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Forty-Four Reasons
Why the Chomskians Are Mistaken

Reasons 5—8

5. Their total failure over the decades to define what they claim to be their guiding concept—that a "universal grammar" exists and can readily be shown to underlie and unite all the world's languages. Through language-based, historical, and cross-cultural examples, "universal grammar" can quite easily be revealed as nothing more than an oxymoron. To the extent that it is universal, it is not a grammar. And to the extent that it is a grammar, it is not universal.

Just as it is sometimes impossible to persuade the speakers of any language that the words they use have no intrinsic connection with the things they represent, so it remains virtually impossible to convince these self-proclaimed experts that there is no single universal grammar.

Not surprisingly, the advocates of this dogma have over the decades run through a fair number of attempts to explain precisely what this "universal grammar" may be—they were in fact last heard trying to fob it off as no more than a statement that the world's languages are united and every language has some kind of grammar. But despite their various stratagems to retrench or retreat or redefine or retrofit this claim—or perhaps because of them—it remains just as weak a concept as it was when first roughed out in medieval and even ancient times. For more on "universal grammar," see the author's piece The Emperor's New Linguistics elsewhere in this section of the website.

6. The even greater inadequacy and failure of their other long-touted guiding notion, namely that some form of "Deep Structure" can be demonstrated to play a significant role in the interplay between words and meaning. This unwieldy claim went through even more versions than "universal grammar," but finally even its advocates had no choice but to abandon it.

7. The totally untenable doctrine of "poverty of stimulus" advanced by these scriptures. According to this article of faith, one proof that an activating and energizing "universal grammar" must be at work even in earliest childhood lies in their insistence that infants suffer from such a total linguistic "poverty of stimulus" in their lives that only the presence of a "universal grammar" could account for their ability to learn language. It is clear that those who make such a claim have never even once seriously studied the behavior of infants or remotely bothered to consider what babies actually experience in their daily lives.

These infants are, if anything, experiencing not a "poverty of stimulus" at all but an embarras de richesse of oral, audible, tactile, olfactory, digestive, excretive, and other stimuli. Three immediate proofs of this: babies do not need to learn everything all at once and certainly don't; they frequently cry from the strain of it all; and they just as frequently fall asleep. Under these circumstances, it is truly a mystery how these theorists have gained any kind of reputation at all as experts on the acquisition of language by children.

8. Concomitant with the former embarrassment, their equally absurd insistence on the innateness of language and their never-ending repetition of the claim that this "innateness" must have a physical location and identity within the human body itself. Although there is absolutely no evidence that this is likely to be true, we shall see that their claims about this matter scarcely end here. As one observer has remarked, the Chomskian argument can be quite simply summed up: "Wow! How complicated a skill every normal adult learns. What else could it be but innate?" (Putnam, as cited by Hall, p. 83) Indeed, their unyielding certainty about "innateness" has failed to find any confirmation in not just one but a growing number of sciences, at least one of which seems to have almost been invented for proving this point.

This argument and the three preceding ones are all false and are likely to have come into existence merely to bolster up the equally false construct of a "generative grammar," though after fifty years it may be hard to pinpoint which of these absurdities truly came first in this epic cycle of flawed reasoning.

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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.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the authors.
All Rights Reserved.

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