Monday, September 04, 2006

Why Chomsky’s Linguistic Theory Has To Be Wrong

One of the problems in criticizing Chomskyan theory in linguistics is that it can be a bit . . . well, arcane. The terminology is not very accessible to any but specialists. Few outside the Chomskyan priesthood actually do understand the buzzwords, and there is no effort whatsoever to make these ideas accessible to the general reader. The public often hears some snippet reporting the latest startling conclusion, with little idea as to how it was arrived at.
Another problem is that Chomskyan theory is constantly being revised, much like the old Soviet five-year plans. I doubt that when the Sixties-era Chomskyans were exploring the old and discredited theory of transformations, they had any idea that turn-of-the-millennium Chomskyans would be examining probes and goals.
Finally, the biggest problem is that key problems in linguistics can be quite complicated, requiring not merely an expert-level knowledge of grammar, but a willingness to follow proofs which can run to great lengths.
And so what might be desired is to come up with a very simple example which might show the world that the fundamental ideas underlying Chomskyan theory are flawed. There are probably many such ideas, if one scoured enough of any given language, but one will do for a start.
Let’s start with these examples:
The bible is one of the only books that survived the fire.
George was one of the only lieutenants who were promoted to captain.
We hear or read sentences like this all the time – in news reports or in magazines and journals. Writers use this structure, editors approve it, and readers or listeners think they understand it.
The only problem is this: such sentences are meaningless. The problem is in the word only. It does not mean few.
What does it mean, then? Note that we could say:
Cars are owned by only one million Chinese.
One million is a lot of people, but compared to the total population of China, one million is a small number.
So the meaning of only is not few, but relatively few. Now if you are a true-blue Chomskyan, you believe that grammar is innate. The brain automatically and correctly employs the various grammatical structures of your language, because these structures are built in and ready to go. But clearly people are misusing this structure, even those who are educated and possess the ability to speak and write well.
What is lacking in examples such as the above is some way of showing ‘how few.’ One grammatical way of doing this is as follows:
The bible is one of (the) only three books that survived the fire. (out of a possible one thousand in the house)
George was one of (the) only five hundred lieutenants who were promoted to captain. (out of a possible eight hundred being considered for promotion.)
Guang was one of (the) only one million Chinese who owned a car. (out of 1,200,000,000 living Chinese.)
We have to show only three out of one thousand, only five hundred out of eight hundred, etc., because the purpose of the only structure is to show how relatively few an occurrence was in comparison to the maximum possible occurrences (one thousand books saved, eight hundred lieutenants promoted, 1.2 billion Chinese car owners).
Another way of showing relatively few does not require placing a number after only. I could hold up three books in my hand and say:
These are the only books saved from the fire.
You could count the three books in my hand or otherwise perceive that the number was very small, and you could then deduce that the number of surviving books was relatively small. Let’s call this the deictic structure.
But the facts are pretty clear: a great many people do not automatically know how to use this structure properly, and many more hear or read the structure and think they understand what it means when in fact it is only meaningful if one mistakenly assumes that only means few.
If Chomskyan theory were correct, this could not be the case. Everyone would know innately the difference between few and relatively few. Everyone would know that, except in the demonstrative structure, a number must follow only, and each speaker or writer would include it in one’s speech or writing; if it were inadvertently left out – as people often do make mistakes when they speak or write – everyone hearing or reading such speech or writing would pick up the error instantly, as they do when they hear or read common errors.
The facts I have described illustrate a clear violation of Chomsky’s main premise. And so when we say that people learn a language, including one’s own, this doesn’t mean that one merely turns a switch and all the structures light up in the brain. It means that we learn the structures by imitation, by analogy, and by a logical building process which goes on for many years. Some people master all the various structures relatively quickly, some get most of it but miss a few things, and some never gain much mastery over language. One can see this phenomenon in daily life, and it’s perfectly obvious and irrefutable, even though, as in the example above, it invalidates Chomsky’s theory.