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Noam Chomsky
Posted: 15 April 2007 07:57 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Before you all shout at me, I hold both hands up and say I’m being both lazy and ignorant.

Now, because I know you’re all so learned and knowledgeable about things linguistic here, it’s a good place to ask if someone would please tell me, simply and briefly, exactly what Chomsky has contributed to linguistics, what he’s famous for, and anything else I ought to know but am too lazy to read up.  Why has he dominated linguistics so much?  This and anything else you’d like to contribute, would be much appreciated by a dear but slightly puzzled little old lady somewhere in England.

If, on the other hand, your urge is to say, “Look it up in a dictionary/encyclopaedia/somewhere on the net”, then thank you for reading my post, and I wish you well.  Or not, as the case may be.  Much depends on whether you’ve been nice to me in the past ...

[ Edited: 15 April 2007 10:25 AM by ElizaD ]
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Posted: 15 April 2007 08:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Thews McHeftigan reporting in!

Dr. Noam Chomsky is the doyen of American scholarship. He is perhaps the most consulted man in America concerning matters related to world events and current affairs. Moreover, he is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at MIT in Cambridge, MA. One of his major contributions to linguistics is what he terms universal grammar, which is the idea that there exists a grammar innate to all human beings that transcends any branch or family of languages.

[ Edited: 15 April 2007 08:40 AM by Thews McHeftigan ]
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Posted: 15 April 2007 08:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Thews McHeftigan - 15 April 2007 08:23 AM

… the idea that there exists a grammar innate to all human beings that transcends any branch or family languages.

Let me be the one to beg ignorance and ask the next question.  I have heard of the universal grammar but what are the characteristics of this alleged grammar?

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Posted: 15 April 2007 08:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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That, as they say, is beyond the scope of this text.

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Posted: 15 April 2007 09:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Let me be the one to beg ignorance and ask the next question.  I have heard of the universal grammar but what are the characteristics of this alleged grammar?

Nothing of that earth-shifting, world-changing, mind-altering, and precept-challenging magnitude—with the power to shape all future human events—could possibly be distilled into a parsimony of feeble words. You may as well try to describe all of life, death, happiness, and misery in words like ... well ... life, death, happiness, and misery. It can’t be done. Even Noam Chomsky can’t explain his own ideas.

[ Edited: 15 April 2007 09:07 AM by foolscap ]
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Posted: 15 April 2007 12:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Chomsky is a man who can scare the hell out of you, while at the same time, confuse you to the point of wondering if you actually learned anything or not.

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Posted: 15 April 2007 01:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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For hundreds of years you could get into really deep guano in the academic world for disagreeing with Aristotle.  I don’t think it was Aristotle’s fault.

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Posted: 15 April 2007 03:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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It was, in essence.

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Posted: 15 April 2007 04:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Lionello- Yes, success breeds its own form of hell. Chomsky may like nothing better than intelligent debate and refutation of his ideas but the machinery is already in place. I posted the following on the wrong thread. Consider it more an attack on the sub-community of academic humanists who neglect their duty to the people who pay their salaries (that would be all the rest of us) actually to have something worth saying.

Eliza, I can’t really answer your question. Years ago I drew my foot back from that quagmire just in time. However, scanning the Wikipedia article on Chomsky, I see a couple of things that indicate the direction of the answer. He’s more influential in the US than the rest of the planet, which suggests that there are a lot of academicians here deriving their income from grants and university appointments who don’t dare challenge the authority, or in fact have arrived at their current position by slavishly adopting the assumptions and methodology of their superiors. (In other words, if they have a problem with authority figures they don’t talk about it.) And speaking of assumptions, the Wiki article states several times as proof of a universal grammar the astonishing speed with which children learn language and grammar at an early age. This demonstrates a rank ignorance of basic biology (about on a par with my own). The huge majority of the development of the physical brain takes place in the first few years of life, as do other things like muscle cell development. The muscle cells you have at age four are pretty much the ones you have throughout the rest of your life. I don’t exactly know, but I’m pretty sure the brain actually overdevelops and then sheds some cells to adjust during the early pubescent years. Basing an argument for innate grammar on early acquisition is the same as saying, learning takes place in the brain and therefore it is innate. Perhaps, perhaps .. what else could it be? There may well be a universal grammar. There may be a “grammar gene” just like the mythical “math gene”, but there’s a lot more science that has to take place in other fields before any such grammar can be explained.

