So I flitted from one to the next, patrol this building and visit one, then moving on to the next, spending a little time with each before returning them to their isolation. I still recall walking down a dim and lengthy hallway and hearing a clipped, minute voice echoing down it, reduced by boombox speakers to a buzzing, inhuman tone. When I arrived, my compatriot made to pause the recording, but I held up a hand and asked "what's this?"
"Noam Chomsky," she replied, "the world's most famous intellectual".
Now there were several things which struck me as odd about this: firstly, that she was listening to a CD of him instead of reading his works, as was the normal collegiate method; secondly, the phrase 'famous intellectual' seemed to me to be a contradiction in terms. To be an intellectual means being highly regarded by your peers, to be judged by a small group of discerning, well-informed people to have accurate and defensible views. Thus, to some degree, it means being inaccessible, being an expert, a specialist capable of impressing those who already know a great deal.
|Would you walk right past a Stradivarius?|
So, how does one become a 'famous intellectual'? Well, Freud set up a fairly effective blueprint: first you must make a great deal of remarkable and unusual claims--ones which will give pause even to the layman--then you take the notoriety granted by the fervor you have caused and make it a podium from which to speak about politics and the human condition. And indeed, as I listened to the disc, Chomsky said nothing about linguistics--his special area of expertise--but rather the Bush administration, American colonialism, the Free Market, and all of those touchpoints which form the central contention in political soundbites. Yet all the soundbites he was presenting were terribly old: the talking points of last year, of two years ago. "Oh, is this an old lecture of his?" I asked. It wasn't.
Well, he's noted for being a linguist, anyways, I thought to myself, hardly surprised that the political rantings of an old academic might be a bit out-of-touch--having seen a few of my professors get hopelessly off-topic. Not long afterwards, I found myself in a linguistics class--once more face-to-face with Chomsky's influence.
It was a terrible class, with a terrible professor, though she had a great deal of clout and seemed respected in her field. Perhaps she was just one of those who does their best work outside the classroom? Yet, again and again, the class would come to a standstill. She would be speaking at length on some point or another and you would hear everyone in the room getting antsy, murmuring, turning to their neighbors, confused, until finally, someone would raise their hand and ask a pointed question about some odd contradiction in what she had just said. She would always stand blankly for a moment, the gears working--and then, without fail, she would repeat whatever she had previously said and ask 'does that clear things up?'
I still recall a specific instance where we had just read about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that the specific words we use affect the way that our brains process information. Our professor told us that this theory was completely and entirely wrong, and when a student asked why, she irately responded 'It just is!' The rejection of this idea goes back to Chomsky, and our teacher, like many hardline Chomskyites, felt no need to defend his conclusions.
Back in the fifties, Chomsky laid out a number of theories, but the most influential and transformative for the field of linguistics was 'Universal Grammar', the idea that the structure of language is pre-programmed into the brain before birth, and that all languages the world over follow the same rules which evolve from those biological presets. Now, I am not a linguist, so I cannot tell you whether his theory is true or not, but I can tell you that it is not the most simple theory and so, according to Occam's Razor, it cannot be considered the leading theory, independent of how popular it may be.
Occam's Razor states that if we have two competing theories and we cannot disprove either one, then we should consider the more straightforward theory to be the correct one. One illustration of this is conspiracy theories. My uncle is a paranoid schizophrenic, and believes that aliens move things around in his room at night. I have a competing theory: he sometimes misplaces things and doesn't realize it. His theory requires that highly advanced, complex creatures with scanty evidence for their existence have crossed the vast reaches of space in order to personally inconvenience a random unemployed dude. Since his theory is more complex than mine, it is more unlikely to be true, therefore we should assume that mine is correct unless we have some strong evidence.
|Grandma knew how to have fun|
Now, I'm not saying Chomsky is wrong, but just assuming that he is correct is destructive to the field of linguistics. Along with Universal Grammar, Chomsky developed the idea of the phrase structure rules, which lay out a system for how all language works and how all phrases operate in language. However, this structure is all based upon related European languages, and was never thoroughly-tested with fieldwork or observations of how other, non-Western languages work. Yet, for half a century, this has been the method by which linguists study all languages, which is a problem.
To see why, let's look at the progression of phonetics in linguistics through history. In English, we have twenty-six letters that we use to represent the sounds of language. There are, of course, other alphabets--like Cyrillic, Arabic, or Japanese Kanji--which represent sounds in different ways. During the colonial period, Western scholars were studying and translating many foreign languages, and there was much debate over how to represent them.
