Conditional Sentences

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8—AGENDA—DECEMBER 1998

Noam Chomsky on
LANGUAGE
by Aaron Stark
Why should one be interested in
studying language? Noam Chomsky’s
answer to this question in part characterizes the importance of his linguistic theories to modern thought. In his view, to truly study language is to study a part of
human nature, manifested in the human
mind. What does he mean by this? To
begin, one has to understand what
Chomsky thinks the nature of human languages actually is, and why it is so interesting. One of the fundamental aspects of human language, according to
Chomsky, is its creative nature. The last
sentence (and, in fact, this one) have
probably never been produced before in
the history of the world. the same is true
for much of what we say every day. So,
we do not seem to learn or to speak language by purely imitating other people. How are we able to judge
whether a sentence sounds okay? Can we
literally have a list of sentences in our
mind against which we check each new
sentence we hear? Chomsky argues not,
since our brains are finite but English is
potentially infinite (consider the sentences “I like the number one”, “I like the number one and I like the number
two”, “I like the number one and I like
the number two and I like the number
three,” etc.).
Can we process each new sentence by analogy with ones that we’ve heard before? Chomsky argues that this
is not possible either, since, he claims,
analogies are too loose to explain our understanding of complex sentences. For instance, if we remove the last two words
of the simple sentence “Abby is baking
vegan muffins” we get a sentence that
means she’s baking something (maybe
muffins, maybe not). But if (by analogy)
we remove the same words from the complex sentence “Abby is too tasteful to pour gravy on vegan muffins” we get
“Abby is too tasteful to pour gravy on,”
which should (by the analogy) mean she
doesn’t pour gravy on something, but intead means that no one should pour ravy on her.
In contrast to these alternate
heories, Chomsky argues that we can
ake these judgements because we posess an abstract system of unconscious nowledge about our language. This sysem of knowledge includes, for starters, nowledge about sentence structure and
ord order (we know that “Bites the dog
an” is not the way to express the meanng that the dog is biting a man). It also ncludes knowledge about meaning (we
now that when we speak of a brown
ouse, it is the outside of the house that
s brown, not the inside), and knowledge

about sounds (we can tell when someone is speaking with an accent not our own). Chomsky argues that this knowledge of language is separate from other types of knowledge that we have; that
we don’t just use general-purpose strategies (like analogy) to make the judgements that we do. To possess this kind of knowledge, says Chomsky, is what it
means to “know English” (or any other
language).
How do we come by this knowledge of language; how do we learn our native language? It’s not likely that parents explicitly teach kids these rules in the cradle. And, because of both the abstractness of the rules and the complexity of the samples of languages that even infants hear, Chomsky doesn’t think that

general smarts can do the job either.
(Children with otherwise severe learning difficulties often learn language easily.) Instead, he argues that something specifically about human language must
be innate—that is, available to us by virtue of being human, specified somehow in our genetic makeup.
Chomsky is not saying that humans are born with English or Vietnamese or any other language ‘hardwired-in’. These innate properties must be properties available to all human languages. According to one theory, these properties are composed of principles and parameters— what is called ‘universal grammar’— principles being universal to all human languages, with cross-language

variation accounted for by parameters
each of which can be set in any...
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