I have occasionally made offhand remarks indicating my dislike for Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories and, still worse, his effect on the field, but I have not had the heart to go into detail; I’m worn out from all the arguing I did about him back when I was an actual linguist (now, I just play one on the internet). Fortunately, my procrastination has paid off (as it so often does), and Scott Martens has done the job for me. I direct anyone who wants to know exactly how wrong and destructive Chomsky has been to go forthwith to Pedantry and scroll down to “Friday, July 25, 2003: My carefully considered and well earned aversion to Noam Chomsky” (I won’t even try to provide a permalink, Blogger being what it is). Quick summary: “His principles ultimately produced nothing, and may well have set linguistics back decades. The day will come when his legacy is compared to Skinner’s, and when historians of the social sciences will debate which one ultimately caused the most damage.” But there’s much, much more.
Addendum. Scott expands on the subject in the comments to this entry.

A caveat: after sixteen paragraphs, you will reach the sentence “There was some more stuff I was going to say about Cambodia.” You can stop there, unless you’re particularly interested in the still-simmering argument over exactly what Uncle Noam said about the Khmer Rouge 25 years ago and whether it was justified given what was known at the time. As Scott says, “There’s something about that country that seems to drive its students mad.”


  1. *does happy dance*
    Just goes to show that my husband’s linguistics department is deeply retrograde in its Chomskybottism — or is that Chomskybotulism? Which is encouraging, I must say.
    (No worries; my husband is NOT a Chomskybot.)
    The bit about proof-shifting was evident to me even in the basic syntax class. Pfeh.

  2. thanks for the link! As a BA (cum laude) in linguistics, now doing an MA in TESOL, and thinking about a MA/PH.D program in linguistics again, I am glad to see I’m not the only one who despises Noam.
    I teach ESL to adults, and many of them like his politics. Whenever they mention Chomsky, I have the unfortunate reaction of blurting out, “I hate him!” and they are shocked. Then I have to explain why, but I don’t know if many of them believe me that my distaste — gut-level distaste -is caused exactly by what is discussed in that well-reasoned post. Plus a couple of other points, too..

  3. Maybe I missed something, but the post seemed to make lots of sweeping claims without any support for any of its points. Not that I like Chomsky – as a linguistic anthropologist I’m quite put-off by the idea that linguistics is so removed from how language is actually used – but still, having studied a little linguistics, I find it hard to believe the claim that Chomsky contributed “nothing”. For one thing, there does seem to be some empirical verification of some of his theories within the fields of child language acquisition as well as studies on people with brain injuries, not to mention comparative work across langauges. For instance, the fact that children never make certain kinds of linguistic “mistakes” and that certains structures don’t exist in any langauge seems to support some of Chomsky’s basic claims. I’m not at all familiar with the arguments within linguistics against Chomsky – but, unfortunately, reading this link didn’t really do much to change that. So, LH, I’m afraid you are still not “off the hook”… something still needs to be written which makes the case against Chomsky to a non-specialist. Like I said, I personally come from a very different tradition, in which “dialog” not “the sentence” is the basic unit of analysis and my gripe with Chomsky is that he considers actual language use to be outside the scope of linguistics. But it seems that the linked post is arguing that at the level of the “sentence” there are significant failings with Chomsky, I’d like to know what those are specifically…

  4. Kerim, I am not familiar enough with the studies you cite to try dealing with them; I can only assure you that from within the linguistic tradition in the strict (non-anthropological/sociological) sense there is every reason to suppose that whatever data may seem to support him are likely to have been chosen for that purpose. I’m afraid I can’t improve on Scott’s formulation. But if you dislike Chomsky anyway, you may as well just take our word for it that there are even more reasons to do so!

