Magazine March 7, 2022, Issue

Chomsky’s Forever War

Noam Chomsky in New York, 2010 (James Leynse/Corbis Historical/Getty Images)

A review of The Linguistics Wars: Chomsky, Lakoff, and the Battle over Deep Structure, second edition, by Randy Allen Harris.

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The Linguistics Wars: Chomsky, Lakoff, and the Battle over Deep Structure, second edition, by Randy Allen Harris (Oxford University Press, 568 pp., $39.95)

Few American linguists were puzzled when they saw the title of Randy Allen Harris’s book about events in their discipline between 1965 and 1975: “The Linguistics Wars.” Aca­demic feuds are famously bitter, but the hostilities that Harris chronicled were unusual even by the standards of the humanities and social sciences.

Studying and interviewing linguists the way an anthropologist might study the culture of a belligerent primitive tribe, Harris produced his insightful but also entertaining book in 1993. Oxford University Press has recently published a revised and expanded edition (2021). Typically, historiography of arcane in­tra­disciplinary wrangling among grammatical theorists would not get that far. The wide appeal of this book is probably due to its central character. Looming over the whole story is the charisma, influence, and personality of a single individual whose work utterly dominates the field: Noam Chomsky.

It is quite difficult to explain in nontechnical terms what triggered the linguistics wars, but let me try. Chomsky in the mid 1960s maintained that the structures of sentences were nowhere near as simple as the sentence diagrams of yesteryear; they were more like se­quences or layers of such diagrams. The most concrete layer, called the surface structure, captured facts about the overt shape of the sentence (word order, inflec­tion, and pronunciation). More abstract layers accounted for things like con­nections between sentences — relations be­tween active and passive clauses, for example. Take this example:

What are you claiming was taken by the thieves?

Chomsky posited an analysis of English in which a maximally abstract structure, for which he used Charles Hockett’s term “Deep Structure,” looked a bit like this:

Q [you pres be claim [the thieves past take what]]

“Deep Structure” was not (as so many nonlinguists would subsequently come to believe) a representation of meaning or thought, and was not universal across all languages. It was a device for capturing purely grammatical facts, such as that claim can take a clause complement, take needs a direct object, and so on. Operations called transformations de­fined the way take would be converted into its passive form, how what shifts to where the Q is, etc. The grammatical de­scription of the sentence was the whole ordered sequence of layers.

However, from about 1967 some of Chomsky’s earliest defenders and most talented students began to develop arguments undercutting his case for “Deep Structure.” They claimed it had no theoretical necessity or significance. Instead, they posited much more abstract syntactic layers, and suggested that the most abstract layer of all looked much like what philosophers would call the “logical form” of a sentence. Their hypothesis was dubbed “Generative Semantics” (GS).

It is important that GS theorists did not use sentence meaning as the basis for their claims. Their arguments were syntactic, based on where specific words and phrases could occur in grammatical sentences, and what would permit transformational operations to be simplified. James McCawley, for example, argued that major simplifications result from having verbs in the initial position in the pre-surface layers. This might seem to add complexity: A transformational operation would have to shift the subject so that the verb came second in sentences like The plan will fail. However, in certain clause types the verb actually comes first on the surface, as in Will the plan fail? — and every theory has to cope with that. McCawley noted that we can just leave the verb-first abstract ordering alone in interrogative main-clause surface structures and shift the subject to first position in declaratives.

The maximally abstract representation of our example sentence under a GS analysis might look a bit more like this (I capitalize verb-like elements; GS treated tenses as abstract verbs):

[ask utterer addressee [claim addressee [past [take thieves what]]]]

Though arrived at via syntactic arguments, this clearly represents the literal meaning (the utterer is asking the ad­dressee to identify the x such that the addressee claims the thieves took x). Transformations could derive the surface form of the sentence from such representations, as in Chomsky’s theory, but crucially the “Deep Structure” layer as he defined it played no role; the concept could be abandoned.

