Reasons Why the Chomskians
(Formerly "Thirty-Three Reasons Why... etc.")
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Originally entitled "Thirty-Three Reasons Why the Chomskians Are Mistaken," I am honored to welcome as my collaborator in this revised version the distinguished Brazilian computer scientist Sergio Navega, who specializes in the area where neuroscience, AI, and natural language converge. Although there is a slight duplication concerning the "innateness" of language, the six additional reasons provided by my colleague add a new dimension to this discussion, providing rich overlays of authentic technical and medical knowledge and highlighting the many deficiencies of the Chomskian outlook. It is sometimes overlooked that for the last two decades opposition to these theories has come not only from translators, literary scholars, and dissenting non-Chomskian linguists but also from specialists trained in pathology and neuroscience. Navega is a well-known contributor to the comp.ai, comp.ai.nat-lang, and comp.ai.philosophy newsgroups, and you can visit his two remarkable websites by clicking here and by clicking here. His contributions to this piece may be found in Reasons 28 through 33 and contain completely new material. Also new are Reasons 14, 17, 25, 37, and 43, as are quite a few other bits and pieces scattered throughout, based partially on spirited but ultimately ineffectual resistance from traditionalists on the sci.lang newsgroup. For those interested, a detailed summary of that debate can be accessed from the Linguistics menu.
Sergio Navega's unique combination of insights tends to complement what I have described elsewhere on this website as my own special field of study, "a particular meeting place, where language, translation, computers, AI, so-called natural language processing, simple common-sensical understanding, and the urgent need for the clearest possible expressionreaching the greatest possible number of peopleall intersect and overlap, occupying an area of crucial importance." Hence the product of our mutual collaboration could well prove particularly resistant to criticism by our colleagues, though of course we welcome comments from all concerned observers.
What follows is the beginning of this piece as originally posted, with the new sections added in their proper places.
NOTE: Although this piece is written in as straightforward a style as possible, readers new to this subject are likely to profit from reading the previous three selections on the Linguistics menu first, as they will help to clarify much of the material about to be covered. As stated below, the author cannot enter into prolonged debate over any of the following points. And as was also noted on the Linguistics menu, just in case anyone feels this treatment is too one-sided, two pro-TGG websites are included in the list of links accessible from the bottom of the home page. Furthermore, if anyone deeply objects to any of these points and wishes to forward a detailed refutation, the author will be glad to take it into consideration in preparing subsequent editions of this document. He intends to profit from the cumulative editing process encouraged by the Web to refine these points over time but also to include what may have been omitted here, as there are certain to be more than a mere forty-four reasons why the Chomskians are mistaken. He has in fact already profited from this process, as the eleven new reasons here surely show. Thus, those who feel that the following treatment is neither strong nor complete enough are also welcome to offer their suggestions. All names and references are clarified in the bibliographical section, following this selection on the Linguistics menu of the website.
The congealing of knowledge into pretentious ignorance and the decline of investigative method into mere mummery have been so commonly recurrent throughout the history of ideas that perhaps no shocked or outraged response should be voiced at discovering yet another such occurrence among us. And yet this most recent brand of obscurantism has been so widely promulgated and so deeply accepted and even praised by so many members of the learned professions as to raise grave questions concerning the overall aptitude of human beings to distinguish truth from falsehood.
It is not at all difficult to demonstrate that the totality of those so-called linguistic principles, generally known either as "Transformational Generative Grammar" or "Chomskianism," along with virtually each and every one of their specific manifestations, reside almost totally outside the pale of reasonable human belief and place so unbearable a burden on credibility as to rank, depending on one's point of view, somewhere between the gravest of possible scandals and the realm of total risibility.
It is important to recognize this potential for dual interpretation from the outset, for while anger and indignation are perfectly appropriate reactions in this matter, outright ridicule might prove to be the more perfect pathway. If we are to heal this plague of learning, what we may most need might well be not the fury of biblical prophets but the perfectly attuned parody of a Voltaire directing his Doctor Pangloss against the absurdities of those following Leibnitz or a Mark Twain reducing the overblown novels of Fennimore Cooper to their truly minuscule stature.
Or perhaps either one of these would still be too much effort to expend on this alleged philosophy of languageit could just be that the critic most urgently needed here is the classic stage comedienne Anna Russell as she deftly picks apart all the major flaws in the plot of the Wagnerian ring cycle. This author lacks the wit and verve of such worthy predecessors, but he will do his best, where appropriate, to incorporate something of their spirit into what you are about to read.
The following partial list of errors, misunderstandings, and outright violations of common sense cannot possibly exhaust the sheer scale and scope of the unending solecisms generated by these theories, any more than it can diminish the abominable offense to style and sense demonstrated by the so-called language in which they were written. But again, merely to advance such assertions in total seriousness is to imbue those theories with a far greater importance than they actually possess.
The author will content himself with merely listing these errorsor at least most of themin a dispassionate manner at this time and has no intention of entering into a prolonged dispute over any of the individual points. He is well aware that several other attempts to dislodge these theories have failed in the past because they remained too closely tied to the theories themselves, and he has no intention of falling into such a trap. He has also assigned himself over the future the task of evolving a far more inclusive overview of language than is currently accessible to language professionals and intends to direct his best energies towards that constructive goal rather than lingering unduly over this unfortunate task.
One other reason why he declines to discuss the articles in this list in any extended detail is that he believes these theories are in the long run of no intrinsic importance to the study of language or linguistics, and he hence declines to be bound in any way to a prolonged debate over their ostensible meaning. Those who truly crave further information on this matter are free to consult the author's many published papers and articles on this and related topics, which can be found on this websiteor if you are reading this piece on a newsgroup or a bulletin boardat
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.