  5. Kerim, you’re point is fair criticism. I did not offer supporting grounds for my case against Chomsky’s linguistics. On a blog, in short format, when I know that most of my readers are not in the language business, if I had written such a post it would have taken more of my time and resources than I can offer it, and no one would have read it. But you probably shouldn’t take my word for it.
    I can’t just point to a book on linguistics for the non-specialist that really dedicates itself to dismantling Chomsky and Chomsky-inspired approaches. Frankly, most of the books in English about linguistics for non-specialists are written by people from within the Chomskyan tradition (e.g. Pinker). The most important single exception I can think of is George Lakoff’s books. In Philosophy in the Flesh, he spends a fair amount of time attacking a number of key Chomskyan principles. It is the only resource off the top of my head that I can point you to.
    I can only assure you that there are contesting interpretations of all those studies. I can offer you a few brief pointers.
    For the brain lesion studies, I personally have a soft spot for the notion of “emergent modularity” advanced by Annette Karmiloff-Smith in Beyond Modularity. The primary data in support of her conclusion is that young children who suffer brain damage to the “language centres” of the brain are very often capable of learning language just as well as children without lesions. The MRI evidence shows fairly conclusively that they just use a different part of the brain to do language. This suggests that even if language is identified to some degree with one area of the brain (to what degree is still an open question), localisation seems to be the result of learning a language, not its precondition. This undermines the idea of innate modularity in language which is so central to Chomsky and to post-Chomskyans like Pinker.
    As for the types of morphological errors children make as they learn their first language, I wrote my second last school thesis on neural network solutions to this problem, starting with Jeff Elman’s work in the early 90’s. The debate ran through the late 90’s but seems to have faded out of view recently. In 1997, Gert Westermann showed how a certain kind of neural network produced results that explained those errors in English quite effectively without pre-existing linguistic knowledge or any kind of explicitly encoded rules. His conclusion claims to preserve one aspect of Pinker’s model: the “two-track” model of morphology. However, he does not seem to understand that Pinker means something very different from Westermann when he says “two-track.”
    I work mostly in empirical computational linguistics. How language actually gets used is exactly what I study. If I didn’t compeletly ignore the competence/performance distinction, what I do would be impossible.

  6. Cliff Crawford says:

    Hi Kerim,
    You might also be interested in Geoffrey Sampson’s “Educating Eve: The `Language Instinct’ Debate”, which criticizes Chomsky’s and Pinker’s theories of language innateness.

  7. One of Chomsky’s strengths, too, is his utter inability to write well. It’s very tedious to criticise a work if halfway through you find yourself obliged to kill yourself from exposure to ugly syntax and an absolute disregard for standard idioms. (a comment)
    Excuse me, I thought I was the only one who had ever had that reaction to Chomsky.

  8. Thanks Scott,
    From what I know, Chomsky himself is quite upset with Pinker’s characterizations of his arguments. I think the “modular” aspect and the “instinct” aspect does need to be separated. Chomsky clearly makes an argument about the former, but the latter seems somewhat incidental to his theory. But it seems as if Annette Karmiloff-Smith’s book attacks the modularity argument as well (hence the title) so that seems worth looking into.
    I’m also somewhat familiar with nural network approaches to phonology, having studied phonology under someone who was very into optimality theory – but that wasn’t presented as being anti-Chomskian. In fact, it was simply presented as a better tool to do the job. I would need to understand more to see how one invalidated the other.
    I guess my problem comes down to the fact that I see “empirical” as good, but “empiricist” as bad. The competence/performance distinction far predates Chomsky and goes back at least as far as Saussure. Chomksy’s work certainly re-engergized attemts to describe what competence means and to try to formally describe what such competence entails. That he has had to try several times and keeps starting again with some new model is certainly a good reason to be sceptical of the whole enterprise – and I do think it needs a more empirical focus. However, I worry about tossing the baby out with the bathwater and denying the very existence of such a distinction or its utility.

  9. It’s true that some of the ideas I have attributed to Chomsky do predate him – not just the competence/performance distinction but headless phrase structure grammar as well. Chomsky’s argument is very much for an account of language which is quite strictly modular and innate to the point where there ought to be no genuine distinction in linguistic abilities between healthy people. Where he and Pinker go their separate ways is on the evolution of language. Chomsky thinks – if I understand him correctly – that innate linguistic competence is the result of some other cognitive capacity being turned to some novel end, while Pinker advocates a strictly adaptationist account.
    The constraint satisfaction school of neural networking is borderline compatible with some aspects of the Chomskyan approach. It is fairly neutral with regard to modularity and innateness. However, there is no easy way to take a neural network approach and explicitly encode rules of language. There are a couple of really hard ways. Pinker has, as a result, rejected the usefulness of connectionist modelling completely. I have to admit, I’ve never seen a word from Chomsky about neural networks per se, but I just can’t see anything that can be salvaged of his work in syntax without explicit rules, and neural networks just don’t afford themselves to explicit rules.
    As for the competence/performance distinction – I’ll agree that there is a principled position that only admits that perhaps the distinction has been overblown. The thing is, I just don’t think one can separate any aspect of language from communicative context. People communicate in a manner predicated by their abilities and the communicative demands placed on them. There are several different ideas of what competence means, but at the core of all the ones I can think of is a notion that there exists a kind of language-as-abstraction in people’s heads, and any failure to live up to that abstraction is due to flawed communication channels.
    I agree with you about empiricism. I’m not an empiricist. Most of the time I’m a sort of environmental engineer, designing software to feed texts to translators in the manner most conducive to them, and the stream of text flowing through the system I work on is a sort of environmental restriction on my activities. Even when I did more theoretical work (and in the future, when I hope to be doing so again), there is an engineering aspect to it. I build machines, and I like theories that help me build machines, not merely data-driven observations. I know it’s not the only way to work, but it’s the one that works for me.

