for God not available, but the very nature of faith means that no evidence can or should exist.) That imagining PRO exists makes the theory work is itself a problem with this branch of linguistics, and illustrates what I mean when I say that linguistics is not a science the way chemistry is a science. Call it what you like: the existence of theoretical structures that we can’t see but which are necessary to preserve our theories are not scientific in the typical sense.

    This paragraph is bizarre. Unobserved entities are posited to make theories work all the time in “typical” science. No one has ever seen an electron, much less a quark or a string. Even the planet Neptune was posited in order to make sense of certain irregularities in the orbit of Uranus before it was observed through a telescope. The idea that every term in science must have an empirical referent is a naive form of positivism that was abandoned long ago.

    1. That has been the defense of Chomsky and Chomskyans for a long time, it’s a good point but it has its limits.
      Regarding Neptune, its position was determined using mathematics methods much more reliable and rigorous than anything that exists in abstract syntax and moreover it was *then* observed through a telescope.
      Furthermore, when the same reasoning was applied by Neptune’s discoverer, Le Verrier, in explaining the irregularities of Mercury, the posited planet was never found, and Mercury’s irregularities were explained much later using a completely different theory, showing that the problem with positing unobserved entities, of course, is that sometimes they turn out not to exist.

      And when you have competing accounts of certain phenomena, as is often the case in linguistics and especially syntax, it seems better to use the more parsimonious ones.

    2. Matt, I’m afraid you simply don’t understand the field that you’re trying to talk about now. PRO simply is not like an electron, no linguist (including Chomsky) would claim that it is, and in fact there are tons of established linguists who agree with me completely. As I said in the piece, the whole point is that there can be no empirical referent, because PRO is not thought to exist in the way that electrons are thought to exist. And, buddy, I hate to break it to you like this, but we’ve found Uranus. Update your almanac.

      Why you would assume that you have any ability to actually parse these questions without even minimal understanding of the field, I don’t know.

  19. But Wolfe is journalist, and wise-ass one at that.

    He does not “get” linguistics. He is deliberately trying to make what was, to start with, a tempest in a tea-pot, look like some kind of major issue.

    The REAL question, as Chomsky himself says in a quote at the end of the Wolfe article, is whether the speakers of the supposedly-non-recursive language that Everett studied are able to learn a standard recursive language like Portuguese.

    Because at the end of the day Everett’s early publishings on this matter seemed to imply that somehow those people’s brains were actually wired differently (which I guess is why he was accused of being racist), and the simple way to resolve that question is indeed to teach them a “foreign” language like English or Portuguese.

    They CAN learn Portuguese. Case closed.

    Whether their own language “has” recursion is a matter of analysis: for example, if I told you that modern American Spanish uses the present tense to refer to the near future, as in “Lo hago esta tarde” (I’ll do it this afternoon), that does NOT mean that speakers of that version of Spanish do not “have” a near future tense.

    I’m sure if presented with a large corpus of utterances in that so called non-recursive language, I could find evidence that the language does, indeed, have ways of indicating recursion. And that analysis could be countered by Everett; and so on ad infinitum.

    I do agree that Chomsky’s disdain of corpus linguistics and evidence from the field is a blind eye on his part. But who’s perfect?

  20. Hey all, while I appreciate the spirit in which people are posting PDFs to the Wolfe article here, I’ve decided to delete them, because as both a fan of Harper’s and as someone who’s written in the magazine, I want to act in the spirit of paying for writing that is worth talking about, worth writing about, worth getting mad about. You certainly can, of course, find that article easily enough on your own; you and I must all act according to our own conscience.

  21. This is a post worth bookmarking!

    I always speculate how would the UG look if Chomsky was a native German speaker, living in Germany. Or a Russian. Or a Japanese.

    And yes, a sample size of one.

    Of course, Wolfe wants a simple story.

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