Being an inaugural guest’s post, I hope that, while not up to the usual standards of this blog, the following content is not too far short either. By way of introduction: I am involved in the same reading group as N Pepperell, and have been invited to write some notes on several of the texts we cover. Our reading so far has aimed at doing a potted history of 20th century linguistics, and our path has arrived at Chomsky’s “Language and Mind”.
My apologies in advance for what might seem a naive and anachronistic take – none of our group are linguists by training, and therefore we have stumbling through what is no doubt a fragmentary and selected course. And I apologise for the prolixity of this, an inaugural guest’s post… In any case, what Chomsky presents in this 1968 version of his account of language is roughly as follows: there are 6 lectures, split into 2 groups of 3. The first group of 3 were based on lectures delivered at Berkeley in ’67; the second group were delivered to different audiences at different times. In this light, the didactic purpose of the book becomes clear in moving through it: Chomksy is presenting, to different audiences, in more or less technical detail, 3 distinct ideas.
Firstly, he presents in a number of guises the idea of universal grammar – where grammar is a set of rules which determine the matching of a given sound to a given meaning. Meanings belong, according to the universal grammar thesis, to a deep semantic structure; sounds belong to a surface phonological structure; and what connects the two are syntactic rules.
Secondly, he presents the related but not, in my view, essential idea that such a system is both required by all human languages, and acquired too quickly by human individuals to be accounted for by a range of cultural, social or environmental stimuli. Instead, using the Poverty of the Stimulus argument commented upon elsewhere in this blog, this system must be innate.
Thirdly, the “innateness” thesis connects his, that is to say Chomsky’s view, with a broad, important but largely forgotten tradition of rationalism (long since eclipsed by the rise of empiricism in general, and behavioralism in particular, in the human sciences).
At this stage I want to comment about one aspect of Chomsky’s argument: that semantic deep structures exist prior to their transformation into phonological surface structures. At least in his account here, it seems that every sentence – even assuming for now that in a normative account, sentences can be taken for meaning “informational statements” – must exist in some ready-made semantic form before it can go through some transformational process. However this account seems to me to miss a key aspect of language production – that most sentences develop in time. While a well-formed sentence may be reverse-engineered into into its constituent parts – into noun phrases, verb phrases and so on – it seems unlikely to me that this is how such sentences are always generated in the first place. Such analysis misses the essential fact of language utterances – that they exhibit a linearity, insofar as the start of a sentence is always before the end of the sentence. The following is a tentative stab at how I think this argument could unfold:
When I make a sentence, I can proceed in a number of ways. I can start with some logical proposition I wish to convey, then determine which is the best form for the conveyance (moulding some semantic content into phonetic or othographic form via syntactic transformations, in the Chomskyan way). But this is only one of a number of ways I can proceed. I can start with a particular phrase (“Notwithstanding Chomsky’s insightful analysis…”), then proceed with what may seem a logical extension (“… I disagree with his theory of the innateness of language”). I can also recant: “… well, actually, I agree with his analysis”). I can also forget where I ‘was’, or simply allow my semantic content to remain, perhaps wistfully, unexpressed: “…”. I can perform a number of acts, but none of those acts are irrevocably determined by some original semantic content which remains intact throughout the duration of the act. Even the original phase (“Notwithstanding Chomsky’s insightful analysis…”) does not establish a determinate meaning for the sentence in which it is found – my subsequent words can serve to undercut – with sarcasm or irony; to frame – by quoting or paraphrasing; to emphasise, castigate, or perform a number of acts which alter the meaning of an existing phrase or sentence. Chomsky’s examples always assume that a speaker who has considered what she or he wants to say before saying it, and remains committed to the saying of it at least until the saying is said – but of course there are many examples, mundane and famous, which run counter to this.
It might seem that this sort of criticism echoes those of pragmatists generally, and Searle in particular. However what is striking to me is not that sentences can do things other than make statements of fact, but rather that even when making a statement of fact, I can alter the meaning of the statement significantly at any time during its utterance. This is trivially true, in that I can always proceed as teenagers do when they append “…not!” at the end of sentence. So the point would be that it is empirically contingent for any given well-formed sentence as to whether its meaning had been determined entirely in advance of its utterance – and therefore could have undergone the sorts of sentence-wide syntactic transformations (active to passive, and so on) that Chomsky proposes. On the other hand, it seems equally plausible that for a number of sentences the syntactic form is prior to the semantic content – as in question-and-answers routines, where the answer’s syntax mirrors that of the question (“who saw Bill” – “John saw Bill” versus “who was Bill seen by?” – “Bill was seen by John“). Of particular importance in this regard is that it is possible for me to be committed to the syntax of a sentence I am about to make, before I know what I am going to say. How could I then, consciously or otherwise, apply rules to get to a known syntactic construction (for instance, a passive construction) from some as-yet unknown semantic meaning?
This is not to say, at the level of a phrase, and indeed for many sentences, there may not be processes at work transforming meaning into sound the way Chomsky describes – indeed this may even be the normative case. However it seems to me that there are many other ways sentences can be formed, and these show that a more complex relationship exists between the semantic, syntactic and phonological parts of a sentence than what Chomsky – circa 1968 – will allow.
Quite possibly, later Chomsky or other more recent accounts resolve this problem in some way – if indeed it is a problem. Meanwhile, we are now moving on to How to do Things with Words…