In any case, 19th century phrenology, circular logic, and “The Emperor Has No Clothes” come to mind.

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Posted: 15 April 2007 08:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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foolscap - 15 April 2007 04:24 PM


In any case, 19th century phrenology, circular logic, and “The Emperor Has No Clothes” come to mind.

With this difference. The little boy has been shouting himself hoarse but the emperor and courtiers pass haughtily on, paying him no mind whatsoever.

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Posted: 16 April 2007 05:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Dr. Noam Chomsky is the doyen of American scholarship. He is perhaps the most consulted man in America concerning matters related to world events and current affairs. Moreover, he is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at MIT in Cambridge, MA. One of his major contributions to linguistics is what he terms universal grammar, which is the idea that there exists a grammar innate to all human beings that transcends any branch or family of languages.

While everything the amusingly monikered Thews McHeftigan says can be defended in literal terms (though “the doyen of American scholarship” may be too over-the-top to be defensible, and “perhaps” is certainly a much-needed qualifier in the second sentence, since I’m pretty sure Henry Kissinger, among others, would dispute the claim), it is important to note that none of it bears on the actual truth value of his “contributions,” which in the opinion of many (including myself, with an M.Phil. in linguistics) is nil.  His “universal grammar” is baloney and his effect on the practice of linguistics, in terms of both squelching opposing views and making fieldwork a rare eccentricity instead of the foundation of linguistic training, has been entirely negative.  Follow the link here for more.

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Posted: 16 April 2007 06:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Yes, “most consulted man in America” is, to put it mildly, rather over the top. Read his writings on the Palestinian question and Israel. If people are consulting him then they’re certainly paying no attention at all to his advice!

[ Edited: 16 April 2007 06:56 AM by aldiboronti ]
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Posted: 16 April 2007 10:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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aldiboronti - 16 April 2007 06:53 AM

Yes, “most consulted man in America” is, to put it mildly, rather over the top. Read his writings on the Palestinian question and Israel. If people are consulting him then they’re certainly paying no attention at all to his advice!

I don’t much care to respond to LanguageHat, but you at least seem a reasonable fellow. A cursory glance at the Wikipedia article on Dr. Chomsky reveals that “[a]ccording to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index in 1992, Chomsky was cited as a source more often than any other living scholar during the 1980–1992 time period, and was the eighth most cited scholar in any time period.”

I would place him as America’s counterpart to the UK’s late Arnold Toynbee.

Furthermore, I only attempted to introduce him to ElizaD, for she was the woman who asked about him. I did not think she cared to involve herself in the ongoing donnybrook between his admirers and his detractors. If she chooses to accept, deny or gainsay his contributions, she will do so independent of anything I have to say.

Good day, sir.

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Posted: 16 April 2007 11:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Ah, consulted by other academics! Now that’s a statement I can accept.

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Posted: 16 April 2007 02:58 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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I don’t much care to respond to LanguageHat, but you at least seem a reasonable fellow

Disagreeing with Uncle Noam is a priori unreasonable?  Interesting, but hardly becoming from someone who offered undiluted reverence as a first lesson for beginners.  I take it you have no actual defense of his impact on linguistic practice.  Anyway, as you say, Eliza is perfectly capable of making up her own mind.

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Posted: 16 April 2007 10:28 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Thank you all.  So far I’ve learned that one of Chomsky’s

major contributions to linguistics is what he terms universal grammar, which is the idea that there exists a grammar innate to all human beings that transcends any branch or family of languages.

(Thews)

1) Nobody has answered faldage’s subsequent question:  what are the characteristics of this grammar?  (Or are they too complicated or befuddled to list?)
2) Did Chomsky contribute anything else to linguistics and if so, what?  (I’m not qualified to comment on the validity of his theories so won’t form any judgements).

If you reply, please try to make it simple enough for a lay person to understand.  Generally, this indicates that you’ve understood the theories, whether or not you agree with them.

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