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Noam Chomsky
Posted: 17 April 2007 05:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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ElizaD - 16 April 2007 10:28 PM

Nobody has answered faldage’s subsequent question:  what are the characteristics of this grammar?  (Or are they too complicated or befuddled to list?) .

I am not qualified to understand the complexities of these things either, but the article on the Piraha (which started this debate) might be helpful at this point.

New Yorker p. 120 -

Everett’s most explosive claim, however, was that Piraha displays no evidence of recursion, a linguistic operation that consists of inserting one phrase inside another of the same type, as when a speaker combines discrete thoughts ... into a single sentence ("The man with a top hat is walking down the street").  Noam Chomsky, the influential linguistic theorist, has ...[argued]… that recursion is the cornerstone of all languages, and is possible because of a unique human cognitive ability.

That latter point seems to be one example of the notion of “universal grammar”: that the structures of human language (like recursion) are somehow imprinted on the human brain.  Everett (the missionary who became a linguist and who was once a student and devotee of Chomsky’s) has shown that the Piraha is not only a “‘severe counter-example’ to the theory of universal grammar but also that it is not an isolated case.” (New Yorker page 121)

FWIW

edit typos, verb/subject disagreement.  Evidently, I am also an example that disproves Chomsky’s “rules” of universal grammar.

[ Edited: 17 April 2007 05:33 AM by Oecolampadius ]
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Posted: 17 April 2007 05:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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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 have no doubt that this is true, but it is irrelevant to the question of whether or not Chomsky is “consulted” on political questions. The count of citations is a reference to his linguistic work, not his political writings. On political questions, he is widely considered to be a crank and only a small slice of the political spectrum takes his views seriously. I’ve actually read more of Chomsky’s political writings than his linguistic ones and my opinion is that he carefully chooses the facts that fit his political bias, ignoring facts that contradict his views; ignores alternative interpretations of the facts that do not fit his bias; allows major logical flaws in his arguments; and often gets the facts that he does use wrong.

He is somewhat useful in challenging the conventional wisdom, is occasionally insightful, and causes one to review and strengthen one’s own arguments. But Chomsky’s overall political theory is crap.

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Posted: 17 April 2007 06:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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Dave Wilton - 17 April 2007 05:58 AM

He is somewhat useful in challenging the conventional wisdom, is occasionally insightful, and causes one to review and strengthen one’s own arguments. But Chomsky’s overall political theory is crap.

I am not qualified to discuss the merits of Chomsky’s linguistic work.  I have discussed this in the past with working linguists, and opinions vary.  Regardless, it is worth noting the fine old principle that even an undisputed expert holds no special standing outside his area of expertise.

A current example is Richard Dawkins.  I have enjoyed his popular books on evolutionary biology, but find his discussions of religion tendentious and uninteresting.  Victor Davis Hanson’s work on ancient Greek warfare is brilliant.  His commentaries on modern warfare and politics are rather less so.  And so on.

Discussions of Chomsky inevitably conflate his linguistic work with his political commentaries.  I agree with Dave’s assessment of the latter.  This is irrelevant to the former.

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Posted: 17 April 2007 07:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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I agree, as usual, with Richard and Dave (though I have somewhat more sympathy with Chomsky’s politics).

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Posted: 17 April 2007 10:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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I imagine the more I explain the more I will be told that I am wrong. Syntactic Structures is his best known work. I’ve not read it, but I would begin there. Again, I am more familiar with his non-linguistic work. What little I have read of his work associated with linguistics was a series of speeches delivered at Pisa collected into an opuscule. I have since lent the book to a friend and do not expect to see it again. What I remember of it is that he remarks how children are able to create infinite sentences--regardless if they have before been said--and he also calls attention to the types of errors children do not make when speaking.

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Posted: 17 April 2007 01:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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Thews: Thanks for explaining that you’re not familiar with his linguistic work; it makes me feel much more kindly towards you.  I had taken you for a rabid linguistic acolyte (of the sort by whom I felt oppressed in grad school); I understand now that you were simply presenting the generally accepted picture of his place in the scheme of things.  Sorry I got hot under the collar; as you’ve probably figured out, it’s a topic on which I have strong opinions!

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Posted: 17 April 2007 05:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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though I have somewhat more sympathy with Chomsky’s politics

I too share sympathy for the liberal side of the political spectrum, but that does not mean that I necessarily think that Chomsky makes good arguments. You can have sympathy with a general proposition and still fault the logic. (Actually, I tend to get angrier at liberals who make asses of themselves than I do conservatives who make asses of themselves. Probably because I think they’re hurting the cause with their bad arguments.)

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Posted: 17 April 2007 09:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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This is like drawing teeth.

