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Why the Chomskians Are Mistaken
The Forty-Four Reasons Are As Follows:
1. Their naive reliance on "grammar." Throughout the long and lugubrious history of those advancing these notions, one encounters repeatedly the unspoken assumption that by basing them on something resembling a formal grammar, one will come closest to certainty about the nature of language. But this idea in itself is merely absurdno grammar has ever come into existence before the language it purports to describe. Moreover, throughout the ages, "grammars" have never marked any high point in the understanding of language, but have usually provided only a pedantic, backward-looking collection of ungrounded hypotheses about what the purpose and structure of a language perhaps ought to be.
And make no mistakeover the centuries there have been dozens of grammars, perhaps even hundreds, since we may never know the final total, and almost invariably there sat at the summit of each of these grammars a group of self-righteous tyrants, almost all of them convinced that their grammars marked the high point of world civilization. They rarely doubted that the lines they drew to bring order to language were identical with the lines establishing order in the real world, which left them simply bristling for a chance to dispute with the supporters of rival grammars.
With only a few exceptions, such grammars have never extended beyond a single language, though they have frequently attempted to project the structure of that single language outward onto all languages, slicing and stretching in a Procrustean manner the structures of those other languages to fit the form of their alleged model. Furthermore, the laxity of our current self-proclaimed theoreticians in studying the historical details of these grammars has been noted by Koerner, Hall, and others. Nor can there be any merit in appealing to the antiquity and alleged authority of the late Alexandrians Dionysius Thrax and Apollonius Dyscolus among the Greeks, when Plato has quite plainly told us three hundred years earlierand in the latter case over five hundred years earlierthat there are two authorities one may consult when knowledge of language is sought, namely grammarians AND interpreters (Theaetetus, 163C, Loeb pp. 82-83).
This is a crucially important quotation in the history of both language and linguistics. Attempting to distinguish knowledge from perception, Socrates teasingly asks Theaetetus whether people truly know a foreign language merely by seeing it in writing or hearing it spoken. In a reply praised by Socrates, Theaetetus states that we can only know what its letters look like and what its spoken form sounds like...
but we do not perceive through sight and hearing, and we do not know, what the grammarians and interpreters teach about them.
And there they are, side by side, interpreters and grammarians, each of them invested with full powers as teachers. If anything, the interpreters have a slight edge, since it is assumed that grammarians can only be of use in describing the letters or written form of the language (and of the two ancient Greek words for grammarian, both closely related to the word for "letters," the one Plato uses here is the more demeaning one, usually meaning merely a "schoolmaster"), while only the interpreters can tell us what is truly being said. In other words, if you want to know something about language, it might be a good idea to consult both.
But have these soi-disant theoreticians ever approached a single translator or interpreter to confirm this ancient truth? The answer can easily be discovered in the works of the heir apparent to TGG wisdomin four of his published books the words "translation" and "interpreting" cannot be found in a single index, nor do the works of the TGG monarch himself shed any real light on this topic. By this single oversight, the advocates of these unfortunate theories have placed themselves beyond the defense of any permissible logic.
If they had bothered to consult professional translators or interpreters, they would have encountered a curious but skeptical audience, who would have politely told them that their notions seemed interesting but unlikely, perhaps adding some specific translation problem which TGG theories left unexplained. Or perhaps they would have simply asked outright what bearing these theories had on the rush job of translation they needed to have completed by the following day.
Particularly silly is the notion of a "generative" grammar, one that "generates," produces, measures, predicts, determines, establishes structures or abstract patterns for, or least of all in any way creates the elements of the language it describes. As noted, language precedesis created beforegrammar. No kind of grammar precedesis created beforelanguage. To argue otherwise is to invest "grammar" with the attributeseven the powersof a god.
Those who proceed in this fashion also depend on the assumption that written mathematics precedes language, when as the author has pointed out in Limitations of Computers as Translation Tools (also found on this website), it is equally possible that language precedes mathematics and may evenas one school of linguistics has maintainedqualify as a primary science including all others. Some mathematicians have enjoyed believing that their study is eternal and universal, but the historical facts of its invention do not support such a view, as a few mathematicians have more recently conceded. Furthermore, insisting on the existence and primacy of a generative grammar immediately calls into being all the other dubious speculations to be found in TGG. A number of these will be examined in the points that will follow.
But let us linger on this first point a bit more searchingly, just to make sure that a certain clarity has been achieved.
Grammars may irritate, pontificate, equivocate, and even prevaricatethey do not generate. A grammar does not build a languagepeople do. Many people do, over what can be a remarkably long period of time.
In a number of ways, language may perhaps most resemble an enormous building, constructed a bit haphazardly and only as needed over the centuries by a great many builders. At various points in time entire wings intended to answer specific needs may be improvised, hastily thrown up, and added to the structure, only to be largely built over again just a century later, in a different direction and according to a different set of hastily conceived plans. At times entire suites of rooms may be almost totally replaced, leaving only a few traces here and there. And as for those vast numbers of rooms that remain, their purpose and mode of use may have changed many times over, as internal walls were moved, removed, or buttressed over the passing centuries.