But let's imagine for a moment that instead, phonetics had taken a Chomskyan route: a fellow comes forward and declares that, due to the preset structure of the mouth, it can only produce certain sounds, and that these sounds are common to all languages. He then presents a method of representing all languages using the roman alphabet. Students take this method and go out into the field, writing down foreign words phonetically and sending them back for scholars to study. Since all these words are written in roman characters, the scholars then declare that the theory is right: clearly, all foreign languages are made up of the same sounds as English.
Of course, we can quickly see the error here: the roman alphabet is not capable of representing non-Western sounds. It cannot distinguish the tonal differences of Chinese, or the Indian 'd', which is made by touching the tongue to the center of the roof of the mouth, or the clicks of some South African languages. Therefore, any representation of foreign languages in this alphabet will be approximations, unable to demonstrate the unique sounds present in them, or the key differences between these languages.
This is the same problem with Chomsky's phrase structure: it makes many assumptions about how phrases work, how they are related, and about how meaning is produced in language, and these assumptions are based upon the scholarly study of Western languages. Any fieldwork we get back which presents a foreign language in terms of sentence trees will only be able to depict the ways in which that language is similar to Western tongues, and will have no way to represent fundamental differences.
This is especially problematic in a field like linguistics because the most unique and unusual languages are dying out every day--the few languages which have not yet been altered by Western influence are constantly under threat from missionaries, relocation, loss of habitat, and biased researchers. Imagine for a moment that all of our knowledge of Chinese was recorded in the Wade-Giles romanization method and then Chinese died out, so that the only knowledge we had of the language was what we had written about it. Clearly, we would not be able to determine from this record the ways in which pronunciation and tone fundamentally differed, and once a language is gone, there is no going back.
That is why it is vital to ensure that our methods of data collection contain minimal bias. If our methods would tend to confirm one hypothesis, or to miss important data, then they need to be restructured. We cannot look at Chinese through roman letters, nor can we expect all languages to conform to the structure of English phraseology. Indeed, there are field researchers like Dan Everett who are saying that this bias is already firmly entrenched across the whole of modern linguistic study, and that a cult of personality has sprung up around Chomsky which is not merely resistant to change, but is invested in a system which is incapable of measuring the relevant data. Indeed, if you read that article, you will find it contains many direct quotes from Chomsky and his followers about their unwillingness to look at any data that do not confirm their preconceptions--and that the majority of heads of linguistic departments are Chomskyites.
And this is not merely a case of old ideas which were good when they were developed, but which are now starting to show their age, because if we look back at Chomsky's methodology, we will discover that it has been deeply flawed and unscientific from the start. Peter Norvig, director of research at Google, has put together a devastating analysis of the fundamental flaws in Chomsky's work, showing how from in his earliest writings to his most recent statements, Chomsky demonstrates a remarkable ignorance of the scientific process.
In his post, Norvig demonstrates how Chomsky places theory above data, ignoring the fact that a theory which is unable to account for the data is worthless. Chomsky was never a field researcher, he never had to deal with actual languages as they were used. Instead, he spent his time in academia, developing his theories based on second-hand accounts and assumptions. He made many grand statements and then developed a system which can only confirm them--but that's what 'famous intellectuals' tend to do.
But the real disappointment about these 'famous thinkers' is the effect that they had on their field. By taking a leap and proposing some strange theories, they got a lot of people interested, they brought vitality to their areas of study--but then, all of that extra energy went into trying to prove ideas that were fundamentally flawed. They jump-started their field, set it ahead ten years, but then ensured that it would stagnate in a morass of weak ideas and bad methodology for the next half century, maintained stalwartly by the next generation of theorists who don't want to think that perhaps they have based their entire careers on error. Indeed, many of Freud's ideas are still hanging around, more than a century later, despite the fact that they've been discredited--though they aren't hanging around in psychotherapy circles, but as a series of popular misconceptions.
I only hope that, by the time linguists develop a less biased method of data collection and linguistic analysis, it won't be too late, because while Freud's missteps meant that he mistreated some mentally unwell people, Chomsky's might mean that we lose out on hundreds of languages that are quickly dying, and once they are gone, the field of linguistics will be that much more bare. The more diverse and accurately-recorded data a field has to draw upon, the stronger that field and its theories will be, and yet there are few fields more ephemeral, more easily damaged than linguistics. All you have to do is wait and do nothing--it's shrinking every day.