Understanding the nature of language and thought, or at least what they are not, is just about as important as any understanding can be. Both are at the basis of our lives; in a sense they are our lives. Is language a distinct faculty? Is it controlled by parts of the brain dedicated to language alone? Is human thought language? If it is, are we intellectual prisoners limited to thinking what language can describe, and allows us to think? Or is language a human invention? Is thought essentially independent of language, but in practice critically influenced by it? Much, politically and socially, depends indirectly on which is the correct view, and much depends on the view of linguisticians, neuroscientists and philosophers, whether they are correct or not.
The opinion of most writers on the subject seems to be that language is basic to our nature, whether it is our minds that shape language, or language that shapes our minds. Language is seen as the fascinating key to human thought and the whole human personality. The philosopher Karl Popper went so far in his reverence for language that he appeared to confuse it with reality. He believed, for instance, that small children only become aware that they are separate from others through language, at the time they begin to say "I". note 1
Noam Chomsky thinks that the form of language is determined inescapably by the form of the mind. Most of his academic colleagues seem to do little but devise or develop barren systems of linguistic analysis merely for the sake of analysis. Chomsky at least has a worthwhile ambition. He aspires to contribute to the understanding of human psychology. In Antilinguistics I have tried to both illustrate the pointlessness of most modern linguistics, and demonstrate in detail the illogicalities and frequent absurdities of Chomskyan linguistics in particular. note 2 Here I want to discuss briefly a few of the claims in Chomskyan linguistic theory and point out a number of what I think are elementary mistakes. I want to do this because Chomsky's ideas have strongly influenced people's views on the 'authority' of language in our lives, and also because discussion of those ideas indirectly raises important issues of intellectual authority, in both principle and practice.
The American philosopher John Searle explains Chomsky's argument for the existence of his well-known 'universal grammar' as follows:
"The syntax that Chomsky comes up with is extremely abstract and complicated, and that raises the question: 'How can little children learn a language when it is so complex?' You can't teach a small child axiomatic set-theory; yet Chomsky showed that English is far more complicated in structure than axiomatic set-theory. How is it, then, that little kids can learn it? His answer was that, in a sense, they already know it. It is a mistake to suppose that the mind is a blank tablet. What happens is that the form of all natural languages is programmed into a child's mind from birth." (Magee, 1982, p.170)
This circular argument is an example of the false assumptions on which the Chomskyan theory to a large extent rests. Chomsky erects a frighteningly complicated and abstract system of syntax, without evidence that it exists as a psychological reality; he then uses its very difficulty to suggest that therefore its mastery must be inborn.
So the forms human language can take, Chomsky maintains, are biologically determined. Well, it is obvious that language is the product of the human mind. What else would it be? Chomsky, though, wants to go much further. Yet his and his supporters' argument sometimes depends on plain and simple errors. Several are evident in a much-acclaimed book by Steven Pinker, The language instinct (Pinker, 1995). Pinker argues (p.43) that:
"The universal constraints on grammatical rules also show that the basic form of language cannot be explained away as the inevitable outcome of a drive for usefulness. Many languages, widely scattered over the globe, have auxiliaries, and like English, many languages move the auxiliary to the front of the sentence to form questions and other constructions, always in a structure-dependent way. But this is not the only way one could design a question rule. One could just as effectively. flip the first and last words, or utter the entire sentence in mirror-reversed order. The particular ways that languages do form questions are arbitrary, species-wide conventions; we don't find them in artificial systems like computer programming languages or the notation of mathematics. The universal plan underlying languages, with auxiliaries and inversion rules. and so on, seems to suggest a commonality in the brains of speakers, because many other plans would have been just as useful."
But what Pinker asserts here is untrue. One cannot always "just as effectively. flip the first and last words, or utter the entire sentence in mirror-reversed order" to form a question. If we take the statement Cats chase mice. and apply to it what is both a first and last word flip, and a mirror reversal, we get Mice chase cats. which cannot effectively be used as a question, since it is already a different statement with a meaning the reverse of Cats chase mice. So there is surely a good practical reason why people do not use first and last flip or mirror reversal for forming questions out of three-word statements like this.
