Noam Chomsky: Inventor of Linguistics… Huh?

I just started reading Johann Hari’s latest article about Noam Chomsky, and I was welcomed to this interesting fact:

Noam Chomsky is one of the most hysterically abused figures in the world today. Even his critics have to concede that his work inventing the field of linguistics — and so beginning to decode the structure of how language is formed in the human brain — makes him one of the most important intellectuals alive.

I agree that Chomsky is an important intellectual figure, and his massive contributions to linguistics are well-documented, but he did not invent the field. Some might say reinvented… Although, I’m not sure how favourably history will view Chomsky’s shadow having loomed over linguistics for such a long time. My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that he’s largely been a positive influence, even if I find myself disagreeing with a lot of his major ideas.

3 thoughts on “Noam Chomsky: Inventor of Linguistics… Huh?”

  1. It seems to me that we have to grant Chomsky at least three things.

    1) A mode of formal reasoning about syntax that,

    2) Allowed him make a powerful argument about innateness, and

    3) Allowed a similarly powerful argument against behaviorism.

    That’s quite a bit, for it allows us to set bounds on “phenomena” in a useful way. In fact, it quite transformed the way we reason about language.

  2. I don’t know exactly who Johann Hari is, whether he’s a professional linguist or not, but in any case it’s obvious that his sentence about Chomsky is grotesque.

    I am convinced that Chomsky’s contribution to linguistics amounts to very little, and his theories will be forgotten in the future, as they’re on the whole quite useless. Now, why is it that Chomsky is still so ‘important’ in American academia? I think that’s precisely the point: it is mainly an American thing, also a phenomenon of the second ahlf of the 20th century, when America needed to be first in everything and to feel superior in any field, be it nuclear weapons or science. Naming Chomsky the king of linguistics was like saying ‘we are the best in linguistics’, an attitude that led to some kind of disregard towards non-American linguists. Now the world has changed, and attitudes are somehow softening, but the persistence of the Chomsky myth and the self-sufficiency of American linguistics shows that there’s still something wrong.

    Let’s see another example: it is true that George Lakoff’s ideas about metaphors are very interesting and influential. OK. But somehow he is presented as the ‘inventor’ of a series of proposals which in fact have a longer tradition outside America and at different periods. The logic seems to be: it’s an American thing, therefore it’s good, therefore it’s better than anything else, therefore it’s an original invention. So Chomsky invented linguistics. What’s the problem, as long as he’s American?

  3. I am convinced that Chomsky’s contribution to linguistics amounts to very little, and his theories will be forgotten in the future, as they’re on the whole quite useless.

    I wouldn’t necessarily say they are useless. There are plenty of points you can take umbrage with, but I still think he’s provided a great deal to linguistics. For instance, his book on the sound patterns of English is a great piece of work.

    But I do sympathise with your point about American academia, and the apparent marginalisation of linguists outside of this sphere.

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