2. Another unforgivable oversight of these would-be theoreticians has been their total obliviousness to the sheer physicality of language. Indeed, language is not merely a set of phonetic fragments or syntactic tricks but comes to us as the joyous expression of the entire human body, its posture, its culturally based habits of breathing, its socially moulded mode of movement, its reactions to different climatic factors, all of which canand doplay a remarkably large part in the character of the language spoken by any given people.
3. The equal obliviousness of these tone-deaf technicians to the rhythmic, euphonic, and musical aspects of language, and how they are inextricably linked to a people's chosen mode of verbal expression.
4. The sheer reductionism of these theories. The last two arguments dealt with major aspects of language overlooked by this blinded and otherwise sensorially challenged set of doctrines. But such oversights are the least of itfrom the very beginning, the TGG outlook has been grounded in a rigorous and self-righteous form of reductionism, condemning it over the years to a rapidly worsening form of tunnel-vision. By rooting themselves in this reductionism, these zealots have been able to diminish what they call the study of linguistics, conveniently for them as they imagine it, to an ever decreasing number of aspects, and to exclude from this sharply delimited field of study almost anything which they can possibly claim lies beyond it.
If Chomskyas one observer would have it"has rarely been defeated on his own ground," it is because he has prepared this groundor battle terrainin excruciating detail, carefully limiting its exact dimensions and entrance or exit points, and placing his mines, machine guns, and artillery in precisely the right places. But in so doing he has also drastically excluded large portions of the total topology of language, including many of its most important aspects. Yank this ground out from under him, and one quickly uncovers an eminently vulnerable target caught totally off balance, desperately lurching to find cover.
But despite their unceasing efforts to draw the wagons into an ever smaller circle around the campfire, the forces of TGG have still failed to provide an adequate explanation even of what little remains within their self-chosen purview, as we shall see in the following examples. In a sense, it is as though they have diagrammed themselves into a corner and cannot for the life of them find their way out again.
5. Their total failure over the decades to define what they claim to be their guiding conceptthat 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 bethey 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 claimor perhaps because of themit 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.
9. The utter irrelevance and ultimate falsehood of their never-ending boast that human beings employ a language system permitting the utterance of an infinitely large number of sentences. This has more than once been held up as a mighty miracle, a true prodigy worthy of our wonder. While such a boast possesses at least a theoretical foundation in a certain number of cases, it can also quite clearly be demonstrated even by relative amateurs that the vast majority of peopleChomskian linguists most definitely includedin fact employ a remarkably limited and often extremely predictable subset of these sentences.
10. Their tacit assumption, just as frequently implied as the prior claims are repeated, that there can be only one theory and process of language learning, as exemplified by infants, when in fact there are certainly at least two theories and processes of language learning, one for the languages we learn to speak as infants, and another for those languages we learn to speak when older, as a fair amount of both empirical and experimental data has in fact confirmed. Infants are poor respondents at best, and their responses can be interpreted quite divergently. Yet no cogent attempt has been made by these "experts" to study and measure the intrinsically more accessible mechanisms of adult language learning. And such studies as have been made remain entrapped in the faulty assumptions of TGG theory and are of little help to those teaching or learning a foreign language among adults.
11. The continuing inadequacyoften approaching abject failureof the one practical application that ought all along to have been a showcase for the validity of the TGG approach: so-called "machine translation." Just recently the heir presumptive for TGG doctrines went on record in the New York Times that the output of "translation engines" was definitely improving. This is certainly news not only to professional translators but also to many of those who have tried out machine translation applications on any extended basis. Outside of a few rigidly defined areas, MT contains just as many problem areas as it did several decades ago, as this author made amply clear at the panel he chaired during the Machine Translation Summit III conference in Washington (also documented on this website).
TGG theorists suppose that conquest of MT remains a slow and steady advance of their forces across an even, unobstructed terrain. In reality, they have been fighting a desperate and continually losing uphill battle for over fifty years against an enemy hidden and well-entrenched in mountain fortresses they haven't even discovered exist yet. The growing acceptance for TM (Translation Memory) over MTthough even here only for severely restricted subject mattersrepresents only the latest defeat for their forces.
The continued enthusiasm over MT may be more the result of the continued availability of funding for MT research rather than any deep or dramatic progress in this field. And the availability of that funding may be entirely in the hands of a few bureaucrats and engineers who understand little of linguistics but are acting under the advice of these very TGG linguists. If so, then we may be dealing with something like a vicious circle of ignorant boasts begetting substandard results begetting further boasts and claims that more funding is needed. While Chomsky himself has made the odd declaration doubting the feasibility of MT, the collected mass of his prose largely suggests the contrary, and it is scarcely surprising that most MT workers revere his work as both ground-breaking and inspirational.
Several of the preceding points can be summed up at this juncture as follows: essentially, the followers of TGG are living in a dream world where a number of truly remarkable discoveries are just about to be discovered and a number of final resolutions are certain to be resolved. Caught up in this dream world, they naively but passionately continue to believe:
that some miraculous new scholarship will prove once and for all the existence of a "universal grammar;"
that some miraculous new psychological finding will demonstrate the "poverty of stimulus" doctrine for all time to come;
that some miraculous new medical breakthrough will reveal the existence of a hitherto unnoticed organ in the body: "Pinker's Plexus" or "the Innateness Gland."
that some hacker in some garage somewhere will all at once hit upon the key permitting perfect and instantaneous machine translation in all directions between unlimited texts in all languages, whether living, dead, or yet to arise.