It might be objected that Mice chase cats is a perfectly effective way of forming a question out of Cats chase mice because one can always use intonation to make clear one means a question. Intonation is indeed used to distinguish meanings; it is often used to distinguish between statement and question although an identical sequence of words is used for both. In Italian, for instance, Paolo aiuta Maria can mean either "Paolo helps Maria" or "Does Paolo help Maria?", according to the tone of voice. Precisely because of this, to mirror-reverse a word order to produce a question when there is no need to, and when it would only complicate matters, would be an impractical and foolish thing for people to do, and so they don't. note 3
David Bond has pointed out to me how Pinker shifts without obvious justification from talking about "many languages" to "languages" and finally to talking about "species-wide conventions" and the "universal plan underlying languages". What exactly are these "particular ways" that languages form questions? What is noticeable, actually, about the ways humans have chosen to ask questions is the diversity, not the "commonality", and a diversity, moreover, both within languages and between them. In Japanese, for instance, no inversion, nor, indeed, tinkering of any kind with the word order is involved in the formation of questions. Neko desu. ( ねこ です。 Cat is.) "It's a cat." The question is formed by simply adding the particle ka ( か ) Neko desu ka? ( ねこ ですか。 Cat is question.) "Is it a cat?"
As Bond says, many other languages, modern Greek and Italian among them, can make statements with the subject either at the beginning or the end of the sentence. The statement "Maria has telephoned" can be expressed in Greek by either Η Μαρια τηλεφωνε or Τηλεφωνε η Μαρια , or, in Italian, by Maria ha telefonato. or Ha telefonato Maria. All four of these statements could equally well serve as questions, given the appropriate intonation. Word order here does not in the least depend on whether question or statement is intended, but on the nature of the emphasis required.
In effect, in most cases such languages distinguish questions from statements solely by intonation, a device which by no stretch of the imagination could be characterized as 'structure-dependent'. This entirely pragmatic method of forming questions is frequently used even in English, and in contemporary French is arguably as common as any other. Chomsky really said that? Pinker a vraiment йcrit зa? This structure-free interrogative is perhaps the only one that is truly "universal" and "species-wide". This principle finds its simplest expression in the one-word question: Cigarette?
There seem in fact to
be two problems with Pinker's statements about questions. He implies that there is actually no language in the world that uses first and last word flip or mirror reversal to produce questions. He is here making the same mistake that Chomsky made already many years ago. In a discussion with Stuart Hampshire broadcast by the BBC on 17th October 1968 Chomsky maintained that
"universal grammar – that means that set of properties which is common to any natural language, necessarily, by biological necessity. [has] very explicit restrictions on the kind of operations that can occur, restrictions that we can easily imagine violating. Well, er, let me give just a trivial example. If a mathematician were asked to design operations on sentences, he would think automatically of certain very elementary operations, such as, say, er, reading [sic] the sentence from back to front, or, say, permuting the third word with the tenth word, and so on and so forth. However, such simple operations simply do not exist in natural language. For example, there is no natural language which forms questions by, er, reading a declarative sentence backwards. Now. it's not so obvious why that should be so, because it's a very simple operation. It's a much simpler operation to state than the operation by which we formulate questions in English, let's say, as you can discover by trying to formulate that operation. Nevertheless, the principles that determine what operations may apply in a natural language preclude such simple operations as reading the sentence backwards. all of the operations that apply to sentences are structure dependent operations. – that's an example of a simple linguistic universal that you can't explain on the grounds of communicative efficiency, or simplicity, or anything of that sort, it must simply be a biological property of the human mind.
Well, I think what are interesting are the kinds of principles which are universal, but not merely by accident, that is, not merely that no language violates them, but rather that no language could violate them. They're universal in that sense. And secondly. principles that do not have the property that you just mentioned, namely that they are somehow necessary for organisms of approximately our size and er, role in the world. I think the interesting universals are the ones which are not necessary in this sense, and there are many such. For example, I've just mentioned two, actually. second the principle that makes it impossible to form a question, let's say, by reading the sentence back to front. Now, neither of these principles is at all necessary for communicative efficiency. these are formal principles which one can easily imagine a language which violated these principles.[sic]. Instead of having our complicated rule for the formation of questions, this language would have a very simple rule, so the question associated with 'John saw Bill' – you know, 'John saw Bill yesterday', would be 'Yesterday Bill saw John', or something of that sort."
