Noam Chomsky, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is known as the founder of transformational grammar, one the most important contributions to theoretical linguistics of the Twentieth Century. Dr. Chomsky has written over 100 books on a topics such as linguistics, war, politics and mass media. His theory of Universal Grammar postulates that there is, in our brain, an innate linguistic biological mechanism – the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) – that acquires language by mere exposure, that is to say without explicit teaching of the grammatical system. This theory has dominated the field of linguistics for over half a century. Considered “the father of modern linguistics,” as well as philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, Dr. Chomsky is also a political activist known for his anti-establishment political views.
Dr. Chomsky answered our questions on the controversial study by Daniel Everett on the Pirahã (pronounced pee-da-HAN) – the indigenous language of an isolated Amazon tribe of the same name in Brazil. Everett’s investigation has also been discussed in Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech, published in August, where Everett contradicts Dr. Chomsky’s LAD theory, arguing that language is social rather than innate.
Dr. Chomsky, I read the study done by Daniel Everett on the language of the Pirahã people, which contradicts your theory of Universal Language Acquisition. What is your opinion of this unique language?
“The language is “unique” because of the publicity it has received and the extravagant claims that have been made about it. Apart from that, it is very much like many other languages, as has been shown by careful scholarship. As a matter of simple logic, it would be impossible for the language to contradict any theory of mine, even if the claims about the language were true. The reason is simple. These theories have to do with the faculty of language, the basis for acquiring and using individual languages. That has always been clear, explicit, and unambiguous. The speakers of Pirahã share the common human language faculty; they are fluent speakers of Portuguese. That ends the discussion.
The primary claim of “uniqueness” is that Pirahã lacks recursion, which is, plainly, a core property of the human faculty of language. Suppose that the claim about Pirahã were true (apparently not). That would be a curiosity, but nothing more. Similarly, if some tribe were found in which people wear a patch over one eye and hence do not use binocular vision, it would tell us nothing at all about the human faculty of vision.”
Is there something especially interesting about the Pirahã language?
“Every language has interesting properties, Pirahã too. The interesting properties of Pirahã have been studied in depth for many years in a wide range of languages, most prominently by Everett’s mentor, MIT linguist Kenneth Hale, one of the leading figures in the study of indigenous languages, who has produced many important studies of these topics from the 1960s.”
Do you think Daniel Everett has enough evidence to support his study?
“There is a careful review of Everett’s current claims (which differ from his earlier work) in a long and detailed essay in the journal Language by Nevins, Pesetsky and Rodriguez, which concludes, very persuasively, that the relevant claims are false, often falsified by his own data. Further descriptive and experimental studies by Uli Sauerland and others confirm these conclusions. However, it is important to stress again that even if his claims about the language were correct, they would not have the slightest bearing on the broader issues to which they are alleged to be relevant, for the simple reasons I mentioned.”
Dr. Everett says in his book and in an interview for The Guardian that the rules of language are not innate and the fundamental building block of language is the community. Do you agree with his theory? Animals live in communitiesso why don’t they acquire language?
“No one holds that the rules of language are innate. Rather, the faculty of language has a crucial genetic component. If that were not true, it would be a miracle that children acquire a language. That is obvious from the first moment of birth, when the child begins to pick out linguistically relevant information from the noisy environment, then following a predictable course of acquisition which, demonstrably, goes far beyond the evidence available, from the simplest words on to complex constructions and their interpretations. An ape with essentially the same auditory system, placed in the same environment, would detect nothing but noise. Either this is magic, or there is an innate component to the language faculty, as in the case of all other aspects of growth and development.”
Dr. Chomsky, language has always been a political tool, what do you think about Donald Trump’s language in his campaign, and how it differs from the speech of any other politicians?
“It is not a linguistic question. The level of vulgarity, superficiality, ignorance, and megalomania is utterly shocking.”
On my request to learn more on this topic, Dr. Chomsky recommended “A detailed and very accurate (and also hilarious) review of Wolfe, which also, at the end, has some perceptive comments on its intellectual background in the new dark ages of the deeply anti-intellectual, anti-fact world of Trump-Harpers-NY Times-National Public Radio (the “intellectual” channel), etc.”