GS emerged directly out of Chomsky’s work, using the kind of arguments he used, but it diverged from his own views, and displeased him. In his view this meant that the promoters of GS had to be defeated and punished.

The punishments Chomsky imposes on publicly announced enemies of his views are of two types: the dungeon and the fire.

Consigning an opponent to the dungeon of ostracism and obscurity is easier than you’d think for someone of Chomsky’s extraordinary prestige. His close followers, who dominate the mainstream of syntactic theory in America, tend to cite only what he cites, so if he resolutely avoids mention of someone’s name, within the mainstream it will soon look as if neither that person nor their publications even exist. (Today, when citation counts affect hiring and pro­motion, that can hurt more than the victim’s pride.)

The citational oubliette worked well for lesser-known or younger GS proponents, especially from low-prestige or foreign institutions. For example, in half a century the extensive and highly relevant works of brilliant European theorists such as Pieter Seuren and Esa Itkonen were never referred to in Chomsky’s vo­luminous writings, be­cause he had identified them early on as enemies.

But more visible proponents, especially those close to Chomsky’s home institution, MIT, faced something more like burning at the stake. Chomsky would immolate their ideas in classes (scores of visitors would travel long distances to absorb his wisdom at MIT each Thursday afternoon), in conference presentations and invited public lectures around the world, and in the many articles and books he produced. He excoriated, misrepresented, and ridiculed his enemies, sometimes in their presence, calling their positions incoherent, irrelevant, or possibly just muddled equivalents (“notational variants”) of his own. He would attribute to his opponents views they rejected, even when they were present and tried to demur.

Arguing with such a ruthless de­bater from the floor never worked well. Chomsky is a master of the argumentum ad auditores (I have seen him deploy it many times). Expertly sizing up audience and questioner, he will give an answer that sounds convincing to the audience even though both Chomsky and his objector know it is no answer at all. Hardly anyone will stand up and call him a liar in front of a lecture theater full of his devotees. As Carol Chomsky (happily married to him for six decades) once said, “one never wins an argument with Noam.”

By around 1976, GS proponents could see that they had lost. GS had been crushed in an ideological struggle be­tween an intellectual superstar whose followers saw him as infallible and a foolhardy clique that had dared to depart from the true faith.

Some on the losing side, worn down by a decade of struggle, looked like has-beens, which meant they could be transferred to the other punishment mode: total denial of citation. George Lakoff was tough enough to take Chomsky’s attacks, shake them off, move to Berkeley, and start a new life writing about metaphor and politics instead. But Chomsky’s former star student John Robert Ross was cowed and sidelined, and largely ceased publishing on syntax (a pretext was found for forcing him out of his tenured faculty position at MIT). James McCawley continued writing GS-influenced works from his indepen­dent base at the University of Chicago but was increasingly ignored by the main­stream.

Today Chomsky has a new view on syntax (at age 93, he is still teaching part-time at the University of Arizona, giving public lectures and interviews via Zoom). It does not amount to a theory, as he admits. He calls it “the minimalist program,” but it is really just a repertoire of hints, suggestions, and buzzwords. (In Chomsky’s earliest “minimalist” pa­pers one sees a glimpse of a respectable syntactic theory, called “categorial grammar,” with roots in Polish logic of the 1930s, which Chomsky’s friend Yehoshua Bar-Hillel advocated in 1953; but only a glimpse.) The “strong minimalist thesis” that Chomsky enunciates is the bafflingly unscientific dictum that languages are “perfect systems.” This predicts nothing. It offers no suitable basis for precise description of languages (which once figured in linguists’ job descriptions) and explains nothing about the structure, acquisition, or use of language.

Harris gives a remarkably sympathetic account of minimalism, but also addresses some of the astonishing falsehoods Chomsky now tells about it. Chomsky maintains that it is a clear linear de­scendant of his 1951 M.A. thesis on the morphophonemics of modern Hebrew. (Latterly he has taken to equating this with a 1949 undergraduate paper that no one ever saw, exaggerating the fantasy.) Nothing has changed, he suggests, other than depth of insight: The intervening decades merely refined his unrecognized early brilliance.

