Where Chomsky Stands

Reflections on Language

by Noam Chomsky
Pantheon, 269 pp., $3.95 (paper)

On Noam Chomsky: Critical Essays

edited by Gilbert Harman
Doubleday / Anchor, 348 pp., $4.95

Since the publication of Syntactic Structures nineteen years ago the general shape of Chomsky’s position in linguistic theory has become familiar. The subject, as he conceives it, is a branch of cognitive psychology; its basic problem is posed by the human capacity to acquire a natural language, something which Chomsky has insisted we should see as remarkable, with regard both to what the child experiences and to what he acquires. What he acquires is an indefinitely extensive creative capacity to produce and to understand an openended set of sentences that he has never heard before. What he is offered by his elders (or rather from them, since Chomsky thinks little importance can be attached to directed language teaching) is evidence, as he has put it, “not only meager in scope, but degenerate in quality.” The actual performances the child is exposed to are fragmented and distorted relative to his recognition, apparent in the competence he acquires, of what would be an acceptable sentence of his language.

To explain the gross disproportion between what is acquired (in the form of competence) and what is experienced (in the form of speech) we need to posit a strongly constrained, internal, innate mechanism which, when triggered by the experience of speech, builds a cognitive structure, a grammar of the language, within limits set by very specialized schemata. Any human child, moreover, can learn naturally any human language, so the schemata must be universal, and when Chomsky refers to the properties of the innate mechanism, he often indicates that each of us possesses, indeed knows, the principles of a universal grammar. His model, though cognitive, is also biological, and in the present book, which consists of three lectures given in 1975, together with a long paper which is a revision of one submitted for a Festschrift, he particularly favors an embryological analogy, in which development of language is compared to the genetically controlled development of an animal.

As Chomsky has tirelessly pointed out to his critics, the mere idea of an innate component in learning a language is undisputed and uninteresting: the blankest theory of behaviorism requires some innate mechanism, however minimal. The important question concerns how complex and how specific to language acquisition the mechanism is supposed to be. In particular, Chomsky has differed from the empiricist tradition in regarding the mechanism as not simply one that applies a general learning strategy to language. Discussion over the past years, however, has made it clear that this particular difference between Chomsky and the empiricists is ambiguous, and some recognition of the ambiguity can be traced in the present book.

A “general learning capacity” might be defined in terms of some very simple learning theory, such as the traditional empiricist theories of “association” or of “inductive” generalization. In this sense, Chomsky convincingly insists that no one has offered a plausible or even coherent way of representing the learning of language by such empiricist learning theories. But it might also be true that very little that…

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