Reflections on Chomsky’s Portrayal of Modern Linguistic Theory
Chomsky presents a detailed portrait of linguistic theory as of 1972 in this second chapter of Language And Mind. His recurring main argument throughout the book so far has been a justification for the study of cognitive sciences: essentially, why this field of study exists in the first place. Chomsky says that the purpose of the field is to challenge the “unquestioned assumption that the properties and content of the mind are accessible to introspection ” (25) and I have to say I do back him up on this point. It makes sense that we would not question something that seems so natural to us as humans, something we take for granted. Assuming that the power for communication is something that we simply know how to do is not a sensible reason for failing to treat such an important part of our humanity as an invalid field of study. However, the method that Chomsky assumes is not something I agree with. Chomsky lays the base for presenting his own theory of linguistics here: that language is based off of an internalized system of rules, among other things. I don’t think that there can possibly be something as simple as a set of rules we have memorized to the point of reflex that controls why we use language in certain ways.
Chomsky goes on to discuss what he calls ‘universal grammar,’ which is the idea that on some level all languages are the same. I’m not sure I can really swallow this theory either: it’s easy enough to come up with that theory, but so much harder to prove. One could compare two disparate languages, but even if there were similarities between those two, that’s not an indicator that every language shares some similarity. Besides, actually trying to check if there were similarities between even half of the world’s languages would take years.
Even so, Chomsky’s intimate knowledge of the basic given tenets of linguistic theory (as outdated as it seems now) was definitely an asset. In this chapter he discusses basic jargon in the field: for example, tree and bracket forms of sentence diagramming, surface vs. deep structure, and grammatical transformations. About three pages into this chapter Chomsky starts throwing around the word ‘generate’ again, which means he’s pushing his generative grammar theory again, but at least it’s not that biased yet. A big part of this theory is what he discusses in this chapter as ‘linguistic competence,’ which is an acquired mastery of the rules of a grammar.
Check out Part 2 for the nitty-gritty of the theories Chomsky discusses (and in some cases throws away) in Chapter 2!
Chomsky, Noam. Language and Mind. New York: Harcourt, 1968. Print.