Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Chomsky’s “Language and Mind”

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


3 responses to “Chomsky’s “Language and Mind”

  1. N Pepperell October 30, 2006 at 9:44 am

    What a delightful thing, to wake up and discover that new content has been written for the blog, without having to go through the work of producing it – a body could get used to this… (I should note that the experience might not have appeared so delightful for L Magee, who, because I had set permissions incorrectly, had to send a plaintive email asking how, exactly, one could publish what one had written, and then had to wait until I woke up to learn whether this were simply an oversight on my part, or whether I had actually intended to impose some kind of draconian editorial control… You say you want rough theory? Well then… ;-P)

    Attentive readers will also have noticed that I was originally the person who had committed to introduce this work for the reading group discussion, so I also need to thank LM profusely for stepping in for me, when my post-teaching tiredness kicked in with a vengeance, and I wasn’t feeling quite up to introducing a complex work… Hopefully I’ll be able to be a bit more coherent in responding, than I could have been in introducing the work.

    My thoughts on this work unfortunately wander off in several directions, which I fear may not connect up clearly to one another. For present purposes, I’ll focus on the issue that LM has chosen as the pivot for their critique: the issue of linearity and temporality in speech acts. Depending on how this discussion evolves, I may have reason in later posts to bring up some of my more idiosyncratic obsessions with Chomsky: his use of intellectual history in positioning his argument, and his fascination with human exceptionalism and language as a creative faculty. To avoid hijacking the discussion into these two latter points, though, I’ll try to focus here on the issues outlined in LM’s original post.

    LM’s arguments on this issue are of particular interest to me, because they begin from a position that I also think is quite important – focussing on Chomsky’s assumption that, as LM describes, “semantic deep structures exist prior to their transformation into phonological surface structures” – but then move off in a somewhat different direction from where I would have taken them. LM’s concern is with whether Chomsky assumes that meaning exists at the level of syntactic deep structures – and then points to all of the various ways that meanings can be transformed through the performance of speech – a performance that unfolds in linear time, and can therefore potentially accommodate the dynamically-shifting intentions of the speaker. LM’s question, at base, seems to be something along the lines of: how could the deep structures have “known” how the meaning would transform in a particular direction during the practice of speech? LM posits that Chomsky’s framework would essentially require a sort of Habermasian ideal speech situation – with speakers in full possession of their intentions for the duration of a given speech act. In this context, the examples LM mentions would pose a significant challenge for a theory positing the existence of deep structures.

    My response to this argument is complex. I have some quibbly concerns with a few points – Chomsky is fairly explicit, for example, that he does not restrict his analysis to “informational sentences” – this is, if I understand him correctly, one of his criticisms of speech act theorists: that their approach doesn’t adequately recognise how fundamental language is to thought – and therefore seems to exclude forms of language use (thinking to oneself, etc.) that are not purposive or interactive. My understanding was that Chomsky views his approach as corrective, in this respect, because it embraces a wider range of behaviour as “linguistic”.

    I believe that Chomsky is also fairly explicitly aware of some of the kinds of counter-examples LM mentions: although I can’t remember whether Chomsky mentions the issue in this text, in my various wanderings I have certainly seen him, or his acolytes, refer to examples like “false starts” and interrupted speech, in order to provide an explicit argument that these types of speech behaviour can be excluded from analysis in the first instance, as a defensible practical simplification of speech behaviour to make it easier to detect underlying patterns. It may be that this Chomskyan strategy is illegitimate and distorts the conclusions this approach draws about language. As a matter of critical agnosticism, though, I’d personally like to take a closer look at how the Chomskyans justify this simplification before I make a final judgment about whether I think the move is illegitimate – but LM may well know much more about this issue than I do, and therefore not need to share my discomfort.

    The more important issue, though, relates to the relationship between deep structures and meaning. As I’ve posted previously, I’ve actually never “gotten” this aspect of Chomsky’s argument. I can understand the claim that something like syntactic deep structures might impose limit conditions on the kinds of things that can be expressed (or “meant”, depending on how you understand this term), but I can’t really understand how you could achieve more than this. Ironically, my state of general confusion means that I am perhaps less persuaded than I should be that LM’s argument “connects” – that Chomsky’s position requires, for example, a high level of conscious intentionality that can mobilise deep structures through the duration of a speech act (or, to translate LM’s argument into a more post-structuralist vein, a high level of unconscious determination of what only later becomes overtly manifest in speech acts and, perhaps, comes to be interpreted retrospectively as the speaker’s “intention”), and can therefore be undermined by demonstrations that intentionality can shift in an apparently fluid manner in the course of a speech act. If I understood Chomsky more, perhaps I’d agree more with this critique… ;-P

    I do, though, agree strongly with LM that there is something very problematic about the way Chomsky leaps to the conclusion that deep structures exist somewhere prior to and outside of the practice of speech – a sort of ding an sich whose ontological reality is somehow separable from the practice of language. I’ve indicated elsewhere that I’m happy to entertain this concept as a working hypothesis – my main concern is that I see no way to get directly from the observation, e.g., that there are complex patterns of linguistic practice, to the conclusion that this observational data supports the hypothesis that there is an innate linguistic faculty. I’m highly conscious that I may just be missing some knowledge of more persuasive empirical evidence in support of this conclusion, but what I see in the texts we have read is (1) a citation of evidence that there are certain patterns in linguistic practice, which are produced with reasonable regularity even though speakers are generally not consciously aware of them, and which are, in fact, quite difficult even for trained linguists to discern; and (2) a move from this empirical evidence to something like what, in other contexts, might be called an “argument from lack of imagination”, combined with some at best problematic statistical claims, to conclude that the existence of complex patterns of practice provides evidence that is suggestive of an innate linguistic faculty.

