I rag on Chomsky’s vacuous and unoriginal political thought all the time. He is just, like, the most boring guy in the world, and I’m bummed that he’s the Anarchist Public Intellectual most people know. But Chomsky is not, by training, a social theorist or political scientist. This is fine, of course, we would be in a pretty state if only tenured Social Theory professors were allowed to think about politics.
but it does explain a lot.
By training, Chomsky is a linguist. He’s most famous in linguistics for advancing the idea that language is an inherent human trait, an idea derived from his assertion that all languages share an underlying biologically determined “deep grammar”. You can see traces of this kind of thinking in his insistence that all humanity needs is to be released from coercive governmental institutions, which will free our essential human nature. (see, of course, his debate with Foucault on human nature.)
I’ve always thought this was kind of silly, but I never realised how specific his ideas are, how Eurocentric, how thoroughly they’ve been debunked, and how much certain interests were invested in them. the other day linguistics student Pete was telling me about it, here’s the score:
- Chomsky believes that all languages operate according to the same (biologically determined) principles, and all that changes is the parameters that are applied. He points to certain “universal” rules; for example, that every sentence must have a subject, and that every language must have some structure that allows a sentence to infinitely nest clauses (e.g. “The cat on the mat on the hearth on the foundations of the house on the hill on the…”) read more about this. (link opens a pdf.)
- Student of Australian Indigenous languages Nicholas Evans points out that a lot of these supposedly universal rules do not apply to languages he has studied. He suggests that Chomsky’s thesis derives from Eurocentrism. In other words, there is no “universal grammar”, just a whole bunch of related languages. (preview Evans’ article/download pdf)
- Evans gets a whole bunch of hate mail from people who are really invested in Chomsky’s assertion that there exists such a thing as an inherent human nature that we can make claims about. A lot of them are super-Christian, apparently.
- Chomsky responds late, half-heartedly, and half-assedly; Evans’ work continues to be little known outside the field of linguistics.
- Meanwhile, Chomsky’s work on “universal” linguistics has led to a climate in the academy where a student of any language can be assumed, by extension, to be writing on all languages. It becomes possible to become an authority in linguistics without doing any comparative study of languages, while knowing only English. In the US in particular, this leads to a de-emphasis on the study of previously understudied languages, because what can they tell you that you can’t learn from any language, if there’s a universal grammar? it becomes difficult/impossible to get a higher degree in linguistics without making a contribution to some overarching body of theory. what this means is that basic descriptivist work of understanding less widely spoken languages is neglected, because you can’t just construct a grammar and a lexicon without using them as the basis for making claims about something “larger”. This has serious consequences for the study and preservation of threatened languages.
Chomsky is pretty happy to create a climate in linguistics that actively works against much-needed, quantitatively measurable, traditional linguistic work. Yet when he’s talking politics, he continues to sound off about the depredations of post-modernism and its supposed flight from reality, real issues, real numbers, real facts. The common thread here, I think, is that he doesn’t like difficult things.