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The Emperor's New Linguistics
A Review of Steven Pinker's book The Language Instinct
and The Human Language Series for videotape
ATA Chronicle, August, 1995

If we are to believe a best-selling book and a recent three-part PBS series, almost every question about human language has now been resolved. Language is essentially a simple endowment present at birth, all the world's languages are really very similar with only "trivial" exceptions, and the whole point of a language is merely to be able to say and understand things one has never said or heard before. We owe these triumphant findings to the Chomskian school of linguistics, most recently advanced by Steven Pinker's book The Language Instinct and the TV presentation entitled The Human Language Series (1).

Translators can perhaps be excused if they fail to join in the celebration, especially since the index of Pinker's book does not even contain the word "translation," nor were any translators consulted in creating the TV series, though representatives from several dubiously scientific language specialties certainly were. But these two recent treatments may nonetheless have their positive side. Where before Chomskian doctrines lay relatively hidden in abstruse treatises, pedantic classroom assertions, and cabalistic sentence diagrams, now at last they have been revealed to all in relatively direct language, so that their shallowness and banality can no longer be ignored.

As most translators have learned from continued struggles to provide a real equivalent between two idioms, the differences between the world's languages are definitely not "trivial," even if one accepts this word in the broader sense encouraged by Chomsky of differentiating human languages from communications between animals or "intelligent machines" (to the extent that any final knowledge is available about either category). Nor is it enough for a language to merely create new sentences—it can be argued that two other equally important and closely related goals of a language are to convey some sort of meaning to others and/or at least to gratify one's own sense of understanding (even where one fails to understand).

If differences between languages truly were trivial, and if merely generating new sentences were the principal point of language, machine translation in its ultimate form of Fully Automatic High Quality Translation (FAHQT) would have long ago been attained, which is clearly not the case. The period when Chomsky and his followers first began their work coincided with the heyday of sacrosanct mainframe ideology: it was simply assumed that computers could solve any problem. We now know better, and the continued propagandizing of such theories is simply an embarrassment left over from the past. In a sense Chomsky himself has now come down from his pedestal and stands naked among us.

Perhaps these popularizing polemics are most objectionable in their attempt to bury earlier linguistic theories of possibly greater merit. This effort reaches a new low in academic name-calling in Pinker's attack on Benjamin Lee Whorf, whose major thesis was nothing more shocking than the notion, commonly noted by translators and laymen alike, that language and "reality" tend to become interdependent, co-creating, and co-correcting elements of our world views. Perhaps the real problem is that Whorf never received a formal degree in Linguistics, even though his findings strongly influenced Edward Sapir and many others allegedly his academic superiors. Indeed, until recently his views were known as the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis.

Equally striking is Pinker's attempt to deemphasize the concept of "deep structure" as a major component of Chomskian dogma. In the past this notion supposedly accounted for the many different ways of expressing similar ideas in different languages (or even in the same language)—underlying all of them lay the safety net of "deep structure." Critics were quick to point out that no one has ever set eyes on this entity, much less found any reason for believing in its existence, and it is not surprising that Pinker has now abandoned it.

But the author remains steadfastly faithful to "Universal Grammar," another Chomskian icon aptly abbreviated as "UG." We are supposed to believe that "UG" truly explains how all the world's languages are really saying the same thing in different ways. The problem with Universal Grammar is that it is not really a modern, scientific idea at all but a medievalist notion based on faith and superstition. As George Steiner points out in After Babel:

"To the twelfth-century relativism of Pierre Hélie, with his belief that the disaster at Babel had generated as many kinds of irreconcilable grammars as there are languages, Roger Bacon opposed his famous axiom of unity: `Grammatica una et eadem est secundum substantiam in omnibus linguis, licet accidentaliter varietur.'" [Grammar is one and the same following substance in all languages, although it may vary in its specifics]. Without a grammatica universalis, there could be no hope of discourse among men, nor any rational science of language.

Thus, Chomskian notions may have fallen into the same logic trap as these medieval ones, which furthermore go back even further to Aristotle himself:

As writing, so also is speech not the same for all races of men. But the mental affections themselves, of which these words are primarily signs, are the same for the whole of mankind....With these points, however, I have dealt in my treatise concerning the soul...—On Interpretation, I (Peri Hermeneias, translated by Harold P. Cooke)

In other words, this so-called "modern" science of linguistics may be about as well founded as the ideas of the Churchmen who opposed Galileo.

