About    Articles    Books    Contact    Forum    Images    Interviews    Reviews
 Interviews > Linguistics & Biographical > Noam Chomsky

Evolution of revolution

Domenico Pacitti talks to Noam Chomsky

DP: Your first classic work Syntactic Structures transformed the study of linguistics back in 1957. Prior to that, traditional grammars had presupposed the intelligence of the reader in their explanations. But as soon as the attempt was made to account for this intelligence, a number of serious problems arose. Almost two and a half decades of subsequent inquiry tried to solve these problems by extracting rules to account for oneís innate knowledge of grammar. All of this came to a head in 1981 with your ďprinciples and parametersĒ approach based on lectures you gave in Pisa. And this rather cut the Gordian knot and paved the way for your current and equally revolutionary ďminimalistĒ programme. Is this correct?

NC: Yes. The principles and parameters approach said: Look, there are no rules Ė earlier theory was wrong. There are no constructions. Thereís no passive construction in Italian or verb phrase in Hungarian: these are taxonomic artefacts. There are no rules for forming relative clauses: thatís not the case. But what we actually have is quite general principles which are fixed and part of the genetic endowment. We have certain options Ė or parameters Ė which have to be set, so that the child comes into the world having incorporated principles and knowing that these are the choices and when he has to set the choices. So, do I speak a language where the verb precedes the noun or where the verb follows the noun? Well, those kinds of choices you can make simply on the basis of elementary data. If the choices are fixed, the language is in place. Itís as if the genetic instructions determine a fixed network of principles and a certain few switches that arenít set yet, and the child has to set the switches on the basis of simple data. Once the switches are set, the whole system operates. And the lexicon works the same way. Roughly in this framework, more has been learned about language in the last 20 years than in the preceding two thousand. Thereís been an enormous amount of research in depth and across extremely varied languages to try to show the fine system of this sort.

That framework also allows you to think about some new questions. For the first time in history you have what you might call a genuine theory of language, something that can deal with both the problem of accurate description and the problem of acquisition (known technically as descriptive and explanatory adequacy respectively). You can deal with both without contradiction and you can now ask lots of questions that you couldnít contemplate before. One question has to do with optimal design. No matter what youíre discussing, youíre going to have the worst, most complicated and impossible badly designed system there is. You always want to construct the best theory of it. But thereís another question: How well designed is the object itself? How well does the object itself satisfy the minimal conditions that it must satisfy to function? Thatís a different question. You might be able to raise that question about language. So, to what extent is the language organ optimally designed to serve minimal functions? Thatís a new question.

And we can give an answer. The language faculty has to interact with other components of the person and we know what some of those components are. We also have thought systems, conceptual systems, and the expressions of the language faculty have to be accessible to those, otherwise we canít express out thoughts. We can call these Ďinterfacesí between the language faculty and other systems. To a non-trivial extent we can specify the properties of the interfaces and we can then ask a concrete question. The minimal condition the language condition must meet is what we can call the Ďinterface conditioní. The information it presents must be accessible to the external system. The question is: Is that also a maximal condition? That is, is the language faculty optimally constructed to satisfy that minimal condition? When you pursue this question, youíre pursuing the minimalist programme.

A few years ago it seemed hopelessly crazy, but now thereís already been enough work to indicate to a rather surprising extent that it may be correct that the language faculty is an optimal solution to the minimal conditions. Itís as if an engineer inserted a language faculty into a brain that didnít have one and did it in an optimal way so that it would be accessible to the other systems. When you try to spell this out, then we get back to the first challenge: the accuracy of the complex descriptive devices that are used in successful accounts of language, because theyíre not optimal, so you have to try to show that they donít exist and that if you eliminate them, youíll get as good results or maybe better results. And that is what the work over the past few years has been Ė to try to take point by point the devices that are used in linguistic description and explanation and to show that theyíre unnecessary, superfluous or incorrect, and that we can get better results by eliminating them. Thatís a very hard research programme, but I think itís had some interesting consequences and a lot of indication that itís true.