12. The almost total concentration by these "experts" on examples from written language, to the virtual exclusion of examples from spoken sources. If there is one principle agreed to by most linguists, it is that spoken language is the primary and prior form, written language the secondary and posterior one. To ignore the problems of spoken language and single out the problems of its written form is simply inadmissible.
13. As a close corollary to this, it also becomes unavoidably necessary to point out that even the examples of written language so fondly cited by these theorists bear little resemblance to other forms of written language as employed by most educated adults. Once again reductionism has crept in, and they have invented for themselves a small, delimited subset of frequently inept and/or ludicrous phrases, which they have attempted to present as the totality of language itself.
As one critic of the TGG canon has pointed out: "In effect, Chomsky's ideal speaker-listener is not in a speech community at all. He is a lone individual, completely surrounded by speech-mirrors". (Faust, as cited by Hall, p. 81). And as I.A. Richards observed as long ago as 1968, the sentences cited by Chomskians "as specimens in their expositions are usually such as are little likely to be misinterpreted. And where they do touch upon ambiguity, there is commonly an eccentricity and artificiality in the examples which may be symptomatic. The real hazards of language are conspicuously not represented."
14. The dubious validity of the linguistic "calculations" evolved by the Chomskians, sometimes known as "doing linguistics" and combining dubious mathematics with programming techniques unlikely to run outside the narrow circumstances for which they were created (and perhaps not even there). These offshoots of predicate calculus, alleged to predict, measure, and describe the correctness and grammaticality of all sentences in any language, fill the pages of volumes and journals glanced at only occasionally even by other adepts of this art. But if this approach has indeed achieved its goal, then why do people still have trouble writing their native language, why do our computer style-checkers still not function adequately, and why are the pages of these supposed guides themselves filled with so many stylistic blunders?
15. The sheer impenetrability of the style in which these "experts" have chosen to express themselves, adding yet further immediacy to the previous three points. Writing about language should be a model of clarityif it is not, then what is the point of the exercise? Perhaps the only commentators to approach the tone of Twain and Russell on this subject have been Lawler, Aristar, and Sowa, the creators of Chomsky-Bot, a computer program something like the author's UFOLAND but infinitely more intricate and effective.
This program generates in small increments an infinite bulk of Chomsky-like prose not much harder or easier to understand than the output of the Professor himself. It could just be significant that the only other target these programmers have chosen for such treatment is the notoriously incoherent and largely fraudulent English mystic Aleister Crowley, though as will be made clear in the conclusion, the author does not believe there is anything fraudulent about Chomsky. You can see examples of Chomsky-Bot output and go there yourself to obtain further samples by clicking on either of the two preceding underlined links.
16. The near impossibilitycreated by so many shifts and changes in dogma and details over the decades both by the leader and by his disciples in innumerable books and published papersof ever pinning down precisely what TGG principles actually are.
17. The total impenetrability of the most recent version of these theories, perhaps appropriately known as "minimalism." Combining mainly a passionate Panglossian embrace of the dubious notion that "language is perfect" with many of the prior follies, it is difficult to find any kind of improvement in this latest of so many twists and turns.
18. The never-ending postponement of any final proof for the truth of these theories. This has been the case over the past five decades, as TGG's prime movers ranged chaotically through an entire series of sciences, pseudo-sciences, and "cognitive" distractions. As the father of Chinese Grammar, Professor Chao Yuen Ren, pointed out as long ago as 1968, "no transformational or generative grammar has as yet been fully worked out for any language." This remains very much the case today at a time when the third generation of TGG advocates point to "cognitive neuroscience" as the discipline that will once and for all prove the validity of these doctrines. Unfortunately, very few other cognitive neuroscientists agree with this estimate (see for example Sergio Navega's points below).
19. The overall arrogance with which these theories have been promoted over the past five decades, engendering an atmosphere of fear, intolerance, and barely hidden anger within the scholarly community. Hall refers to Chomskian theorists as "by and large, singularly obtuse to criticism," while Koerner observes that "Chomsky and his associates have consistently shown themselves to only want to win the fight, and in such a manner that no rematch will take place." (Hall, p. 87; Koerner, 1989, p.135: see bibliography on adjoining web page)
20. The cumulative abuse by many TGG voices over this period aimed at belittling the achievements of the earlier linguists Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir, even though their ideas continue to explain more about language for more people than the TGG theories alleged to replace them.
21. Likewise, their failed initiative aimed at the total abandonment of the works of Leonard Bloomfield over this same period, even though his concept of "secondary responses to language" may be more truly "generative" than anything produced by TGG advocates, as described in Part II of the author's paper Limitations of Computers as Translation Tools, also accessible from this website. Indeed, all of TGG may have been "generated" by these principles.
22. Ironically, what is perhaps their most total failure, this time directed at the reputation and achievements of the psychologist B.F. Skinner and the Behaviorist school around him. As Andresen has pointed out, it has more recently become necessary to reinvent "behaviorism" in a new form and under a new name as "connectionism."
23. Their convenient but ultimately fascistic exclusion from their theories of all "empiricism," allowing them the totally unearned privilege of brushing off most practical objections to their work as "unscientific." They have used it as an unlimited license to mint truth and wisdom, a right they have certainly never deserved and have frequently abused. Empiricism, almost as much as experiment, remains one of the cornerstones on which true science is built, and its exclusion from TGG has proved an open invitation to ignorance.
