The 'Chomskyan Era'
Noam Chomsky
Excerpted from The Architecture of Language, 2000
QUESTION: With the growth of a 'Chomskyan era', linguistics has definitely become a discipline worth breaking heads over. At the same time it has become so esoteric that it has become restricted to people holding a job in linguistics only. How do you think this subject can become accessible to people beyond linguistics? What about its marketability?

CHOMSKY: I don't like this personalization. That is a wrong way to think about things. There is no personalization in rational inquiry, everybody is working on it. But I'll leave the question the way it sounds.

Well, first of all, a lot of linguistics is accessible. You could ask the same question about chemistry. An awful lot of chemistry is just unintelligible unless you have been through a pretty extensive education to know what people are talking about, understand the results, the background, the principles, and so on. But basic ideas can be made accessible to people quite readily. That is what popular science is about. Making the results of a technical inquiry accessible to people, at whatever level they want to understand it, is a very legitimate and socially valuable occupation. So if I am interested in learning something about quantum physics, I don't want to bother with all the details; I just want to understand roughly what is going on. There are people and books and so on that try to make it available at my level of interest. I think the same is true in linguistics.

What about marketability? Jobs are certainly a problem. When you get into any field that gets hard and complicated, there's always a question about where you are going to get a job. That is just as true in mathematics as it is in linguistics. Right now in the United States, there are, on an average, several hundred applicants for every available professional position in mathematics. That is a problem. It is not just a problem for linguistics; in fact it is, in many ways, less of a problem for linguistics.

In any case, it is a general problem. It does have to do with a social problem -- how much science should there be? Right now the answer to that question is given, in my view, extremely irrationally. It is not a big secret that wealth and power are very highly concentrated and the people in whose hands it is concentrated make the decisions. The way they make the decisions is largely by deciding what they want from the point of view of market value. That is an extremely irrational way for social decisions to be made. These decisions, like all decisions, should be popular decisions made on the basis of judgments as to where resources ought to go.

In my opinion, there ought to be a lot more science and everybody ought to be involved in it in some sense just like there ought to be a lot more literature and art. These are the enriching parts of human life; they should be made accessible to people. That means we should devote resources to them. But you don't make money for businesses that way and, since that is how jobs and resources are distributed, you get the results you have. I think that is pretty irrational but that has to do with lack of democracy in society in general.

QUESTION: What is in common between your science of language and your politics is the absence of any role of community and culture. The conscience of the community is what finds expression in justice as well as in language. In the study of language, don't you think better results will be obtained from giving positive values to the differences between languages, to relations of complementarity between two or more languages spoken simultaneously by the same community and by supposing the state of bilingualism to be normal to the species?

CHOMSKY: My political views are my own. Anything that one says about politics, of course, has to do with community and culture. How could it be otherwise? That is true not only of attempts to understand the world, but also to change it. In my own personal case, the point should be particularly obvious, if only because of my interest in and commitment to anarchism -- specifically, those tendencies within it that stressed the significance of community, association and culture.

The science of language is not mine. It is anybody's who is working on it; people don't own a science. So it is not Chomsky's science of language. The search for understanding of how the world works is a cooperative enterprise, and nothing that could be called 'X's science of Y' is even worth looking at. There's a field that is often called 'generative grammar', but it is not mine, or anyone else's.

This branch of the study of language is indeed marked by an absence of any role for community and culture ... There is nothing of any significance known, at least to me, about community and culture that relates to these questions about the nature of a certain biological system. If there is something known, I'll be glad to learn about it but I don't know about it. Therefore, as far as I am aware, there is no relationship.

But that is not to say that questions about community, culture and language are unimportant. They are extremely important but so is everything about human life; it is just that we have little scientific understanding of them. We ought to be very clear and explicit about what we understand, what we have technical knowledge of, and when we are in the same boat as everybody else. We just try to find our way through it as well as we can but without theoretical understanding of any depth. If that is wrong, I am happy to be instructed, but I don't know of any reason to believe that it is wrong.

Everyone working on language, myself included, focuses attention on 'differences between languages'. If we didn't, we would conclude that whatever language we happen to be looking at is innate -- which would certainly solve a lot of questions about the language faculty, language acquisition, etc. The first modern work on generative grammar happened to be on Hebrew. The first generative grammar published was on Hidatsa. So it continues. It is not a matter of 'better results' or 'worse results', any more than one could answer the question whether we get 'better results' or 'worse results' by studying just hydrogen or the differences between hydrogen and helium, or just fruit flies and not the difference between fruit flies and apes. At any moment, one concentrates on questions that look promising.

As to the positive value of differences between languages and bilingualism and so on, I really don't have any considered opinion on this. Obviously, you're a richer person if you have more diverse kinds of experience; that is certainly true. So exposure to various cultures and immersion in various cultures, languages and so on adds a certain richness to life and, yes, richness to life has a positive value; but I don't know what more there is to say about this.

Bilingualism is normal to the species in the trivial sense that the world is so complex that strict monolingualism is almost unimaginable. Even in the smallest, hunter-gatherer society with fifteen people in the tribe, there's going to be diversity. People aren't clones and as long as there is some diversity, you're going to have some small variety of multilingualism. It may be so small that you won't call it 'multilingualism' but there will be some variety. In that sense it is natural to the species but I don't see anything deep about that.

It is also well to bear in mind that 'multilingualism' is a vague intuitive notion; every person is multiply multilingual in a more technical sense. To say that people speak different languages is a bit like saying they live in different places or look different, notions that are perfectly useful for ordinary life, but are highly interest-relative. We say that a person speaks several languages, rather than several varieties of one, if the differences matter for some purpose or interest.