I respect everyone’s opinions and the fact that everyone has equal rights to express them.  However, I really am not in the slightest interested in Chomsky’s political views, nor in whether his linguistic theories are valid.  My opening post asks precisely what these linguistic theories are.  So far I’ve learned:

That he speaks of a universal grammar;
That that involves recursion;
That children are able to create infinite sentences.

Is that it?

Again, thank you all for reading this and I hope to read more posts answering my opening question.

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Posted: 17 April 2007 09:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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I sympathize, eliza. I too am pretty much in the dark when it comes to Chomsky’s linguistic theories, other than the fact that he hypothesizes that we are all born with the rules of grammar somehow hardwired into our brain (a far cry from Locke’s tabula rasa, or blank slate). Efforts to instruct myself further have shown that one doesn’t have to go very far before one is knee-deep in the hieroglyphics of higher linguistics and I’ve always waded quickly back to the shore for fear that the treacherous deep should suck me under. I’m not sure it’s even possible to explain much of this stuff in layman’s terms but if it is then I’m sure language hat is the man for the job!

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Posted: 18 April 2007 05:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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Eliza: Wikipedia has a pretty good summary.  Take a look at it and ask about whatever you have trouble with.  It’s hard to summarize a complex set of theories in a Wordorigins comment.

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Posted: 18 April 2007 10:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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languagehat - 18 April 2007 05:36 AM

Eliza: Wikipedia has a pretty good summary.  Take a look at it and ask about whatever you have trouble with.  It’s hard to summarize a complex set of theories in a Wordorigins comment.

Part of the problem is that Chomsky’s linguistics work is largely unreadable to the layperson.  For a secondhand version there is Steven Pinker.  I gather that Pinker is a somewhat modified Chomskyite, but I can’t say where they differ.  The trouble I have with Pinker is that he is a good and persuasive writer, but he does not make clear when he is describing consensus opinion and when he is putting forth an argument against consensus opinion.  So reading Pinker alone will give a skewed view of the state of modern linguistics.

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Posted: 18 April 2007 11:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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The previous comment has been rescinded.

I am sending apologies on a broadcast signal.

[ Edited: 20 April 2007 12:38 PM by Thews McHeftigan ]
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Posted: 18 April 2007 11:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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Please see Rule #2. No ad hominem arguments. If you don’t want to engage with someone, don’t engage. But leave the personal comments out of the discussion.

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Posted: 18 April 2007 01:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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All I know about Noam Chomsky’s contribution to linguistics I learned in 1969 when enrolled in an “Introduction to Linguistics” class, to wit:  Chomsky about 1957 introduced the concept of “transformational grammar,” by which the “deep” syntax of language is clarified by the use of “transformations.”
Example:  In the old days, we used to parse English sentences by diagramming.  This can be a pretty useful tool for many practical purposes, but it is more than a little disconcerting to note that the sentence, “John is easy to please” would diagram the same way as “John is eager to please.” But how can this be?  In one sentence, John is the one who is pleased; in the other, John is the agent who does the pleasing.  How can both be accounted for by the same diagram?  It’s clear that in the latter sentence we have a genuine predicate adjective, i.e., John actually is eager.  But in the former sentence, we can’t say it really means “John is easy.”
Chomsky would say, I take it, that in its true underlying structure, the sentence “John is easy to please” is really something like “John to please is easy.” In other words, “[It] is easy to please John.” Chomsky suggests that we can start with some such sentence — which, you see, would be the straight English version of the “universal” grammar that’s hard-wired into all of us — and then apply specific transformation rules which would change the order of words so that the visible structure of the sentence derives in an explainable way from its underlying “real” (or, I am tempted to say, “secret") structure. 
If this all seems a bit Platonic, I think maybe it is.  If it seems a bit clunky in actual application, that may also be true.  The great beauty of it was supposed to be that, with the coming of computers, we would be able to define very precise sets of lexical items arranged by much finer distinctions than the seven traditional “parts of speech” and then, with an ordered set of precise rules, we would be able to get computers to “generate” real human language and to translate one language to another by reference to the underlying “universal” grammar.  It is true that there are now machine translations available, and they may be programmed by Chomskian principles (I don’t really know); but I am not aware that any of them could really beat down, say, Gerard of Cremona in a John Henry-style man-vs.-machine competition.
As far as I know, that’s what Chomsky did for linguistics — and the brilliance of the kernel concept is beyond doubt, regardless what Chomsky’s later, additional brilliance may or may not have been — but I suppose I have oversimplified it.

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Posted: 18 April 2007 02:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]
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No, you haven’t. You’ve explained it to me, and I’m very grateful.  Thank you.

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