24. The outright falsehood that expert language professionals like multilingual writers and editors, translators, interpreters, and dramaturgs are incapable of linguistic analysis, as evident in Ved Mehta's direct quotation from Chomsky and his description of Chomsky's attitude: "'The ability to use language well is very different from the ability to study it. Once the Slavic Department at Harvard was thinking of offering Vladimir Nabokov an appointment. Roman Jakobson, the linguist, who was in the department then, said that he didn't have anything against elephants but he wouldn't appoint one a professor of zoology.' Chomsky laughs."
25. Robins, Koerner, and others have observed that throughout history, linguistic theories have veered between two extreme views. One is called "analogy" and assumes that the similarities between languages far outweigh their differences, the other, "anomaly," favors the notion that the differences outweigh the similarities. Seen from this perspective, TGG, with its emphasis on "universal grammar" and "innateness," represents the absolute extreme of the "analogist" position. On these grounds alone it can be seen as an unbalanced approach, and the time is more than ripe for a movement back towards the "anomalist" point of view.
26. The highly dubious scholarship of these savants in so many different realmsancient Greek language study, medieval linguistics, Port-Royal grammars, statistical analysisas itemized in studies by Hall, Herdan, Aarsleff, Dostert, Koerner, and others.
27. Their even more dubious claim to being scientists, especially during a time when the undeniable reality of the literature they have produced has moved ever closer to the style and content of French literary criticism. It is not altogether surprising that TGG would take such a direction, since Chomskianism may have more in commonas has already been notedwith "creationism" than it has with any science.
(Sergio Navega's reasons begin at this point.)
28. Is grammar wired in our DNA?
Most linguists today would say that language clearly has genetic origins. They are confortable with the idea that the brain is somewhat "wired" for grammar and that there's a specific portion of our DNA that codes all the necessary information to generate such domain-specific language-producing organs in our brains. We humans would, according to such views, share this genetic endowment and so it can be usefully considered to be the site of the "universal grammar," not available in any other species in this world. Yet, this very idea is receiving constant criticisms from scientists who try to explain how this grammar could possibly be encoded in genes, and why it appears to be unique among humans.
In what follows, I shall attempt to list some of these criticisms and the more sound approach which considers language as just another learned trait. It is necessary to point out that there's a great advantage for linguists to proclaim the existence of universal grammars: the hard question of explaining how such a thing evolved is not their problem, this being a work to be completed by evolutionary biologists. By throwing this hot potato into other hands, they are mindlessly using a dogmatic point of view, which is incongruent with modern scientific methodologies and may impair the development of new ideas in linguistics.
A Related Question: What are the Origins of Language?
This is one of the still unresolved issues plaguing scientists all around the world. Instead of adding more hypotheses to the question, let's see what is really common to all humans in this world. Is it a universal language of some mathematically rigorous form as proposed by Chomsky?
Before trying to find a place for a universal grammar, let us look for something that we undoubtedly have in common with each other: we inhabit the same world. We share the same physical laws, we have similar sensory apparatuses, we are required to look for the same things (food, shelter, company, etc).
We have mainly the same kinds of cognitive problems: object perception, motor action coordination, planning, decision-making, etc. If I show you a specific pattern of vertical and horizontal lines forming a unique grid, I bet you'll be able to recognize this same pattern, no matter if it is reduced or enlarged, rotated or seen from a perspective.
This is not a human-specific ability: a cat does this and much more when walking along walls and roofs, showing impressive motor coordination. Amazingly, the processing of these visual scenes requires the use of sophisticated perceptual operations that, cognitive scientists are discovering, are very similar to the kind of recursive and embedded behavior typical of languages.
Language processing is neither more complex nor more special than the processing and integration of visual and auditory signals that cats, dogs, apes, lions, tigers and a huge number of mammals perform daily. So instead of being exclusively used in language, features such as embedding, recursion and perception of invariances are traits that have counterparts in our cognition, crossing into other senses.
Isn't this supposed to be obvious? We do indeed all have a single kind of brain, with basically the same kind of neurons, no matter how differently they seem to associate. Recent studies with ferrets have discovered, for instance, that the neural organization of the visual cortex emerges spontaneously in the auditory cortex, when the brains of these animals are surgically patched to redirect visual signals to the auditory region.
Why should we feed the hypothesis that language has a specific mechanism, when a general mechanism can do the same job and also explain vision and audition?
29. Is language a human-specific ability?
How tenable is the hypothesis that language (to a certain degree of grammatical sophistication) is specific to humans? Well, one can certainly say that nobody encounters a bird writing a poem, nor a monkey lecturing to fur-covered fellows, nor are there frequent meetings of the Whale Philosophical Society. It is important to notice, however, that there exists a common confusion between language and external symbolic storage (like words on paper).
One can have language without symbolic storage. Do we understand what dolphins are doing when they engage in those strange noisy exchanges? Their behaviors often suggest that they ought to be talking with each other, because one frequently catches them in some exquisite collaborative activities. These activities are typical of cooperation in communities of linguistically-oriented intelligent agents, and there are quite a number of computer models of spontaneous language emergence in such environments (see for instance Simon Kirby and Luc Steels).
Formal Grammars and Natural Languages:
There is a subtle difference between formal descriptions of grammar and natural languages as spoken by people. Formal languages are rigid, inflexible, don't tolerate noise anddue to recursioninfinitely extendable. To a Turing Machine, a formal language with embedded constructs is the shortest path to the nowhere land.
But nobody would say that phrases in a natural language could be embedded inside one another indefinitely. They seem to possess this recursive characteristic, but there is a clear limit: we can interpret sentences only up to a certain level of recursion, we have not enough memory to do it indefinitely. If this is a clear human limit, why is it so difficult for linguists to accept that Bonobo apes also display linguistic abilities, although in a constrained way? If an alien comes to Earth and if he (she? it?) is able to understand sentences with phrases embedded up to 50 levels, would we humans look like non-linguistic animals to them?