QUESTION: It is said that homo sapiens has the advantage of the faculty of language. Is it possible that actually the animals are better off than us because their system of communication is very sophisticated (saying more with less)?

CHOMSKY: I don't see any serious way to pose the question of who is 'better off' -- ants, birds, humans, whatever. There are no standards of comparison. Keeping just to communication systems, one finds all sorts in the organic world, including humans (gesture systems, etc.). Human language is used for communication too, as is virtually everything that people do, but here too, comparisons seem useless. Some animal communication systems could be regarded as in some (not very meaningful) sense even 'richer' than natural language -- continuous, as contrasted with the discrete infinity of human language, an unusual property of organisms. During the lively eighteenth-century debates on whether apes have language, one proposal was that they do, but are smart enough to realize that if they manifested this capacity, humans would put them to work as slaves; so they prefer to keep quiet when people are around. I always liked that one.

QUESTION: You said that it is in the overall architectural design of the human brain that the language acquisition device has a particular place with some kind of an interface but this interface is lacking in the case of primates. Do you mean to say that even animals have a language device but since they don't possess an appropriate interface capability they are not able to use a language?

CHOMSKY: I did say that but as a kind of joke. I said it is a possibility (it is a theoretical possibility); there is nothing we know about the natural world that tells us that it is false that apes actually have a language faculty but have no access to it. That is possible but there is no reason to believe it. So, yes, there is a possibility and, maybe, some day we will discover it to be true but nobody expects it; it is more likely that they don't have a language faculty. Either way it is kind of hard to explain. There is no known explanation for most of the complex properties of organisms. People talk about Darwinian evolution and that sort of thing, but that doesn't really give you the answers beyond simple questions. Not just in the case of things like language. Take biological organisms like viruses -- very simple organisms. They have certain structural properties like polyhedral shells. To attribute that to 'natural selection' would be missing the point.

Or, take the mathematical series called the 'Fibonacci series'. It shows up all over the place in nature; nobody knows exactly why. If you take a sunflower and you look at the flower, it has spirals that go in different directions. The number of parts that appear in adjacent spirals are related to one another as successive terms in the Fibonacci series. You find that kind of thing all over nature; it is not well understood why. There is something about the physical world that forces certain kinds of structures to emerge under particular conditions. If you can't explain what a sunflower looks like, you are not likely to be able to explain what natural language looks like; it is way more complicated. So, the fact that we do not know how to give serious evolutionary explanation of this is not surprising; that is not often possible beyond simple cases.

QUESTION: Would you please elaborate your views upon the statement that language is innate but it also has an overlaid function both at the articulatory and the representational levels?

CHOMSKY: Well, the issue of innateness of language is a curious one. There is a huge literature arguing against the innateness of language; there's nothing defending the thesis. So the debate is kind of funny in that it is one-sided. Lots of people reject the proposal that language is innate but nobody ever answers them. The reason why nobody answers is that the arguments make no sense. There's no way to answer them.

To say that language is not innate is to say that there is no difference between my granddaughter, a rock and a rabbit. In other words, if you take a rock, a rabbit and my granddaughter and put them in a community where people are talking English, they'll all learn English. If people believe that, then they believe that language is not innate.

If they believe that there is a difference between my granddaughter, a rabbit and a rock, then they believe that language is innate. So people who are proposing that there is something debatable about the assumption that language is innate are just confused. So deeply confused that there is no way of answering their arguments. There is no doubt that language is an innate faculty.

To say 'language is innate' is to express the belief that some crucial and relevant internal nature differentiates my granddaughter from rocks, bees, cats and chimpanzees. We want to find out what this internal nature is. On current understanding, it is an expression of genes, which somehow yields a language faculty (and, for example, a well-placed bone of the inner ear -- in this case for mice as well). How is unknown, but that is true for vastly simpler questions as well. The informal statement that language is innate to humans means something like this. Similarly, we say that arms are innate to humans and wings to birds.

Now a question that could be asked is whether whatever is innate about language is specific to the language faculty or whether it is just some combination of the other aspects of the mind. That is an empirical question and there is no reason to be dogmatic about it; you look and you see. What we seem to find is that it is specific. There are properties of the language faculty, which are not found elsewhere, not only in the human mind, but in other biological organisms as far as we know.

For example, the most elementary property of the language faculty is the property of discrete infinity; you have six-word sentences, seven-word sentences but you don't have six-and-a-half-word sentences. Furthermore, there is no limit; you can have ten-word sentences, twenty-word sentences and so on indefinitely. That is the property of discrete infinity. This property is virtually unknown in the biological world. There are plenty of continuous systems, plenty of finite systems but try to find a system of discrete infinity! The only other one that anybody knows is the arithmetical capacity, which could well be some offshoot of the language faculty. The more you go on the more it seems true.

When you get to questions of the kind we've been discussing here, there seems to be no analogue elsewhere in the biological world down to the level of, maybe, DNA or some level where you are talking about biochemistry really. So it looks as though language is not only innate but highly specific in rather crucial respects. I take it that that is what is meant by the question of 'overlay'. It is an overlay to other things, it is something inserted into a system that has other properties. That is where empirical inquiry leads you. If somebody can think of some other explanation of the facts, it'll be interesting to hear it. But there's no other proposal, so there's nothing to discuss.

The problem is to discover to what extent properties of language and its use are specific to this system. Thus, we may ask whether the tongue and teeth are specifically adapted for language use in some way, or did they evolve independently of language. Opinions vary, though on some matters