A visit from Noam Chomsky

On Friday January 27th, I went to hear Noam Chomsky give a talk to the Linguistics department at the University of Maryland. Chomsky gave three public talks during his visit to UMD; a multidisciplinary dean’s lecture on Thursday afternoon, the linguistics department talk on Friday morning, and a talk at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Friday afternoon. I thought it would be especially cool to hear him talk about Linguistics, now that I’ve had some exposure to it beyond my undergraduate Cognitive Science classes.

I was, of course, supremely ignorant about Chomsky’s role in Linguistics. I had read Chafe’s criticism of Chomsky’s movement. Chafe’s criticism was introduced in part as a reaction to research such as the fMRI research that I’ve actually taken part in. But I believe that the fMRI program is a solid, albeit overused, field of study (I recently attended a conference of survey researchers where one researcher was in the process of proposing an fMRI program to analyze the survey response process), and I believe that Chafe made some solid and excellent contributions to Linguistics. I had also heard something about a split between Generative Linguistics and Functional Linguistics from my friend Holly, who appears to have studied Linguistics on a planet apart from the one I’m studying on (Two separate planets? Most likely I’m the one on the separate planet…).

Chomsky began the talk very close to my programmer’s heart. He essentially spoke of reframing the complex world of apparently complex data by its more simply structured source. As a programmer, I often see people agonizing over apparently complex patterns in data that was produced by a single programming error. As a computer scientist of sorts, I have been trained to begin by tracing apparently complex problems down to their roots, and following the roots outward until an error is encountered. The idea of looking at linguistics from this perspective appealed strongly to my training in neuroscience. I eagerly anticipated his argument.

He then spoke about his minimalist program. He mentioned his issue with the term, saying that the term was misleading, because it renamed a program of study that hadn’t changed and was simply a continuation of ongoing work. He then defended the minimalist perspective, by saying that it was simply one research program out of many. All are necessary and do different things, so if you don’t like the minimalist program, you should simply follow another. When Chomsky mentioned that some people differed with him about this ‘minimalist program,’ whatever that was, I sat up in my chair and geared up for a fight! I don’t know why people resent Chomsky so much, but maybe this was it?!

Well, touche. This was not the lead up to a fight. This was the lead up to a talk that I didn’t understand at all. He spoke in formulas, none of which were meaningful to me (I mean, what is the social context of X+Y=[XY]? Why is this such a revelatory departure from X+Y=Z? What the heck are X? And Y? And Z?). He spoke about about binding theory (never heard of it), repetitions vs copies (never heard of them in this context), and phase theory (?). He spoke mostly about internal and external merges (don’t know anything about either).

So what did I get out of the talk? I got a reminder that I think like a programmer and feel most comfortable in situations where people approach problems like computer scientists, from root to tips instead of tips to root. I also got a reminder that I’m no linguist, rather someone who is gaining valuable training in discourse analysis.

 

 

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