This is beyond parody to anyone who has studied his Hebrew morphophonemic rules and the works that followed them. The truth is that over 65 years Chomsky has produced a slew of strikingly different programmatic sketches of what a general linguistic theory might say, but every decade or so he abandons his whole system just when it is becoming orthodoxy (especially if any rival view is beginning to gain traction among his closest followers), replacing it with a new set of concepts and terminology for his followers to grasp.

Harris quotes Shakespeare’s amusing vignette of Hamlet persuading the sycophantic Polonius that a certain cloud is shaped like a camel, then getting him to agree it is like a weasel instead, and then that it resembles a whale. True Chomsky followers show their Polonius-like loyalty through unquestioning acceptance of each new image Chomsky sees in the theoretical cloud. They adopt the buzzwords, modify the direction of their own work, and pursue the new line — only to be left high and dry eight to ten years later when once again he demolishes the central pillars of the previous conceptual edifice.

Another practice of Chomsky’s is to plunder the work of his opponents for attractive ideas and useful terms to be adopted without credit a decade or two after he first attacked them as misguided. In recent years he has mined the program of GS for insights without crediting the original developers. Around 1990 he completely abandoned his “Deep Structure” level without a word about this being the central proposal of GS in 1967. His “minimalist program” posits a unified rule system relating logical forms directly to surface forms of sentences, a position GS proponent Paul Postal explicitly advocated in 1969, when Chomsky hotly rejected it. Chomsky never mentions that adopting the phi­loso­phers’ term “logical form” for the most abstract level of sentence representation was George Lakoff’s idea.

Harris writes sympathetically about Chomsky as a person, yet reluctantly confesses amazement at his subject’s barefaced lying. Chomsky tells lies even on topics where readily accessible facts directly refute him: facts about what is found in earlier publications, statements made in lectures available as videos, details of who was hired at MIT and when, whether his graduate-school men­tor ever read his work, or his alleged intellectual isolation and rejection by the linguistics establishment of the 1950s.

His self-portrait as an ignored and unheeded loner (promulgated in several interview books) is particularly ludicrous. Chomsky was pampered and welcomed as few young scholars have ever been. Three degrees earned at Penn under the tutelage of a family friend (Zellig Sabbetai Harris); four years at Harvard’s Society of Junior Fellows on the recommendation of a top philosopher (Nelson Goodman); appointment to MIT’s faculty arranged by a personal friend (Morris Halle); encouragement from the editor of the Linguistic Society of America’s journal Language (Bernard Bloch); offers from Dutch firms to publish his early work; invitations to address important conferences; and then six decades of tenured comfort at a science-focused private institution where his only duty was to expound his theories to graduate students and wider audiences.

Chomsky’s mendacity does not, in Harris’s opinion, stem from wickedness. It is attributable to a pair of related personality quirks: a deep-rooted in­sistence on being seen as invariantly correct, and a visceral hostility toward any­one who might dare to suggest other­wise. Chomsky cannot see any possi­bility that his interlocutor might make a valid point or two, or that any non-Chomskyan idea in syntactic theory might prove defensible.

Harris does his level best to convey the standard view of Chomsky as a linguistic scientist responsible for major results; but it’s not easy. Despite Chomsky’s un­paralleled impact as a catalyst and in­spiration for American linguists, he has few if any widely accepted empirical discoveries about human language to his name. The myriads of readers who admire his anarchist-tinged radical-left politics and savage critiques of American foreign policy have all heard that he is reputed to have a huge reputation in linguistic science, and they believe it. But most of what journalists say about him is confused or simply untrue. He did not discover a universal grammar that we all share, and he did not solve the puzzle of how children are able to learn a language without instruction.