Why did Chomsky change a three-word declarative sentence into a four-word one? Was it because he too saw the weakness in what he was about to say? This question needs to be answered, because so much of Chomsky's and Pinker's whole view of language seems to rest on this double point that languages do not actually use formulations that they could in fact "just as effectively" use.
On one hand it is hard to see how mirror-reversing a three-word statement would be an effective way of forming a question, and on the other it is difficult to understand what is meant by Chomsky's statement and Pinker's implication that no natural human language forms questions in this back to front way. Is that not precisely what many languages do, such as German.
Sie Rauchen. / Rauchen Sie?
(You smoke. / Smoke you? = Do you smoke?)
So what we find is that it is very common for people to use back-to-front or mirror-reversal word orders to make questions out of two-word sequences, while the same system is very rarely, possibly never, used for three-word sequences. Don't simple basic facts like these strongly support the idea that language and languages are indeed inventions devised as practical instruments of communication? Inversion of two words to make a question is simple and clear and involves no problems, so it is one obvious method for humans to choose for making questions. Mirror-reversal of three words is not. It is surely such practicalities that determine the way humans order their words.
The reversed pair can be attached as a unit to sentences of many more words than two, without the question meaning being lost:
Smoke you all day long, or only after meals?
Such reversed pairs of course in practice often consist of more than two words, which in the equivalent English would be, for example:
Your younger brother smokes. / Smokes your younger brother?
But here we still in effect have a pair, two units or ideas, one being smokes. and the other your younger brother. At this point Chomskyans will start to talk about 'structure dependency' again and claim that humans are only able to identify the units correctly because they are genetically programmed to recognize that your younger brother (for example) is a discrete or distinct abstract grammatical structure. As we shall see later, this begs the question. What the speaker (or listener) recognizes is a distinct, separate reality in 'life'. your younger brother. Nobody can recognize this as a linguistic unit until they recognize the meaning of the words, and at that point recognition of an abstract structure is irrelevant.
Here perhaps is Pinker's basic mistake, that is to say, believing that subjects, for instance, exist as grammatical abstractions independently of meanings, that your younger brother and subject are two different things. But "subject" is nothing more than a name given by grammarians to the meaning of a particular sort of relationship in real life – in this case an 'actor' relationship. Speakers and listeners don't need abstract analysis to produce or understand that meaning.
There is a clear example of what I believe to be Pinker's confusion on p.42 of The language instinct. where he writes that in a sentence like It is raining
"the it. of course, does not refer to anything; it is a dummy element that is there only to satisfy the rules of syntax, which demand a subject."
I have discussed these postulated – and actually non-existent - dummies in some detail in Antilinguistics (pp.105-11). But what rules of syntax are these? If Pinker means they are universal rules of syntax, he is clearly wrong. Italian, to take just one example, is constrained by no such rules.
Piove. – Is raining.
they say in Italy. No subject 'dummy' needs to be set out. But if he means that it is just English rules of syntax he is talking about, it is hard to see how that helps his case that all children have an innate grasp of abstract structure.
Pinker also asserts (1995, pp.111-12) that
". if a language has the verb before the object, as in English, it will also have prepositions; if it has the verb after the object, as in Japanese, it will have postpositions [= 'prepositions' after, not before, their nouns].
"This is a remarkable discovery. It means that the super-rules suffice not only for all phrases in English but for all phrases in all languages. when children learn a particular language, they do not have to learn a long list of rules. All they have to learn is whether their particular language has the parameter value head-first, as in English, or head-last, as in Japanese. Huge chunks of grammar are then available to the child, all at once, as if the child were merely flipping a switch to one of two possible positions."
Again the whole hypothesis is based on a falsehood. Not all verb-object languages have prepositions. For example, Finnish combines the verb-object pattern with postpositions.