Sometimes a special craze for building in a certain style may seize the minds of the builders, only to be replaced by another such craze later on. The building is also a bit mysterious even to its creators, since not all of those most actively engaged in the work are aware of the existence of all the rooms and wings the building contains, and no one has ever entered all of them. Moreover, the work of building is a truly ongoing process, one that has certainly not been halted even down to this very day.
Let us now imagine an obsessed architectural scholar who suddenly becomes aware of this building. He tries first of all to study what the workers are doing as best as he can, but to little avail: either they are unable to understand his questions, or he cannot make any sense of their answers. He next sets himself to rummaging through the archives to find what construction plans may remain from the pastthere aren't too many to be found, and it soon becomes clear that most have been destroyed. But based on this "research," this theorist then arrives at what may be the silliest conclusion about this building that is remotely imaginable and proclaims it to the world.
This building where we all live and work, he informs us, has in fact been built from the start centuries ago by using a remarkably precise and consistent plan, which he then proceeds to unveil in lengthy and tortuous prose over a great many volumes of reputed scholarship, changing his explanations wherever necessary when they fail to stand up to evidence available from the structure itself. He even employs a form of mathematical notation to make his findings sound more precise, which leads many observers to conclude that they certainly must be true. He is widely applauded for his remarkable feat, for it makes a great many people happy to learn that they had always known what they were doing, even on those many occasions when they really hadn't a clue. Also, his conclusions have a certain awesome seriousness about them, and besides most people are too busy living their lives and have not studied the building or its surviving plans closely enough to dispute him.
As noted, it might seem that this is truly the most ridiculous conclusion any scholar might reach, but there is still one even more ridiculous, which this savant now also proceeds to embrace. Namely, that not only is this particular structure built according to this remarkable plan, but allwonder of wonders!ALL such buildings constructed by all peoples in all nations and cultures over all time have also been built according to precisely the same plan.
He holds fast to this notion, despite the manifest certainty that these mighty palaces around the world had all been erected from different building materials with differing tensile strengths and structural properties, including different mechanisms of juncture and support, under remarkably different climatic conditions and intended to satisfy stunningly different principles of architectural aesthetics. Moreover, these structures were also different in their basic durability, so much so that many exist today only as ruins, others can just barely be discerned from their foundations, and a vast number of still others have ceased to exist in any form other than the odd mention in an ancient source or have not achieved even that level of recognition.
Yet all of these buildingspast and presentthis great sage now declares were constructed according to a common plan, which he vows to reveal. When asked how this could be, he explains that this plan is a "universal blueprint," and he sets to work to prove its existence and demonstrate its precise properties. Of course he himself never bothers to visit any of the imposing buildings located elsewhere in the world or to speak with those busy constructing them, nor does he wander through vast ruins on foot or even speak with guides or archaeologists about their structure. And he certainly never dirties his hands to engage in the building process himself. Rather, he bases all his research on what he can discover from books and other printed descriptions.
A few critics object that his latest notion sounds like a theistic argument and that like the advocates of "creation science" he is merely foisting off a religious doctrine as a pseudo-scientific one, but their views are ignored. And he also gathers around him a proud and determined band of followers to ferret out and confirm the details of this grandiose theory wherever they can find them. Needless to say, individual members of this band encounter some problems, some fall by the wayside, but most remain faithful to this prophet's vision, though with a few variations.
Is there truly any need to extend this comparison any further? There really shouldn't be. This entire parable is of course a fairly detailed description of how TGG theorists have been dealing with our language, indeed with all language everywhere. The author defies TGG defenders to prove that this architectural analogy is anything less than an adequate and accurate description of many processes inherent in language formation, one that is also especially applicable to the many flaws in their theory. Language is indeed an enormous building, one where we all live and work and always have done so, and it is we who have built it. No one else hasand certainly not a grammar.
For those Chomskian apologists who are easily taken in by the sluggish flow and apparent power of tedious terminology, it could well be that the preceding seven or eight paragraphs may present the clearest depiction of language processes they have ever seen. Accustomed to the sense of majesty and self-importance which the vagueness of the TGG vision has encouraged, will they be able to adjust to the clarity and relative precision of this new perspective? Can they possibly recognize what has just taken place? In effect, TGG already lies in flames, dead in the water, waiting for the salvage crews to arrive and pick apart what little is left.
And this is only the first point among many, though it contains a few foreshadowings of those to come. Perhaps it is now time to go on to the second of the forty-four reasons why the Chomskians are mistaken.
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This piece is Copyright © 2000
by Alexander Gross, with specified
portions Copyright © 2000 by
Sergio Navega. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
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