• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

A Special Supplement: Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics

If, on the other hand, the sentence is “I went to the bank and deposited some money in my account” the semantic component will produce only one reading because the portion of the sentence about depositing money determines that the other meaning of bank—namely, side of the river—is excluded as a possible meaning in this sentence. The semantic component then will have to contain a set of rules describing which kinds of combinations of words make which kind of sense, and this is supposed to account for the speaker’s knowledge of which kinds of combinations of words in his language make which kind of sense.

All of this can be, and indeed has been; worked up into a very elaborate formal theory by Chomsky and his followers; but when we have constructed a description of what the semantic component is supposed to look like, a nagging question remains: What exactly are these “readings”? What is the string of symbols that comes out of the semantic component supposed to represent or express in such a way as to constitute a description of the meaning of a sentence?

The same dilemma with which we confronted Locke applies here: either the readings are just paraphrases, in which case the analysis is circular, or the readings consist only of lists of elements, in which case the analysis fails because of inadequacy; it cannot account for the fact that the sentence expresses a statement. Consider each horn of the dilemma. In the example above when giving two different readings for “I went to the bank” I gave two English paraphrases, but that possibility is not open to a semantic theory which seeks to explain competence in English, since the ability to understand paraphrases presupposes the very competence the semantic theory is seeking to explain. I cannot explain general competence in English by translating English sentences into other English sentences. In the literature of the Chomskyan semantic theorists, the examples given of “readings” are usually rather bad paraphrases of English sentences together with some jargon about “semantic markers” and “distinguishers” and so on.11 We are assured that the paraphrases are only for illustrative purposes, that they are not the real readings.

But what can the real readings be? The purely formal constraints placed on the semantic theory are not much help in telling us what the readings are. They tell us only that a sentence that is ambiguous in three ways must have three readings, a nonsense sentence no readings, two synonymous sentences must have the same readings, and so on. But so far as these requirements go, the readings need not be composed of words but could be composed of any formally specifiable set of objects. They could be numerals, piles of stones, old cars, strings of symbols, anything whatever. Suppose we decide to interpret the readings as piles of stones. Then for a three-ways ambiguous sentence the theory will give us three piles of stones, for a nonsense sentence, no piles of stones, for an analytic sentence the arrangement of stones in the predicate pile will be duplicated in the subject pile, and so on. There is nothing in the formal properties of the semantic component to prevent us from interpreting it in this way. But clearly this will not do because now instead of explaining the relationships between sound and meaning the theory has produced an unexplained relationship between sounds and stones.

When confronted with this objection the semantic theorists always make the same reply. Though we cannot produce adequate readings at present, ultimately the readings will be expressed in a yet to be discovered universal semantic alphabet. The elements in the alphabet will stand for the meaning units in all languages in much the way that the universal phonetic alphabet now represents the sound units in all languages. But would a universal semantic alphabet escape the dilemma? I think not.

Either the alphabet is a kind of a new artificial language, a new Esperanto, and the readings are once again paraphrases, only this time in the Esperanto and not in the original language; or we have the second horn of the dilemma and the readings in the semantic alphabet are just a list of features of language, and the analysis is inadequate because it substitutes a list of elements for a speech act.

The semantic theory of Chomsky’s grammar does indeed give us a useful and interesting adjunct to the theory of semantic competence, since it gives us a model that duplicates the speaker’s competence in recognizing ambiguity, synonymy, nonsense, etc. But as soon as we ask what exactly the speaker is recognizing when he recognizes one of these semantic properties, or as soon as we try to take the semantheory as a general account of semantic competence, it cannot cope with the dilemma. Either it gives us a sterile formalism, an uninterpreted list of elements, or it gives us paraphrases, which explain nothing.

Various philosophers working on an account of meaning in the past generation12 have provided us with a way out of this dilemma. But to accept the solution would involve enriching the semantic theory in ways not so far contemplated by Chomsky or the other Cambridge grammarians. Chomsky characterizes the speaker’s linguistic competence as his ability to “produce and understand” sentences. But this is at best very misleading: a person’s knowledge of the meaning of sentences consists in large part in his knowledge of how to use sentences to make statements, ask questions, give orders, make requests, make promises, warnings, etc., and to understand other people when they use sentences for such purposes. Semantic competence is in large part the ability to perform and understand what philosophers and linguists call speech acts.

Now if we approach the study of semantic competence from the point of view of the ability to use sentences to perform speech acts, we discover that speech acts have two properties, the combination of which will get us out of the dilemma: they are governed by rules and they are intentional. The speaker who utters a sentence and means it literally utters it in accordance with certain semantic rules and with the intention of invoking those rules to render his utterance the performance of a certain speech act.

This is not the place to recapitulate the whole theory of meaning and speech acts,13 but the basic idea is this. Saying something and meaning it is essentially a matter of saying it with the intention to produce certain effects on the hearer. And these effects are determined by the rules that attach to the sentence that is uttered. Thus, for example, the speaker who knows the meaning of the sentence “The flower is red” knows that its utterance constitutes the making of a statement. But making a statement to the effect that the flower is red consists in performing an action with the intention of producing in the hearer the belief that the speaker is committed to the existence of a certain state of affairs, as determined by the semantic rules attaching to the sentence.