    I fixate on this issue, I think, because I am interested in complex patterns of social practice in my own work – and I often find that people (including academics) are very reluctant to acknowledge the possibility that such patterns can arise unintentionally and without some objective ontological foundation. People move instead to conspiracy-theory style explanations (which for obvious reasons aren’t available to linguists…), or they move to human nature (which is what Chomsky has done). Since my work deals with historically-specific patterns, of course, it’s easier for me to make a case that appeals to human nature provide problematic causal mechanisms for historically-specific practice. I’m far more open to appeals to human nature when we’re talking about very abstract dimensions of language – but Chomsky is making a quite specific claim about human nature, which, to my again very inexperienced self, simply doesn’t appear that closely connected to what he’s observing empirically.

    It doesn’t help, from my point of view, that the empirical claims themselves seem (in terms of what we have currently read, much of which is several decades old, so current empirical evidence could easily be stronger) to be weaker when Chomsky outlines the specifics, than when he appeals to the abstract concept of “universal grammar” to bash competing positions. So, for example, in the second chapter to Language and Mind, Chomsky takes the reader through one example of an interesting deep structure analysis, showing some very interesting patterns – but then, toward the end, admitting some counter-examples that suggest that the current understanding of the deep structure cannot, in fact, account as robustly as it should for language in practice. In discussing this kind of empirical material, Chomsky is nuanced and qualified – fully conscious of the infant status of his field and of its limitations, and expressing hope that unresolved problems will eventually be resolved: his writing reflects the power and the limitations of an emerging field in an honest and clear-eyed way. In later chapters, however, he takes the existence of a universal grammar as an established fact, as a standpoint from which he can criticise other positions – a bold position that, in terms of what I’ve currently read, is not as well-established – and certainly not as well-linked to specific understandings of human nature – as some of Chomsky’s critical writings imply.

    In full awareness of the primitive character of my knowledge of this field, I’m quite happy to “put brackets” around this issue – to remain agnostic and open to the possibility that there is (1) very solid empirical grounding for the existence of a universal grammar and (2) some kind of empirical evidence that could help us prefer Chomsky’s nativist hypothesis for the origins of this universal grammar over other potential theories. I just don’t personally feel that I can connect these dots, based on what I’ve read. Ultimately, it would probably require a more substantial tour through the technical literature in the field… This linguistics tangent may continue to grow…

    (Oh, and by the way LM: no need to apologise for prolixity – I’ve had at least one regular reader very gently suggest to me recently that I might be a tad… verbose… At the very least, you can console yourself that, empirically, you’re very unlikely to go on as long as I will… ;-P)

  2. L Magee October 30, 2006 at 3:32 pm

    I doubt very much that I “know much more about this issue”. But in any case I still think my original argument does hold. I’m not saying, for instance, that some original semantic “core” needs to be conscious – only that Chomsky’s account does seem to require that some deep structure needs to pre-exist before syntactic rules can be applied to it. But it seems to me that there are many counter-examples to this which can’t be ignored in the name of “simplification” – though simplification may be valid on other occasions.

    In, for instance, Chomsky’s example of “John saw Bill”, he would want to say that something like S[NP[“John”], VP[“sees” – {past tense}, NP[“Bill”]] exists in the mind as a quasi-logical proposition – the semantic payload of the eventual sentence. Then various syntactic rules can be applied to it. One such rule, say R1 [“active to passive”], might convert “John saw Bill” to “Bill was seen by John”. My argument is that in many cases I may already be committed to a passive construction before the meaning is “ready” (whether I am a conscious of this or not). Therefore R1 is, if anything, applied to an empty structure – but it seems to me equally plausible to say in this case that the meaning is instead “applied” in some sense to a pre-existing syntactic structure, rather than the other way around.

    Again, this may be finding a logical problem with a theory where in fact it is just a process of simplification – finding canonical cases from which to extend to marginal ones. Perhaps further reading will illuminate this…

  3. N Pepperell October 30, 2006 at 4:32 pm

    I guess my question is whether this is how the “deep structure” is intended to work – as a sort of ur-reservoir of meaning, which is then transformed into expression? Or whether Chomsky’s notion is more – as he seems to emphasise when he stresses things like the “formal” nature of language – that the deep structure operates at a much more abstract level: expressed in linguistic performance by the ways in which we do (and don’t) “chunk” sentences into parts and manipulate them – even in fluid performances?

    I see Chomsky as doing something more like the latter – as making claims, not about deep semantics, but about deep syntax – not about meaning or underlying logical propostions, but about available structures that are in essense extremely abstract entities. But, then again, this interpretation is what keeps causing me to be confused about how one would ever “get” to meaning from this starting point – to me, it seems like there would be something like a category error involved in this jump… So, as I’ve suspected over several posts on Chomsky now, I’m probably just not getting something that’s fairly fundamental…

    Edited to add: on second read (apologies – I’ve just come out of several hours of listening to Honours’ presentations, so I’m a bit fuzzy at the moment…), we’re probably agreeing, but coming at the problem from different directions. I think this: “Therefore R1 is, if anything, applied to an empty structure – but it seems to me equally plausible to say in this case that the meaning is instead “applied” in some sense to a pre-existing syntactic structure, rather than the other way around.” – is pretty close to what confuses me, when I ask how Chomsky would ever “get” to meaning. The issue being that I do think Chomsky believes “R1” is applied to an empty structure – I think this is why he keeps emphasising the abstract nature of his claims – and, like you, I don’t really see how you get from this, to the kind of primacy he places on syntax for the study of semantics…

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