30. Language and Natural Selection:
No one can dispute that languages are the result of some sort of natural selection. Languages emerge spontaneously (as in the case of the Pidgin/Creole transformation and the case of the sign language developed by Nicaraguan children). What remains to be assessed is if "modules of language" in our brain could emerge by natural selection. The nativists say that some genetic alterations and further refinement by natural selection were enough to provide us with "language organs," and consequently with innate grammars. Their problem is to explain convincingly how this can be done in just some tens of thousands of years.
The point is that language, considered as a whole, is indeed a highly complex system requiring specific perceptual adeptness and adequate memory processing abilities. Such sophistication may perhaps be comparable to the complexity of an eye. Eyes evolved during millions of years and are common among most animals. Memory and perception are also common among animals. One could say that most preconditions to linguistic performance are already present (although in smaller degrees) in most mammals.
All these complex preconditions were not the result of a specific period of development. The more complex the feature is, the more "spread" in time its emergence must have been. Mechanisms for learning and performing language require characteristics that had to evolve in several hundreds of thousands of years, and were probably not directly linked to communication (in this light Arbib's paper about language and motor systems is particularly interesting).
It is more probable that language is the result of a "side effect", the same kind of situation that happened with wings of birds. Wings are complex structures that could not have emerged from one or few steps and not for the purpose of flight.
Everything in evolution is done through small adaptations. Wings could not have emerged in a "single" mutation, they were "designed" by evolution initially as better thermal insulation and later (a side effect) were used to support flight. Flight, obviously, is an ability that endows the animal with strong evolutionary advantages (it enables faster escapes from predators, it fosters migration, it allows hunting of prey more effectively, etc). However, instead of being concentrated in a specific kind of animal, wings are commonplace not only among birds but also among most insects.
It is more reasonable to suppose that most of the required processing traits that a brain must have in order to generate/understand language are relatively well distributed among closely related primates and most mammals. Only small details (such as the size of short-term memory or the autocatalytic effect of culture in our society) might separate us from them in terms of remaining linguistic capacity. There's no need here either for any universal grammar, or for language organs.
The issue becomes muddled a bit because of complexity. It is not only the ability of language that is important, it is also the society in which it is used. Language demands large and complex brains, but it also demands a community of users and speakers. In order for this to happen, it is also necessary to develop phonologically sophisticated apparatuses, able to utter enough variations to support complex linguistic expressions. All technical preconditions (perception, generative ability, etc) may be latent in other species, but lack of one of these last features may impair its natural emergence.
31. Modularity versus Self-Organization:
The issue of modularity of language (which is essential for the nativist argument) is shown empirically to be flawed. But not in relation to adult's brains. In adults, there's no doubt that there are specific language areas (such as Broca's and Wernicke's areas). There are reports of adult hemispherectomy (the surgical removal of one entire hemisphere) of the left brain of adults with severe damage to language comprehension and generation. This could be seen as an evidence of the language organ hypothesis.
However, when this hemispherectomy is done on children of early age, (these surgeries are unfortunately necessary mostly because of uncontrollable epilepsy), these children have been able to develop language almost to a point of normality! And language grew up using the remaining, right hemisphere. It is also shown that the earlier the hemispherectomy is done, the better the recovery of the language abilities (Kolb 1995), demonstrating that this "language organ" does not exist from birth, but is fabricated" along the way.
What recent studies point towards is that our brain evolves significantly during the initial months of life, and that a lot of our perceptual abilities are also solidified during that time. Brain plasticity continues in children well over 2-3 years and during that time much of our cognition is developed. Chomsky's view of the poverty of stimuli had it backwards: it is excess of stimuli. Brains appear to self-organize to make sense of language and all sensory inputs they receive.
32. Genetically-based cognitive disorders:
Children with Down's Syndrome suffer from a general impairment in cognitive abilities, and for that reason they are often classified as being of a lower mental age. However, in terms of language production, such children perform even worse than their putative mental age, suggesting that they have additional problems with their "language-related organs." So far so good for nativists.
This evidence is often cited in conjunction with reports about Williams Syndrome, a different genetic problem. In this case, children perform admirably well on language-related tasks (and also music), but fail sensibly (compared to control children) on all other cognitive tasks (visual reasoning, logic/mathematics, etc). This is the "top level" argument of those who defend innate language, because it appears to show a double dissociation that would perfectly characterize a linguistically specific organ.
Once again, a careful review of relevant evidence, taking into consideration developmental aspects, may reveal different interpretations. Electrophysiological studies of children with Williams Syndrome show that their language abilities are spared because of patterns of activities in different parts of their brains, when compared with normal children. This suggests that their brains were able to compensate for these deficiencies by developing new cortical areas to support the required abilities. Down's syndrome appears to impair such development.
A better explanation for such evidence is that the faulty genetic aspects control high-level architectural aspects of the brain, which influence its ability to develop suitable forms of processing among different parts of the cortex. This is required, for instance, to properly process and bind sensory and perceptual aspects, which are essential to cognitive abilities, among them linguistic performance.
Thus, the double dissociation argument loses its power when we consider that the brain is not a static organ, but a dynamic and self-organizing mechanism that adapts to its environment. It is interesting to see that music is not impaired in Williams Syndrome, suggesting that language and music have much in common.
33. Anti-nativist literature is growing:
As a reason in itself, I find the following list of references important to this critique. They show that the breadth of topics relevant to the origins of language in humans transcend the mere limits of linguistics to include, among others, areas such as neuroscience, cognitive science, artificial intelligence and paleoanthropology.
