Reflections on Language

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2120

Reflections on Language is a reworking of two formulations of Noam Chomsky’s current research in linguistics, the first and larger part being an elaboration of the 1975 Whidden Lectures delivered at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and the second part being a revision of an essay printed elsewhere on the...

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Reflections on Language is a reworking of two formulations of Noam Chomsky’s current research in linguistics, the first and larger part being an elaboration of the 1975 Whidden Lectures delivered at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and the second part being a revision of an essay printed elsewhere on the same general questions. Both parts show the broad outline and some details of what might be called the MIT school of linguistics, in the form their theories have taken from about 1973 to the present.

The book is presented as a nontechnical outline of Chomsky’s views, but if the reader understands “nontechnical” to mean something like Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape or Julius Fast’s Body Lanuage, he will be baffled by Reflections on Language. The book demands at least an acquaintance with the work of philosophers and linguists over the last generation; it does not compromise on that demand. Chomsky’s style is severe to the point of being forbidding; he presumes the reader’s familiarity with many technical terms that the nonspecialist is unlikely to know, and his use of stipulated abbreviations cumulates through the second part until some paragraphs read like parodies of the very worst of academic styles. The conscientious reader who wishes to supplement what the book presents by reading the referenced works will frequently be stymied: roughly a quarter of the cited studies, including several crucial to Chomsky’s arguments, will be unavailable in even the most magnificently appointed university libraries. These include references to many works forthcoming at the time of the book’s publication, to more than a dozen MIT dissertations, and to a score of unpublished papers, obtainable only by writing to the author. But the reader may take some small comfort from the fact that even fulltime linguists share the difficulty of finding out exactly what is being done at Cambridge, Massachusetts.

But if Reflections on Language is not a popular book in the publisher’s meaning of the word, it is nonetheless an important one. It presents both linguistic and philosophic arguments, the linguistic ones dealing with a major change in Chomsky’s theory of language, and the more general philosophic ones discussing the importance of transformational-generative theories in solving problems of human knowledge.

The specialized linguistic arguments deal with what information is available to the hearer of a sentence (in an idealized situation) when that sentence is understood. In works published in 1955 and 1965, Chomsky outlined and elaborated a theory that postulated a three-part division of human language faculties. For convenience we may call these three the syntactic component, the semantic component, and the phonological component. It should be mentioned at the outset that all three are abstractions, parts of a theoretical formulation intended to account for human linguistic ability. Whether these components correspond to brain structure or activities of any kind is another question, a question to which neurophysiology can at present give no answers. In any case, the production of a sentence (so the early theory goes) begins in the syntactic component, which is itself divided into parts. One part is a set of rules that produces a kind of labeled parsing, or phrase-structure. These rules, which are said to generate a phrase-structure, are of the form S NP PP; the example here may be read as “a sentence is composed of a noun phrase (the subject) and a predicate phrase (the complete predicate of traditional grammar).” The phrase-structure rules incorporate, generally, the analysis of sentences of a traditional formal grammar. A second part of the syntactic component is the lexicon, a dictionary-like compilation that supplies lexical material to be attached to the phrase-structure at appropriate places. With many simplifications, an output of the syntactic component can be represented, for example, as (1):(1) [S [NP John ] [ PP [AUX past ] [VP [ V see ] [NP Sam ]]]]

The labeled bracketings provide information about the category and relationship of each item supplied by the lexicon: thus S labels the whole structure as a sentence; PP stands for “predicate phrase,” as explained above; AUX, or “auxiliary,” in this case contains only the marker for past tense, but for another sentence might contain auxiliary verbs or markers of aspect; VP, or “verb phrase,” groups the verb (V) see with any modifiers it may have; NP identifies John and Sam as noun phrases. The functions of the two noun phrases as subject and direct object are defined by their positions in the bracketing.

A third part of the syntactic component, the transformational rules, changes the phrase-structures in specified ways. In general, transformations add, delete, or rearrange material in the phrase-structure. Suppose the passive transformation is applied to example (1); the result is phrase-structure (2):(2) [S [NP Sam ] [pp [AUX Past be participle ] [VP [V see ] [NP by John ]]]]

In the standard transformational theory we are talking about, the two phrase-markers (1) and (2) are then operated on by the other two components: phrase-marker (1) plus a record of the transformations it undergoes (in this case, the passive) is interpreted by the semantic component. The semantic component identifies the parts of the structure that are to be associated with concepts such as agent, the performer of an action, patient, receiver of an action, and so on, and gives a reading of the meaning of the sentence. Phrase-marker (2) is acted on by the phonological component, a set of rules that will determine the pronunciation of the words, place stress where appropriate, and so on. The phonological component will determine how the sentence is spoken.

Phrase-structure (1) is what has often been termed the deep structure of the sentence, and (2) the surface structure. The general thrust of the early versions of the theory was that the deep structure provided semantic information and the surface structure phonological information. In the late 1960’s this theory came under attack by some linguists who, to their break with standard transformational theory, called their theory “generative semantics.” Aiming at simplifying the model, they argued that the syntactic component was superfluous, that transformations mapped structures of the semantic component directly into the structures of the phonological component. While the controversy is unlikely to increase the pulse rate of the man in the street, it is an important question, with consequences for the theory as a whole.