  10. As a recovering linguist, I, too, have always had to explain my aversion to the world of “Norm” (as an old friend at Berkeley refers to him.
    The Chomskyan revolution, to my mind, is simply part of a larger (lemming-like) drive throughout the social sciences and humanities to introduce “rigor”–hence, the concentration on theory and theory construction to the exclusion of all else.
    Remember, most of Chomsky’s fiercest critics were once his disciples.

  11. How about a list, AP? 🙂
    Something to cheer my husband up when he’s talked to his Chomskybot department chair.

  12. Dorothea: Post-Chomskian Feuding in linguistics? How long have you got?
    Paul Postal honed his debating style (aptly summarised as “calling everyone else stupid”) in the service of the Chomskter before his apostacy. Jim McCawley, George Lakoff and other Generative Semanticists acromoniously split from the Mothership – there’s a book called “The Linguistics Wars” about this. Pullum’s “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax (and other essays)” is repeatedly scathing. Gary Gazdar of the Second Great Heresy (renouncing transformations in favour of a return to PSGs) is dismissive of Chomsky’s contribution in this interview.
    Instances could, as they say, be multiplied.

  13. This debate reminds me of the unfortuantely unattributed quote, “people get ahead in other disciplines by standing on each other’s shoulders, but linguists get ahead by standing on each other’s necks.”

  14. I am an undergraduate linguistics student at the University of Arizona, and, as a beginning student, it is odd for me to read such vitriolic statements against Chomsky and his theories. Of the three professors I’ve had in class thus far, all of them are Chomskyan (Chomskian?) supporters with two of them being avid Chomsky freaks. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard ‘colorless green ideas sleep furiously’! Very irritating. The consensus among my classmates seems to be mostly students who are sick of hearing about him but accept his theories as valid and a few who would (desperately, in some cases) like to be pointed in the direction of some anti-Chomsky literature, if only for a change of pace. As for myself, I think I’ll pick up a copy of ‘Educating Eve’ since ‘the Language Instinct’ was “highly recommended” (ie required) reading for my 201 class.

  15. Of the three professors I’ve had in class thus far, all of them are Chomskyan
    And you wonder why people are vitriolic? The man has cornered the market! Of course the students “accept his theories as valid”; students (except for the usual malcontents) accept what they’re given. And in this case it’s bull hockey.

  16. No scientifical founding is beyond contestation, Chomsky contributed a lot to the development of linguistic: He raised questions which we must be thankful of 🙂 Eventhough chomky’s work generates lots of “whats” and “the hecks” they all brought linguistics to a majuscule scale.
    Just like when Einstein came and step on Newton, someone might come and do the same thing to Chomsky. So, rather than yack whether his ideas are valid or not, it will be better if we do a research or study then come up with something that can counter chomsky’s foundings, and the same time contribute to the linguistics society.

  17. hmmm. i think you are all a bit unfair to chomsky to say he has contributed nothing goes a bit far, everyone in any field of study has contributed something whether it be simply a theory for people to reject, they have still contributed to people coming up with alternative theories.
    i myself dont totally agree with chomsky’s innateness theory but i think it cant simply be rejected as it does make sense on some levels and attempts to explain how babies and small children learn correct grammar despite deficient data around them to learn from (eg adults who talk usuing slang, abbreviations, make grammatical errors, use jargon and produce incomplete or abbreviated sentences. Behavioural theories cannot explain this…
    i think chomsky should be given some credit at least for attempting to explain what others haven’t and for coming up with a feasible theory.

  18. Richard Weavers says:

    I’ve just stumbled across this site, maybe two and a half years too late. Y’aull still there?
    I’m particularly interested in Scott Martens’s comment:
    “Friday, July 25, 2003: My carefully considered and well earned aversion to Noam Chomsky”…,
    which I think is a prevalent enough feeling to deserve a name. If you’re there, Scott Martens, could you email me, please?
    Richard Weavers

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