Semantic competence is largely a matter of knowing the relationships between semantic intentions, rules, and conditions specified by the rules. Such an analysis of competence may in the end prove incorrect, but it is not open to the obvious dilemmas I have posed to classical empiricist and Chomskyan semantic theorists. It is not reduced to providing us with paraphrase or a list of elements. The glue that holds the elements together into a speech act is the semantic intentions of the speaker.

The defect of the Chomskyan theory arises from the same weakness we noted earlier, the failure to see the essential connection between language and communication, between meaning and speech acts. The picture that underlies the semantic theory and indeed Chomsky’s whole theory of language is that sentences are abstract objects that are produced and understood independently of their role in communication. Indeed, Chomsky sometimes writes as if sentences were only incidentally used to talk with.14 I am claiming that any attempt to account for the meaning of sentences within such assumptions is either circular or inadequate.

The dilemma is not just an argumentative trick, it reveals a more profound inadequacy. Any attempt to account for the meaning of sentences must take into account their role in communication, in the performance of speech acts, because an essential part of the meaning of any sentence is its potential for being used to perform a speech act. There are two radically different conceptions of language in conflict here: one, Chomsky’s, sees language as a self-contained formal system used more or less incidentally for communication. The other sees language as essentially a system for communication.

The limitations of Chomsky’s assumptions become clear only when we attempt to account for the meaning of sentences within his system, because there is no way to account for the meaning of a sentence without considering its role in communication, since the two are essentially connected. So long as we confine our research to syntax, where in fact most of Chomsky’s work has been done, it is possible to conceal the limitations of the approach, because syntax can be studied as a formal system independently of its use, just as we could study the currency and credit system of an economy as an abstract formal system independently of the fact that people use money to buy things with or we could study the rules of baseball as a formal system independently of the fact that baseball is a game people play. But as soon as we attempt to account for meaning, for semantic competence, such a purely formalistic approach breaks down, because it cannot account for the fact that semantic competence is mostly a matter of knowing how to talk, i.e., how to perform speech acts.

The Chomsky revolution is largely a revolution in the study of syntax. The obvious next step in the development of the study of language is to graft the study of syntax onto the study of speech acts. And this is indeed happening, though Chomsky continues to fight a rearguard action against it, or at least against the version of it that the generative semanticists who are building on his own work now present.

There are, I believe, several reasons why Chomsky is reluctant to incorporate a theory of speech acts into his grammar: First, he has a mistaken conception of the distinction between performance and competence. He seems to think that a theory of speech acts must be a theory of performance rather than of competence, because he fails to see that competence is ultimately the competence to perform, and that for this reason a study of the linguistic aspects of the ability to perform speech acts is a study of linguistic competence. Secondly, Chomsky seems to have a residual suspicion that any theory that treats the speech act, a piece of speech behavior, as the basic unit of meaning must involve some kind of a retreat to behaviorism. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is one of the ironies of the history of behaviorism that behaviorists should have failed to see that the notion of a human action must be a “mentalistic” and “introspective” notion since it essentially involves the notion of human intentions.

The study of speech acts is indeed the study of a certain kind of human behavior, but for that reason it is in conflict with any form of behaviorism, which is conceptually incapable of studying human behavior. But the third, and most important reason, I believe, is Chomsky’s only partly articulated belief that language does not have any essential connection with communication, but is an abstract formal system produced by the innate properties of the human mind.

Chomsky’s work is one of the most remarkable intellectual achievements of the present era, comparable in scope and coherence to the work of Keynes or Freud. It has done more than simply produce a revolution in linguistics; it has created a new discipline of generative grammar and is having a revolutionary effect on two other subjects, philosophy and psychology. Not the least of its merits is that it provides an extremely powerful tool even for those who disagree with many features of Chomsky’s approach to language. In the long run, I believe his greatest contribution will be that he has taken a major step toward restoring the traditional conception of the dignity and uniqueness of man.


The Sleeping Chess Player February 22, 1973

Deep Language February 8, 1973

  1. 11

    For example, one of the readings given for the sentence “The man hits the colorful ball” contains the elements: Some contextually definite (Human) (Adult) (Male) (Action) (Instancy) (Intensity) [Collides with an impact] Some contextually definite (Color) [[Abounding in contrast or variety of bright colors] [Having a globular shape]]. J. Katz and J. Fodor, “The Structure of a Semantic Theory,” in The Structure of Language, J. Katz and J. Fodor, eds., (Prentice-Hall, 1964), p. 513.

  2. 12

    In, e.g., L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Macmillan, 1953); J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Harvard, 1962); P. Grice, “Meaning,” in Philosophical Review, 1957; J. R. Searle, Speech Acts, An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge University Press, 1969); and P. F. Strawson, Logico-Linguistic Papers (Methuen, 1971).

  3. 13

    For an attempt to work out some of the details, see J. R. Searle, Speech Acts, An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge University Press, 1969), Chapters 1-3.

  4. 14

    E.g., meaning, he writes, “need not involve communication or even the attempt to communicate,” Problems of Knowledge and Freedom (Pantheon Books, 1971), p. 19.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print