DP: EFL teachers may be wondering why it is that the results of your research programmes in linguistics havenít filtered through to language teaching as much as one might have expected. Somehow the considerable insights achieved in theoretical linguistics still seem far removed from the concrete business of teaching foreigners a language.


NC: How much have the results of the very interesting studies in the cognitive sciences, for example object perception, penetrated? How much do they extend? Not much. How much does the study of physiology enter into teaching people how to swim? I mean, itís probably a good idea for a swimming coach to know something about the body, but not much.


DP: So people can do things and even do them very efficiently without being able to give an adequate theory of what it is that they are doing?

NC: What we do is so far beyond what we understand that the understanding is useful but itís rarely going to be helpful in the applied world. I mean, take even the hard sciences. Until the mid-19th century physics and chemistry had almost nothing to say to engineers. And these are subjects that have a rich, deep history of achievement. It takes a long time for them to begin to get to the point where they teach people things.

DP: Then it will take some time before your linguistic theories filter down to EFL teaching?

NC: I mean, what we know intuitively is far beyond what we can understand intellectually.

DP: There are some language purists at Florenceís authoritative Accademia della Crusca who fear that linguistic degeneration has set in owing to the infiltration into Italian of anglicisms such as ďfast foodĒ, ďtrustĒ, ďtrendĒ, ďspotĒ, ďsprayĒ, etc. The fear has even been vented that within a hundred years English will quite literally have eliminated Italian altogether. How does this strike you?

NC: Well, itís rather curious for Italian scholars to say this. Just look at whatís happening in Italy. A hundred years ago, fifty years ago, Italian wasnít the language. Everybodyís grandmother spoke some other language, but what happened to all those languages? They were eliminated by Italian, which was the language of Dante. And that has essentially wiped out a whole complex range of languages in Italy. Just in our lifetimes there has been a huge destruction of languages right here in Italy. Well, I donít think itís a good thing. Theyíre dying because theyíve been taken over by Italian, which became a national language. Italian has just wiped out these languages from the peninsula. The disappearance of languages and cultures is like the destruction of bio-diversity, except more important to us because it is human diversity. Itís cultural diversity and is being destroyed, and thatís a bad thing.

DP: I believe your parents emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States and was wondering where exactly they came from.

NC: My father came from the Ukraine and my mother came from whatís now Byelorussia.

DP: I myself am third generation Italian and have come to feel that I still have some marked Italian characteristics. Donít you think, setting aside questions of genetic preprogramming or philosophical determinism, that itís natural to feel this? Do you ever feel this yourself with regard to your own Russian background?

NC: Youíre not Jewish, I take it?

DP: No, Iím not.

NC: Itís quite different. Jews are a tribe, and the place where they are historically doesnít matter very much, like my parents, who were immigrants, who would never talk about Eastern Europe. They just didnít want to talk about it. They wanted to forget Russia forever.

DP: Really?

NC: They didnít want to know about it, they didnít want me to know about it. Later, when I was older, I got interested and I would ask my father, but it was just not part of our childhood. Their native language was Yiddish, but they never let us hear a word of Yiddish. My wife was the same, same background, and neither she nor I know a word of Yiddish except what we learnt through our grandparents. Until very recently Jews were outsiders. Thereís a famous Jewish joke that asks why there are so many Jewish violinists and not many Jewish pianists. Well the answer is: You can pick up your violin and run.

DP: Yes, that certainly makes the point.

NC: It kind of captures the thing. Look, when I got to Harvard in the early 1950s, it was very anti-Semitic. It wasnít until the late 1950s that these barriers fell. Itís a very recent phenomenon. And the same applies to Britain and also to continental Europe. Jews were respected, but they werenít really part of the elite culture until very recently.

DP: I think it requires some effort for non-Jews to understand all of this.

NC: Itís just kind of part of your background, you know. That I could become a Russian is for me simply quite foreign and unimaginable.

Note: This interview took place at the Certosa di Pontignano on November 9 1999 and was first published in full by JUST Response on May 20 2002. A shortened version appeared in the January 2000 issue of EL Gazette.