The first of the three one-hour tapes in The Human Language Series, subtitled Discovering the Human Language: Colorless Green Ideas,  presents the basic tenets of these theories and promotes Chomsky's assertion that "the language faculty is a subsystem of the human brain." The second tape, entitled Playing the Language Game, continues this argument by showing how children learn language and further advances the claims that "all of language is innate" and "language is an organ of the mind." The third tape, entitled The Human Language Evolves, examines the challenging notion that language may be linked to evolution but then runs off in a number of other directions without following up on any of them. At various points in the series, work by linguistic anthropologists and other scholars is presented as though it were a natural follow-up on Chomskian positions, when in fact these approaches antedate this outlook.

It would of course be quite comforting if it could be proven that all human languages are basically alike, and that all human being are ultimately saying the same thing. But it is also possible that many differences separate our languages and cultures, and that people are frequently saying quite different things, even when they are using the same words and even when they are speaking the same language. The latter notion, while slightly unsettling, tends to explain more about human relations than the former, even before a second language enters the picture.

Apologists for the Chomskian approach may insist that many subtleties have been overlooked in these comments. But the primary texts underlying this school of linguistics are so pretentious and prolix that it is truly hard to determine what these subtleties may be. Surely linguists—of all people—should cultivate as simple and direct a style as possible. When they fail to do so, one is justified in identifying their failure as further proof that something is amiss in their theories. Translators—perhaps above all others—customarily show great respect for technical terminologies of all sorts. But they also tend to detect intuitively those terminologies composed of arbitrary jargon, where far less may be present than meets the eye.

Two images spring to mind in explaining the different perspectives of translators and linguists. In the first translators can perhaps best be seen as front-line soldiers in an ongoing series of language wars: caught in the trenches, they regularly and routinely fight day-to-day, hand-to-hand skirmishes with the minutiae of language. Linguists, however, have little hands-on experience of this sort and rarely seek to gain any: they perhaps most resemble rear-guard armchair generals. And the examples of linguistic encounters they cite have little connection with those taking place on the battlefield.

Another comparison is suggested by astronomer Carl Sagan's dismissal of alleged UFO reports. If UFOs truly exist, challenges Sagan, why is it that astronomers never seem to discover any. After all, astronomers are constantly watching the sky and scanning it with all manner of subtle detection devices. They are moreover professional sky-watchers. Yet the only ones who spot saucers are almost invariably amateurs, who rarely ever glance skyward and have little beyond ignorant superstition to help them interpret what they see.

Springing from this comparison, those supporting medieval linguistic theories could just possibly emerge as the amateurs, while the true professionals with their eye on scientific data could be none other than translators.

Some truly great theorists have of course been active in the field of linguistics—not only Whorf and Sapir, but Saussure, Hjelmslev, Uldall, Bloomfield, and Mounin, among others. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Chomskian view adds up to a kind of Dr. Feel-Good view of language: don't worry, it's not really very complex, and we have it all under control. Perhaps this is the kind of linguistic theory that Americans deserve, or at least those Americans who would rather not learn—or even know much about—foreign languages. In the same way that Lysenko's theories of biology protected Soviet citizens from any idea that could pollute Communism, perhaps these linguistic doctrines protect Americans from knowing very much about language.

It is also hard to escape the conclusion that today's standards in Linguistics may be extremely low. I hope to present some ideas for raising these standards in a future article. As Georges Mounin pointed out long ago, there can be no valid theory of linguistics that does not also provide a workable theory of translation, something the Chomskians quite clearly fail to do. Per Dohler has suggested that perhaps translators have something to learn from linguists—but it is equally possible that linguists have a fair amount to learn from translators.


(1) Steven Pinker: The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, Harper Perennial, New York, 1995, paperback $14.00.

The Human Language Series, directed by Gene Searchinger (three parts, 55 minutes each, closed captioned) Equinox Films/Ways of Knowing. This series can be purchased by educational institutions at the price of $545 for the complete set or $200 for each tape. For more information call (800) 343-5540.

This article is Copyright © 1995
by Alexander Gross. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the author.

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