Friday, April 14, 2006


We were present recently at a press conference called by MIT’s Department of Linguistics so that Professor Noam Chomsky could present findings in furtherance of his claim regarding the existence of the so-called ‘universal grammar’ – the idea that there is a structure common to all languages. The press conference was opened by a graduate student who made preliminary remarks before introducing the professor.

Student: Death to Amerika! We are pleased to present our illustrious professor, our sensei, our guru, our rinpoche, who will present further findings – unmistakeable proof, in fact – of the existence of universal grammar. And so, without further ado, Professor Chomsky…
(Applause noted as Chomsky approaches microphone.)
Chomsky: Thank you. Yes. Death to Amerika. Thank you. Please be seated. Due to certain criticisms, hardly justified, in my view, that the precepts of universal grammar cannot be categorically established based on a study of only one language – English – I have decided to make further research results known. Therefore I have selected three other languages, randomly chosen, and subjected them to careful review in order to reinforce that which is I think hardly necessary to have to state explicitly – indisputable proof of universal grammar. These languages exhibit – at least to the trained linguist, highly skilled in comparisons of this nature – what can only be described as a remarkable similarity across a broad number of fronts: not just vocabulary, but grammatical structures even down to a fairly narrow level. The conclusions are unmistakeable, although hardly surprising. We will leave copies of this study for your review.

Reporter 1: What were the three languages studied?

Chomsky: Quite frankly, it’s not that relevant. Any three languages would do as well.

Reporter 1: Yes, but just for the record…

Chomsky: Well, one of them was Danish.

Reporter 2: And the others…?

Chomsky: Uh…I think one of the other ones was possibly Norwegian.

Reporter 2: Norwegian? And the third?

Chomsky: (mumbles)

Reporter 1: What was that?

Chomsky: Swshish.

Reporter 2: Swshish?

Chomsky: Swedish.

Reporter 2: The three languages you studied in order to prove your notions of universal grammar were Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish? Aren’t those languages from the very same Northern sub-group of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages?
Chomsky: I would hardly call them "the same" in any sense. Each of these countries has its own government, its own capital, its own currency, its own system of laws, its own tourist bureau. Clearly these are independent and autonomous nations, each with, in fact, its own official language: Danish, in the case of Denmark, Norwegian in the case of Norway, and, of course, Swedish in the case of Sweden.
Reporter 1: Well, what about Finnish? That language is spoken in Scandinavia as well. Why didn’t you include Finnish in your study? Was it because Finnish is very different in its grammatical structure from Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish?
Chomsky: A common misconception, which explains why we are reluctant to put this information into the public domain, as it is easily misunderstood. Finnish scarcely differs at all from the others except on the most superficial level. To give a simple example, it is possible to say, just as easily in Finnish as in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, "The reindeer cross the fjords on the ice floes."
Reporter 2: So you are saying that, because each of these languages can express the same ideas, the languages are on some deep level, fundamentally the same?

Chomsky: It’s so obvious, one could hardly dispute it.

Reporter 1: So what is it that are you saying that "universality" in language actually is? Is it similarity of structure or is it the ability of languages to express the same ideas?

Chomsky: Yes.

Reporter 1: Yes, what?

Chomsky: Exactly.

Reporter 2: But wait a second. You couldn’t say, "The reindeer cross the fjords on the ice floes." in a sub-Saharan language such as, say, Zulu, because the concepts of "reindeer" , "ice floes" and "fjords" are unknown in that part of the world. Thus, Zulu can't be in the same 'language universe' as Finnish, now, can it?
Chomsky: Any speaker of the Zulu language worth his salt will look into his inner language faculty and call forth these words as needed.
Reporter 1: Wait a minute, Professor Chomsky. Wouldn’t it have been a fairer and more exacting study to show results among three languages such as…I don’t know, say, Zulu, Cantonese, and the Guatemalan language called Jacaltec?
Chomsky: I have no idea why you would suggest those choices, but perhaps you do.
Reporter 1: Well, because these languages are completely unrelated.

Chomsky: That’s still three languages, the same as in my study.

Reporter 1: Three very different languages, in my case.

Chomsky: At least my choices were random.

Reporter 1: Professor Chomsky, you could not have randomly chosen from all the thousands of languages in the world and come up with Danish, Swedish and Norwegian.
Chomsky: I find it amazing that you somehow know what my methods were. Your choices, on the other hand, seem to be based on some sort of pre-calculated geographical distribution scheme, motivated by who knows what. Hardly objective in any sense.
Reporter 2: But Professor Chomsky, obviously any study of universal grammar based on three wholly unrelated languages would be far more instructive than a study based on three languages which are closely related, no matter what method was used to choose them.
Chomsky: It is obvious, but hardly surprising, that the statements you make are characteristic of a so-called ‘liar liar’ and that your pants are, more or less relevant to the point, ‘on fire’.

Reporter 2: I am not a liar.

Chomsky: Are so.

Reporter 2: Am not.

Chomsky: Are so.

Reporter 2: Am not.

Chomsky: Are so.

(Student steps in front of microphone.)

Student: Don’t worry, Noam. I’ll take care of this. Gentlemen, now you see why we rarely make statements for public consumption. The general public, Amerikans in particular, are simply incapable of understanding concepts of theoretical linguistics at this level. This concludes our press conference. Death to Amerika!
An Anti-Chomsky article published by John Williamson on The Anti-Chomskyan Redoubt.