Arbib, Michael A.; Rizzolatti, Giacomo (1998) Language within our grasp. Trends in Neuroscience Vol 21, No. 5, 1998.
Bates, Elisabeth (1994) Modularity, Domain Specificity and the Development of Language. CRL, Univ. California, San Diego.
Christiansen, Morten H. (1994) Infinite Languages, Finite Minds, Connectionism, Learning And Linguistic Structure. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Edinburgh
Deacon, Terrence W. (1997) The Symbolic Species. W. W. Norton & Company.
Elman, Jeffrey, and Bates, E., Johnson, M., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Parisi, D., Plunkett, K. (1996) Rethinking Innateness, A Connectionist Perspective on Development. MIT Press.
Elman, Jeffrey (1995) Language as a dynamical system. In Port & van Gelder: Mind as Motion, MIT Press
Galaburda, Albert M.; Geschwind, Norman (eds) (1984) Cerebral Dominance. Harvard University Press.
Janik, Vincent M. (2000) Whistle Matching in Wild Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Science, Volume 289, No. 5483, 25 Aug. 2000, pp. 1355-1357.
Johnson, M. H. (et al.) (1999) Cognitive Modularity and Genetic Disorders. Science Vol 286, 17 Dec. 1999
Karmiloff-Smith, Annette (1992) Beyond Modularity. MIT Press.
Karmiloff-Smith, Annette (1998) Development itself is the key to understanding developmental disorders. Trends of Cognitive Sciences, Vol 2, No. 10.
Kolb, Bryan (1995) Brain Plasticity and Behavior. Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.
Lieberman, Philip (1998) Eve Spoke, Human Language and Human Evolution. W. W. Norton & Company
Mithen, Steven (1996) The Prehistory of Mind. Thames and Hudson.
Plunkett, Kim; Parisi, Domenico; Bates, Elisabeth; Elman, Jeffrey; Johnson, Mark; Karmiloff-Smith, Annette (1999) Innateness and Emergentism. In Bechtel & Graham (eds) A Companion to Cognitive Science. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Steels, Luc (1996) Synthesising the origins of language and meaning using co-evolution, self-organization and level formation. AI Lab, Vrije Universiteit, Brussel
Savage-Rumbaugh, Sue; Lewin, Roger (1994) Kanzi, The ape at the brink of the human mind. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Savage-Rumbaugh, Sue; Shanker, Stuart G.; Taylor, Talbot J. (1998) Apes, Language and the Human Mind. Oxford University Press
Zeki, Semir (1993) A Vision of the Brain. Blackwell Scientific Publications
(Sergio Navega's contribution ends at this point.)
34. Their propagandistic goals and methods. As is well-known, the chief spokesperson for these theories not only propagandizes on behalf of these linguistic theories but is also engaged in a parallel propagandistic pursuit as he does so. More recently, both in the film Manufacturing Consent and elsewhere, he has denied any real connection between his linguistic and political pursuits, but his definitive bibliographer E.F. Konrad Koerner states the following as of 1978:
I recall that he regarded his political writings as an integral part of his scholarly output which should not be divorced from his linguistic work, a position, however, which I did not share and have chosen to ignore.
Koerner, it should perhaps be noted, has occupied a central place among the scholars critical of Chomskyin this author's view he is par excellence the greatest living linguist, linguistic historian, and linguistic historiographer, as a glance at his amassed publications will readily confirm.
Chomsky has often been criticized for his political initiatives, which according to some have placed him in the same camp as apologists for Hitler's genocide and even defenders of a more recent genocide in Cambodia. Whether or not these criticisms are true, it is certain that his most recent position on Kosovo has also aligned him with some very strange bedfellows and allies:
Far-right US critics of the "New World Order" and all foreign intervention;
Stalinist hard-liners in Moscow nostalgic for authoritarianism and Pan-Slavism;
reactionary neo-nazi elements in Germany who applaud the overall stance of the Serbian regime;
a gangster-ridden, totalitarian, nationalistic leadership clique in Belgrade; and
(perhaps most innocently) extremist and proselytizing forces within the Greek/Serbian Orthodox church.
With such friends, is any further attack truly necessary? It is difficult to discover any sort of humanistic or liberal rationale for this position, just as it is difficult to see anything truly "radical" in it. The author of this point confesses a certain degree of personal bias in this matter, in that he knows Yugoslavia fairly well both through travel and family ties (his father came from a Hungarian-Jewish enclave near the city called Ujvidek in Hungarian, Novi Sad in Serbian). From the beginning of this crisis he felt that Chomsky's proclamations showed extensive ignorance of the full ethnic complexity of the entire Balkan region (and especially of Yugoslavia) in their attemptnot unlike his linguistic theoriesto fit this very real and complex region into an abstract theory of putative relationships, in this case based on predetermined political values.
35. The claims advanced by some credible scholars and historians that TGG advocates may have in fact abandoned even their supposed anti-establishment bias by regularly and routinely accepting funding from the Army, the Department of Defense, and elements of the US intelligence apparatus. As Peter T. Daniels recently observed on the USENET newsgroup "sci.lang" (in a message thread humorously entitled "Wither Linguistics?"): "Perhaps you need your hearing checked. For fifty years now, this professor has been funded almost entirely by the US Department of Defense. He looks on this as an amusing irony; I look on it as insufferable hypocrisy." Koerner and Andresen also examine this issue in their work.
