A new twist in an old turn of phrase
Domenico Pacitti talks to Noam Chomsky
might come as a surprise to British professors, but, according to
American linguistics professor Noam Chomsky, "a US professor
has nothing like the authority and prestige of a European
professor. Intellectuals are taken too seriously in Europe - it's
bad for them to be taken too seriously; they become like Hollywood
This from a man whose fame far
outstrips that of most British academics. For transforming the
field of linguistics nearly 50 years ago and for his outspoken
stand on human rights, Chomsky enjoys worldwide recognition.
Even now, at the age of 71, he is
still carrying out his research at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, where he has taught since 1955, refining the theory
that first made his name.
I caught up with him in Siena, one
of the world's leading research centres in linguistics. Nearly 20
years ago, at Pisa's Scuola Normale Superiore, he gave a lecture
series marking a radical change in his thinking and a new
Chomsky's revolutionary argument
in his first classic book, Syntactic Structures, was that all
children are born with an innate grammar - a fixed set of mental
rules that enables them to create and utter sentences they have
never heard before. The task of linguistics after the Chomskyan
revolution became to uncover this formidable array of mental
Chomsky explains: "It had
been recognised for centuries, by Galileo, for example, that the
crucial aspect of language is discrete infinity - the capacity to
create arbitrary structures of arbitrary complexity by putting
together discrete items, which is rather unusual in the biological
world. By the 1950s, advances in the theory of computation of
algorithms and formal systems had progressed to the point where it
was possible to try to articulate precisely and explicitly what
those finite means might be by which we express infinite
As the study of "generative
grammar" developed, a tension arose between the two tasks
academics in the field had set themselves. Their attempt to
provide an accurate description of language revealed extreme
complexity both within individual languages and among different
languages. But their attempt to describe the mechanisms of the
language faculty assumed to be located in each child's brain
suggested that a simple and uniform base underpins all languages.
The effort to resolve this tension went on for about 25 years, with linguists struggling to demonstrate that the surface complexity of language was only superficial. "The idea was that if you looked more carefully, you could find underlying principles in widely differing languages," says Chomsky.
"If, in fact, we knew the
principles used to form and interpret complex (sentence)
constructions, at least one major task of linguistics would be
solved. It's a scientific question, and a fundamental one, to find
out what a person knows without awareness or even possible access
It was following his Pisa lectures
in the 1980s that Chomsky began to replace what was becoming a
frustrating search for these underlying linguistic rules with the
"principles-and-parameters" approach. It was an
about-turn that astonished many. Instead of looking for rules,
said Chomsky, linguistics researchers needed to look for
"general principles that are fixed and part of our genetic
endowment, and parameters, the choices the child is somehow
preprogrammed to activate at precise phases of his linguistic
"It's as if genetic
instructions determine a fixed network of principles and a certain
few switches that aren't yet set, and the child has to set the
switches on the basis of simple data," Chomsky explains.
"Once the switches are set, the whole system operates. In
this framework more has been learnt about language in the past 20
years than in the preceding 2,000 and for the first time you have
what you might call a genuine theory of language."
In the explosion of research that
has since ensued, the focus has shifted again. Chomsky and his
followers are now embarked on what is called "the minimalist
programme", which, says Chomsky, "raises new
"So, how well designed is the
eye to meet certain conditions? Let's say, how well does it deal
with the spectrum of light? And it turns out that the eye is not
that well designed. So, for example, the eye can't pick up
infrared light, which is where most of the energy is. So, if the
condition is using the energy, you know, of the sun's light, then
the eye is more or less well designed, but not very well designed.
You can ask similar questions about any workings, including the
workings of language."
But not everyone shares Chomsky's
optimism. His work has been severely criticised, perhaps most
tellingly by the philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine, Chomsky's
former teacher at Harvard. Quine condemns Chomsky's attempt to
define the underlying principles of language as fundamentally
wrong-footed and its insights as illusory.
Quine's attack has four strands.
First, he argues that the fact that Chomsky's theories might fit
the linguistic patterns of speakers does not mean the speakers are
necessarily guided by those theories. Where is the proof? Second,
that the search for a common underlying structure shared by all
languages is futile on the grounds that it is no more than the
trivial claim that all members of a particular class of objects
share the property that they are members of that class. Third,
Quine argues that owing to the irreducibly imprecise nature of
language, linguistic theories can never be truly scientific. And,
finally, he says that the mental language faculty proposed by
Chomsky can never aspire to be as real as a physical object.
Chomsky has answers to all these
arguments. Yet, judging by the adjustments his theories have
undergone over the years, it would seem that, ironically, he has
been his own harshest critic.
But what about the many academics
still teaching and researching some of his earlier theories?
"If somebody today is teaching what they taught ten years
ago, then either their subject is dead or they are dead, because
we don't have enough depth of understanding to have reached the
Chomsky is non-committal about
whether insights from the minimalist programme will turn out to be
true. Meanwhile, his latest book, New Horizons in the Study of
Language and Mind, aims to take us at least one step closer
towards understanding the nature of language.
'Britain is just the US's hired
Noam Chomsky, who describes
himself as "a sort of anarchist socialist" is an
indefatigable human rights campaigner. He has written more than 30
books attacking United States foreign policy.
Recent British foreign policy does not escape his scorn either. "Tony Blair was the ultimate cynic over Kosovo. It's hard to believe that just recently he criticised the UNHCR (the UN agency responsible for refugees) for its failure to prepare adequately for the Kosovan refugees, who were the predicted consequence of the bombing campaign by Nato forces. And to think that Tony Blair is one of the great humanists who are supposed to be leading us to a new magnificent world.
"They bombed with the
confident expectation they were going to escalate the conflict,
which is exactly what happened. But the story that has been
refashioned in the West is different. The official party line is
that there was this terrible ethnic cleansing that had to be
stopped. According to press reports, the Serbians killed 10,000
Kosovars and drove 700,000 out of the country. The crucial point
is that the killing 10,000 Kosovars and driving 700,000 out
followed the bombing."
Nor did Britain perform any better in Indonesia according to Chomsky. "Take East Timor," he says. "During the massacres that took place in early 1999, not only did the US refuse to intervene, but Britain continued to sell arms to Indonesia. The British Labour government with its ethical foreign policy was selling Hawk jets to Indonesia virtually up to the moment the international forces landed. In the end they were more or less embarrassed into stopping. These are the humanists, the people who describe themselves as the leaders of humanism. But the truth is that Britain is just a hired assassin for the US."
Note: This interview first appeared in The Times Higher Education Supplement on March 24 2000.