Noam Chomsky Did It, Now He's Undoing It
Chomsky, linguist, teacher, author and social critic, is sitting in a pose so customary it has been captured in scores of photographs taken since he upended the study of language 40 years ago. He leans slightly back in his chair, one foot propped on the pulled-out bottom drawer of his desk, hands aloft.
His office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology exudes both a Spartan asceticism and a pleasant disorderliness: the primary decor consists of piles of paper on the floor.
Imagine, Chomsky says, that some divine superengineer, in a single efficient stroke, endowed humans with the power of language where formerly they had none.
This idea of a single, brilliantly designed language mechanism is the cornerstone of Chomsky's newest -- and most unconventional -- approach to the discipline he founded in 1957.
Chomsky, who turns 70 on Dec. 7, is the father of modern linguistics and remains the field's most influential practitioner. Although he has revised his theoretical framework over the years, no modification is as dramatic as the present one, called the Minimalist Program, in which he largely breaks with the last four decades of his own work.
The Minimalist Program, said the linguist Morris Halle, Chomsky's longtime colleague at MIT, "is the most radical thing I've ever heard anybody say in linguistics."
Though Chomsky's method has changed, his fundamental mission has remained the same: to construct a symbolic representation of the "language faculty" -- the inborn mental endowment that allows human beings to acquire, use and understand language.
But unlike its predecessors, the Minimalist Program (or Minimalism for short) seeks to do this in the most streamlined way possible, dispensing with concepts that were more or less canonical in Chomsky's earlier work, like "deep structure" and "surface structure."
"All the properties which were explained in terms of deep and surface structure were really mistakenly described," Chomsky said. "And they ought to be explained, and maybe can be explained better, without postulating these systems." Linguists hope his new approach is the start of a major breakthrough.
A slender, sharp-featured man with graying wavy hair and wire-rimmed glasses, Chomsky was dressed casually on this morning in a sweater, running shoes and corduroy trousers. His voice is soft and measured, and he speaks as he writes, in perfectly formed sentences that spin out into page-long, reasoned paragraphs. To be in Chomsky's presence, a colleague once said, is to see "the overwhelming picture of Rational Man standing before you."
The theory of language that Chomsky introduced in 1957, often called the Chomsky revolution, has been equated with Darwin's theory of evolution and Freud's theory of the unconscious in terms of its importance in the history of ideas: it was the first concerted approach to investigating the human mind through a systematic study of how people produce and understand sentences.
For the first half of this century, structural linguistics reigned as the field's dominant methodology. Structuralism viewed language as a purely social phenomenon, like tool making or table manners. Deeper questions of language and mind, including how young children can dope out their native language from the wash of adult talk surrounding them, were never considered.
But Chomsky was deeply troubled by this account. In the mid-1950s he began wrestling with questions he felt the structuralists could not answer: If language was simply learned behavior, what gave people the ability to produce and understand an infinite number of sentences, including those that had never before been uttered? How did children acquire language seemingly spontaneously, without being overtly taught?
Chomsky was by nature a questioner -- and, where he deemed necessary, an exploder -- of received truths. Over the years, this trait became evident in his political work, including his early opposition to the Vietnam War, his outspoken condemnation of U.S. policy in Central America, East Timor and elsewhere, and his castigation of the mainstream news media in general (and The New York Times in particular) for what he describes as complicity with governmental and business interests.
When it came to taking on 50 years of structural linguistics, Chomsky was singularly well suited for the task. Growing up in Philadelphia, he was exposed to language scholarship firsthand through the work of his father, William, an eminent Hebraist. As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Chomsky studied linguistics, mathematics and philosophy, setting the foundation for his novel perspective.
Language, Chomsky came to believe, was rooted not in behavior but in biology -- in an inborn set of principles that speakers unconsciously draw on whenever they produce or understand sentences. The goal of linguistics, he argued, should be to reproduce these principles.
Since one couldn't go mucking around in people's brains, the linguist would attempt to mirror the workings of these inborn principles with a set of abstract, quasi-mathematical rules intended to generate the range of possible sentences in a given language -- in other words, a generative grammar.
Ultimately, he said, the aim of linguistics was to formulate not just the grammars of specific languages but a "universal grammar" as well -- a model of the shared properties that underpin all human language. It is these universal principles, Chomsky argued, that all people are "born knowing" and that allow children to acquire whatever native language they're exposed to.
In the late 1950s, Chomsky ushered in modern linguistics with the publication of the monograph "Syntactic Structures" (1957), which set forth the theory of generative grammar.
But early generative grammar was a rococo device. It posited an unconscious level of linguistic knowledge (the deep structure), which was distinct from what people actually say (the surface structure). It also contained a vast set of grammatical operations, called transformations, used to produce the range of constructions found in actual speech: questions, statements and the like.
But this thicket of rules presented a major obstacle to the development of universal grammar. A true universal grammar, Chomsky argued, must satisfy two conditions. The first requires it to be detailed enough to describe any possible construction in any human language: questions in Navajo, passive sentences in Japanese, relative clauses in Urdu. This is called the condition of "descriptive adequacy."
By contrast, the second condition, known as "explanatory adequacy," required the grammar to be simple enough to reflect the small set of inborn principles that allow humans to acquire and use language.
For years, linguistic research was snagged between these two competing demands.
"The entire development of Chomskyan generative grammar is a history of tension between descriptive and explanatory adequacy," said Howard Lasnik, a professor of linguistics at the University of Connecticut and a frequent collaborator of Chomsky's. "In order to have a descriptively adequate theory of language, you need to have a rich variety of descriptive devices available. But here's the kicker: The more devices available, the harder the child's task in sorting through the maze of possibilities."
This impasse persisted until the early 1980s, when Chomsky partly resolved it with a more streamlined framework called Principles and Parameters.
"People were discovering completely new and unexpected properties of languages," he said. "It was beginning to become possible to find what at some level we know must be true: that they're all cast in the same mold, otherwise you couldn't learn any of them. And though they look extremely different, you began to see how they really were variations on the same theme."
Out of this work, the Minimalist Program emerged in the early 1990s. Minimalism takes as its point of departure an essential fact about language: it is a system of communication connecting sound and meaning. Now comes the unorthodox part: Minimalism speculates that this system has been optimally designed -- that the connection of sound to meaning was forged as simply as possible, as by the divine superengineer of Chomsky's fable.
Any theory of language, therefore, should reflect this simple design. To that end, Minimalism jettisons most of the baggage of early Chomskyan grammar. What remains is a single, multipurpose mechanism used to generate the same rich array of sentences that transformations did.
Ideally, the Minimalist Program will do what earlier models could not: be both simple and complex enough to fulfill the competing demands of a true universal grammar. Some linguists say it holds out at least a tentative promise.
Others, however, find Chomsky's new program difficult to work in, and they continue to use alternative models that have sprung up over the years.
"There have been a whole lot of linguists who have adopted it and seem -- for reasons that are incomprehensible to me -- to find it attractive," said James McCawley, a prominent linguist at the University of Chicago. "There are others, like me, who find it completely unintelligible."
As Chomsky is quick to point out, Minimalism is years away from being a full-fledged theory (hence the term program). "It's difficult, and it's also a shot in the dark," he said. "You don't have any particular reason to believe that it's going to work."
Should it succeed, however, he will be that much closer to realizing
the goal he set for his field 40 years ago. "The subject," Chomsky
said, "is trying to find out how humans really work."