36. The manifest failure of these theories to provide any constructive insights or methodological progress for two of language's most practical applications, namely teaching and translation/interpreting. There is no evidence that TGG doctrines have ever helped a single language teacher to reach out to students more meaningfully or a single translator or interpreter to translate and interpret more skillfully. Other practical language professions ignored by TGG advocates are bilingual writing, bilingual editing, dramaturging foreign plays, and the authorship of film-dubbing manuscripts. TGG's habit of overlooking such practical matters could not be ignored even if only their own theoretical house were remotely in orderbut this is clearly also not the case.
37. The sheer pretentiousness of their never-ending discussions on the supposedly profound differences between what they call "Plato's Question" and "Orwell's Question." And of course they are never able to reach any final conclusion about this.
In fact, this entire matter is far simpler than these "experts" want to let on. Each of these questions can be summarized in a single sentence. And the answer to both of them can be provided in in just two or three more brief sentences:
How come we're so smart, when we know so little?
How come we're so stupid, when we know so much?
THE ANSWER TO BOTH:
In both cases, we're pretending we know and hoping we turn out right. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose.
But even when we "win," we often later discover that our "victory" was only a partial one.
38. The setting of new and far lower standards in intellectual discourse. As Lamb characterized this manner of polemic technique as long ago as 1967:
A parade of specious arguments, it makes use of the shifting meaning, a device which the author has developed to a high degree of refinement. The essence of this device is the sliding of terms from one meaning to another. Supplemented by the complementary strategy of moving meanings from one term to another, the device is used in attacks upon real or imaginary opponents in mock battles set up for the occasion. (cited by Hall, p. 86)
39. The dubious level of linguistic sophistication achieved by most of these so-called linguists. As noted, there appears to be a distinct difference in the language learning process for those languages learned earlier in life and those learned later on. Those whose experiences place them in the former groupwhich may encompass most of the major Chomskianstend to suppose their languages come to them automatically, even painlessly, and share few of the insights gained by members of the latter group. It is also legitimate to ask precisely how well or often they speak any of their foreign languagesor even how well they speak English.
There is no need for academic linguists to speak with a RADA accentindeed, few American TGG zealots probably even know what a RADA accent is*. But it would be useful if they could at least learn to pronounce American English somewhat correctly when they speak and not constantly punctuate their speech with "ers," "uh's," and other solecisms. The ability to speak French reasonably well, though declining throughout the world, is also still considered a desideratum among the educated. But judging from the excerpts presented in the film Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky chose to speak mainly English during his "debate" with Jean Piaget.
The author has dealt with the increasing silliness of French linguistic claims elsewhere on this website**, but it still remains the case that a truly world-class American intellectual ought to be able to debate with French intellectuals in their own terms and in their own language. Can Noam Chomsky sit down face to face with a French counterpart and discusswithout assistance from his followersmatters of mutual interest, or can he not?
The author will for the time being extend the benefit of a doubt on this matter and looks forward to learning that Chomsky does in fact speak sufficient French for this purpose.*** If this seems like an excessively aggressive point, it is because TGG theorists have done their best to create a new definition of the word "linguist" and totally eradicate the old one. For their information, in addition to its scholarly connotations it once actually meant "someone able to speak foreign languages."
There is little doubt that basic language skills, such as speaking, reading, and writing foreign languages, much less the ability to translate or interpret between them, have undergone a decline among "linguists"since the onset of TGG theories.
*RADA stands for the "Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts," where many of Britain's finest performers receive their training in speech and acting.
**For instance, click here and then click here.
***Since writing this sentence, it was revealed during discussions on the sci.lang newsgroup that Chomsky also pointedly failed to speak French with the French theorist Michel Foucault and defended this failure in the following terms:
"I've met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible --- he speaking French, me English);" [citation available at http://www.santafe.edu/~shalizi/chomsky-on-postmodernism.html]
While it's possible that Foucaultwho spent time in California and has recorded a tape in Englishunderstood Chomsky better than vice versa, most interpreters and professional linguists may remain skeptical as to whether these "real issues" would indeed be "perfectly comprehensible" to someone who has not thoroughly immersed himself in French language and culture.
40. The hollow self-justification by supporters that these doctrines must be valid, because their promulgator is the most often cited modern author in scholarly literature. This appeal to numbers rings false both in itself but also because of the circumstances surrounding most scholarly work. Virtually all fields of study are to one extent or another grounded in language, and it is therefore natural that scholars in all these areas will seek to ground their own studies in some reflections based on the study of linguistics. Since there has allegedly been only one major theory of linguistics accessible over the past several decades, it is scarcely surprising that scholars would have found their way to its available sources and felt obliged to quote from them.
41. The question of whether TGG is in fact a linguistic theory at all or has rather become something far closer to a religious cult. It certainly puts forward what appear to be cult-like beliefs and specializes in a form of compulsory indoctrination for all who wish to join its inner precincts. Its ceremonies for anointing the faithful and for casting anathema on non-believers are too well-known to require extended comment. Among devout believers Chomsky is regarded as sage, seer, guru, almost godlike in his omniscienceas one zealot on the newsgroup "alt.fan.noam-chomsky" informed the author: "Chomsky doesn't make factual mistakes. Period."
And one high acolyte named Rudolf Botha has actually written an entire book called Challenging Chomsky, where he portrays his hero as the ultimate chess wizardan incarnation like Ingmar Bergmann's chess-playing Death figure in The Seventh Seal, invariably defeating and destroying all who dare to oppose himand refers to him repeatedly as "The Master."
Botha forgets that both Woody Allen and Bill-and-Ted in their "excellent adventure" easily ran rings around this very death figure and ended up making him quite literally dance to their tune. The truth of the matter is that the chess table over which "The Master" presides, like gambling tables around the world, is a rigged game run by a rigged company, addressing only a small subset of the full problems posed by the totality of written and spoken language. Caught in such a compromised situation, wise players will simply throw the game across the room, destroy the table, and attempt to warn others against ever being forced to play that game again.