Chomsky’s present position, set forth in Reflections on Language, agrees with the main changes advocated in these attacks: namely, that all information needed for the semantic interpretation of sentences is present in the surface structure. His contribution to the present version of the theory is the addition of what he calls a trace. Note that apart from inserting be and a past participle marker, the main function of the passive transformation was to move the two noun phrases (the phrase-structures are repeated here without bracketing):

(1) John past see Sam

(2) Sam past be participle see by John

The passive transformation moved Sam, the direct object of what would without the transformation become “John saw Sam,” to the position of subject in (2), which will eventually become “Sam was seen by John.” It likewise moves John from its position as subject of (1) to the new position of subject in (2), which will eventually become “Sam was seen by John.” It likewise moves John from its position as subject of (1) to the new position in the by-phrase of (2). It would be a great simplification of the theory if all transformations could be characterized as instructions to move a noun phrase, and Chomsky aims at that goal. But when a noun phrase is moved in the Reflections model, it leaves in the surface structure produced a “trace” of its former position. We may think of the trace as an abstract element in the phrase-structure that marks the former position of the noun phrase. The semantic component will contain rules of interpretation that use these traces to discover the transformations the structure has undergone; important information about the meaning of the sentence is thereby brought forward into the surface structure. With the trace theory, Chomsky sees no difference between his position and that of the generative semanticists, the authors of the original criticisms of the standard theory. Whether this change, the notion of traces, is a significant one, or simply a different way of saying what Chomsky maintained in 1965, is a matter for debate. It might well be argued that the traces are simply covert ways of bringing deep structure information into surface structures, and therefore no real change from his earlier position, but that contention is a subject for the professional journals.

Less controversial but more interesting to the general reader is the second main contention of Reflections on Language, the implications of the theory of transformational grammar for the idea of the mind, and problems of how humans come to learn and know things.

A central part of all of Chomsky’s work has been the insistence that a human is not born as a tabula rasa, acquiring all knowledge and abilities in the framework of a behaviorist system of stimuli and responses. It is important to remember that the behaviorist approach was virtually unchallenged in linguistics, psychology, anthropology, and even philosophy before Chomsky began his work in the 1950’s. Now the situation is almost completely reversed. The doctrine of innate ideas holds the field, and Skinnerian behaviorism finds fewer and fewer defenders with each passing year. For example, in 1960 the philosopher W. V. O. Quine accounted for language learning totally in terms of a behaviorist theory of stimulus and response; now, although he disagrees with large parts of Chomsky’s thinking, Quine accepts the notion of innate linguistic structures. Chomsky believes (and argues persuasively) that the human being is born equipped with a kind of universal grammar. The word grammar is used here in a special sense: it means a device that allows the infant to devise grammars of particular languages from the speech data that he is confronted with, and to evaluate the particular grammars produced in terms of a general restriction on what is possible and impossible in human languages. The attribution of this innate ability was a change in scientific thought of brilliant originality, of the highest importance in fields as diverse as biology and philosophy.

Chomsky in Reflections on Language considers the implications of innateness in fields other than language. He argues that language learning is not part of a general learning capacity (he doubts that any such general capacity exists) but rather a special genetically transmitted ability to interpret experience in particular ways. If we have a rich and complex inborn system for processing linguistic data, may we not have other equally sophisticated innate systems for processing the other data of experience? That we do have such systems is supported by the complex and otherwise inexplicable abilities we have in other fields, say, the ability to categorize objects in a common-sense way. Chomsky’s example is the simplest he can find, the ability to determine whether or not something counts as a “physical object.” To be considered a physical object, apparently, some part of experience must have continuity in space and time. The Colosseum is a “thing,” but the Colosseum together with the stones that used to be a part of it and are now in some other Roman building, are not a thing. Second, to count as a physical object, we apply the notion of wholeness or function; thus, although it has continuity in space and time, the north half of the Colosseum is not a “thing.” Finally, considerations of human intent come into play: a collection of objects can count as a thing if we are aware of a purposeful construction: Chomsky’s examples here are, on the one hand, a picket fence or a Calder mobile, which count as “physical objects,” but not, on the other hand, the leaves on a tree, although they may be more intrinsically connected than the parts of the first two examples.

As Chomsky puts it, “A study of human judgments concerning essential and accidental properties may give considerable insight into the cognitive structures that are being employed, and perhaps beyond, into the nature of human cognitive capacity and the range of structures that are naturally constructed by the mind.” Questions as far-reaching as these could not even be raised under behaviorist strictures that limited the kinds of theories that could be formulated.

It is clear why Chomsky considers linguistics a branch of human psychology. Linguistics since his rise to prominence has resumed its place among those disciplines that deal directly with the powers and activities of the mind. If the behaviorism of the first half of this century comes to be seen as a curious aberration in the history of human thought, it will be primarily because of the work of Noam Chomsky.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 25

Books and Bookmen. XXI, June, 1976, p. 55.

Christian Century. XCIII, May 12, 1976, p. 466.

Economist. CCLVIII, March 27, 1976, p. 116.

Harvard Educational Review. XLVI, November, 1976, p. 645.

Spectator. CCXXXVI, March 6, 1976, p. 25.

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