Chomsky and His Critics

Rules and Representations

by Noam Chomsky
Columbia University Press, 299 pp., $14.95

Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky; drawing by David Levine

From time to time, ever since Plato, grammar has been more than the bane of schoolchildren or a topic for scholars. It owes its present prominence outside linguistics to some theses stated twenty-five years ago by Noam Chomsky. There is, he said, a universal grammar common to all human languages. Children are born with it: their inheritance explains the ease with which they pick up the language they hear around them. Universal grammar is like an organ of the body whose structure is genetically determined. It is a characteristic of the human mind and an essential part of the discontinuity between people and beasts.

That is quite an array of paradoxes. How could so arid a subject as grammar be part of the definition of our humanity? When hardly anyone can talk grammatically in more than two languages and when many are deficient in one, what is so universal? There is also a prejudice that Chomsky makes us a little ashamed to confess: grammar is just not the kind of thing one could inherit.

Paradoxes alone did not fuel Chomsky’s success. From the start he had a neat definition of grammar as a set of rules that can be mechanically applied to test whether a string of words forms a grammatical sentence. Then he obtained a negative result. Taking a natural and widespread approach to grammar, he cast that approach into a precise form and proved that it is necessarily incapable of providing an adequate grammar for English. This result was important not only for what it said but also because it suggested a new kind of thing to do—that sort of result had not been thought of before.

Then Chomsky did much positive work. He polished up a current idea of grammatical transformation and made it plausible as the main tool for doing grammar. He used an ear-catching phrase: “deep structure.” By this he meant that the sentences we use in thinking and speaking are the result of transformations on structures that underlie the surface arrangement of nouns, verbs, prepositions, and so forth. The speaker is not consciously aware of these structures or the operations upon them; they must be inferred from linguistic abilities. Deep structure added to the appeal of universal grammar, for the “universal” in grammar might be down there at the not-so-conscious level of deep structure, which is why we never noticed it before.

These proposals have since evolved, and Rules and Representations is a useful book with which to catch up on the state of the art. The book consists of four lectures (the Woodbridge Lectures at Columbia also given as the Kant Lectures at Stanford) and two related pieces. There is nothing technical in the book but to read it you do need a relish for argument. The lectures might be called “Chomsky Against the Philosophers.” Philosophers have much admired him but have also criticized some…

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