Perhaps the ugliest of the Chomskiansthough there are several candidatesBotha takes delight in describing challenges to Chomsky as a "blood-sport" and triumphantly displays the names of those who have fallen to his liege lord like a low-level martinet talking back to the severed heads of his master's enemies skewered on pikes above the castle walls. Perhaps this promising young Igor also scavenges for their other bodily remains by night and collects them to patch together into the TGG Monster that rages through the city in search of victims. But of the eleven voices critical of TGG named on this web page (Aarsleff, Andresen, Dostert, Faust, Hall, Herdan, Koerner, Maher, Mehta, Putnam, and Richards), he mentions only one (Putnam) in the exhaustive index of his fawningly obsequious tribute to "The Master."
Moreover, while allegedly critical of Orwellian excesses in the American media, TGG advocates nonetheless practice their own variety of Orwellian propaganda and perpetrate their own form of "Newspeak" for the greater glory of their creed. Speaking of one scholar critical of TGG, Koerner writes: "Those who believe Maher is right do not belong to the TGG camp, and those who belong to it, stonewall his challenge: they will not read his (or anyone else's) work (unless it subscribes to the basic tenets of TGG); there is a general agreement among them to keep silent about such non-TGG work, and students are asked by their teachers to ignore it."
42. The easily discoverable truth that even those who imagine they subscribe to these cult doctrines often do not have the foggiest notion of what they contain and are unable to explain what they mean beyond rote and rudimentary repetition (and they often make mistakes even doing this).
43. The supposed authority of Aristotle was long ago abandoned by all schools of learning taking themselves seriously as sciences. All but one, that is. It cannot be promising that TGG still hearkens back to the doctrines of Aristotle as a major basis for its own belief system. For confirmation of this matter, see once again the author's piece The Emperor's New Linguistics elsewhere in this section of this website.
44. The larger reality, both theoretical and practical in nature, that it may in fact be quite unlikely that any view or theory about language can ever hope to resolve the many problem areas raised by this enormous field of study. As stated elsewhere on this website, most human beings die before they can reasonably master even a single language, and only a few are privileged to learn a mere handful of languages on an advanced level. It is well-known among professional translators and interpreters that one can never know two languages equally well for the purposes of speaking, reading, and writing them. There is always some sort of knowledge gap occasioned by the sheer complexity of the task.
Thus, barring some unforeseeable breakthrough in the field of abstract intelligence that totally out-performs and supplants the capacity of the human brain, the ultimate level of insight claimed by purely theoretical linguists may always be open to question, and any generalizations they make may turn out to be purely theoretical indeedand perhaps even fictitious as well on more careful scrutiny. Besides, assuming such a remarkable breakthrough did occur, we would no longer be speaking of human beings as we know them and would certainly be confronted with an entirely new set of assumptions and operating procedures.
In any case, as is made clear on this website's section devoted to artificial intelligence, the capacity of AI systems to even approach the abilities of the human brain in a number of practical areasmuch less excel and supplant themmay prove quite problematic. Precisely who are the programmers who can teach a computer, even in small incremental steps, to reckonoutside of certain inherently limited applicationswith what the human brain itself cannot approach knowing?
Since the authors have brought forth so many points against these doctrines, they also wish to make it amply clear at this time that they do not believe that there is anything fraudulent about the work of this theorist and his followers. In a sense this is somewhat regrettable, since these theories might be far more interesting and make for more entertaining reading if they were in fact fraudulent. But it should be clear to even the most skeptical commentator that the work of this man is painfully and rigorously honesteven in his various evasions, he in fact appears to be laboring at the outermost limit of his abilities, and his many errors of judgment come from his totally honest failings as a linguist. What we see in this body of work is nothing more or less than the attainments of a drab, earnest polemicist with a tin ear for language.
At this point it may legitimately be asked what the authors of these points hope to accomplish by publishing them. They are under no illusions as to what the likely results of their work may be, as they have seen the bitter attacks over past years lashing out at all who have opposed these doctrines before them. There was a time in the late Middle Ages when an unknown scholar could arrive in Paris, deliver a single lecture, and suddenly have the gates of the universityeven the gates of the citythrown open to him as a conquering savant.
It would be tempting to suppose that the Web and the Internet could function similarly amid today's scholarly world, but this is quite unlikely. The promotion of TGG is not about truth or science or scholarship in any ultimate senseit is an academic turf game, a religious war, a mafia-like struggle for the spoils. Far too many lives and livelihoods depend upon its fortunes for any fair or speedy resolution to occur or for any deep interest in the truth to prevail.
But it is also true that a certain rhythm of fitness rules even in such realms as these. While this particular document may have little real impact in itself, it may nonetheless embolden others to come forth and voice their own misgivings about this crisis in the state of learning. Ideas are born, grow, reach their peak, and then decline again, and in this author's view TGG probably peaked around 1989 and has just as probablybased on numerous statements on specialized Internet newsgroupsbeen going downhill ever since. It is therefore logical to assume that its days may be numbered, even as preparations to crown a new heir apparent continue.
With a bit of luck and over a period of time, it could just happen that the points presented here could serve to renew interest in the study of languageperhaps even of linguisticsand could even help to revive an entire learned profession. The authors truly hope so. A learned professionto expand the cliché just a bitis a terrible thing to waste.
This piece is Copyright © 2000
by Alexander Gross, with specified
portions Copyright © 2000 by
Sergio Navega. It may be
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