An interview with Chomsky conducted by two supporters was published in his 2012 book On Nature and Language. At one point the interviewers asked Chomsky to give some clear examples of confirmed results of his work on language, and he basically admitted there were none. They pressed him, but he just alluded to a few interesting areas of data that he and others had puzzled over, offering no definite findings, and instead redirecting the conversation by claiming (falsely) that even in the “hard” sciences most findings are dubious and most data are unexplained.

Concepts such as “Deep Structure” are commonly thought to represent major discoveries of Chomsky’s; but if you were to ask what “Deep Structure” had turned out to be like, the answer would have to be that the concept came to nothing and was abandoned.

It is much the same with “recursion,” much touted as a fundamental discovery about the nature of language. Although the term comes from mathematical logic, Chomsky uses it informally to refer to something commonplace: our ability to put words together to form sentences of arbitrary length. He has proposed various different mechanisms to model it, none amounting to a real discovery. Moreover, a little-noted ethnocentricity afflicts his conception of complex sentence structure as a universal cognitive endowment: Some languages of earlier millennia, and some languages spoken in hunter-gatherer cultures today, show scant evidence of embedding of clauses inside other clauses to arbitrary depth. The complex syntax familiar to literate users of modern European languages is not found in every language.

The claim most often associated with Chomsky is that nature, not nurture, accounts for our ability to learn grammatical systems: Our language capacity must be due to some unidentified universal genetic inheritance. But Chomsky offers little on the topic other than that there must be something. He has mentioned repeatedly that his granddaughter learned language while her pet kitten — exposed to all the same utterances — did not. So there must be something. But that grandfatherly rumination on what makes language acquisition possible is not a scientific discovery that provides the answer.

Chomsky does have a view about the origin of human language, but it is ut­terly eccentric. He believes that a “mu­tation” in a single human a few tens of thousands of years ago sparked an un­precedented new cognitive ability to put pairs of mental symbols together to make larger units, and that this ability somehow spread like wildfire through the early human population despite being mind-internal (for communicative use came later, he thinks). There is not a shred of support for any of this; many paleontologists believe that Homo erectus had language a million years ago.

An astonishing outpouring of hundreds of books and papers has made Chomsky one of the most-cited scholars in history, but few if any are reports of scientific discoveries. His books are mostly lightly revised and unrefereed transcripts of invited public lectures — enviably fluent in style, if somewhat repetitive. Several are just transcriptions of lengthy interviews with him. His journal articles (many of them, in recent years, multiauthor collaborations) are discursive and survey-like in character, and never present testable claims or concrete findings. He is in effect being treated as if he were a Nobelist: a celebrity, publishing lectures and surveys by invitation, voicing opinions in newspaper interviews, and throwing out vague speculations.

Chomsky loathed the first edition of The Linguistics Wars. In a 1994 interview he called it “largely fantasy,” and classed it scornfully with “postmodern fairy tales” and “psychosocial Foucaultian accounts of what happens in science” (Michel Foucault being the man of whom he once said “I’d never met anyone who was so totally amoral. . . . It’s as if he was from a different species or something”). He will hate the new edition even more. But Harris’s writing is the antithesis of postmodernist blather. His style is direct and informal. He is sharp and clear even on quite technical topics, his grasp of competing theories is sound, and his tales of the rise and fall of GS are well documented. (To some extent I can confirm them: My own study of linguistics began just as the linguistics wars had begun to intensify, and most of the major figures in Harris’s exposition are people I know or knew personally.)

Anyone who wants insight into what has been going on in Chomskyan linguistics this past half century should read the new edition of The Linguistics Wars. Its extensive apparatus (notes, bibliography, and index form a fifth of the 568 pages) will amply support further investigation of its claims. Resisting the usual temptation to engage in the customary Chomsky hagiography, it reveals much about the man who, regrettably, has turned the discipline of syntactic theory into a personality cult.

Geoffrey K. Pullum — Mr. Pullum is a writer on language and linguistics, especially English grammar. He is the author of Linguistics: Why It Matters and a co-author, with Rodney Huddleston, of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

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