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A new twist in an old turn of phrase

Domenico Pacitti talks to Noam Chomsky

It 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 stars."

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 linguistic turn.

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 rules.

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 thoughts."

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 to consciousness."

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 development.

"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 questions".

"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 truth yet."

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 assassin'

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.