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Review of  The Architecture of Language


Reviewer: Adriano Palma
Book Title: The Architecture of Language
Book Author: Rama Kant Agnihotri Bibudhendra Narayan Patnaik Noam Chomsky Nirmalangshu Mukherji
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Book Announcement: 12.1842

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Review:

Chomsky, Noam (2000) The Architecture of Language, edited by Nirmalanshu
Mukherji, Bibudhendra Narayan Patnaik, and Rama Kant Agnihotri. Oxford
University Press, hardback ISBN 0-19-564834-X, xv+89pp, $35.00.

Adriano Palma, Institut Jean Nicod, Paris & Tsh UTC Compiegne

The book contains a long lecture given by Noam Chomsky in January 1996
in Delhi, India. The transcript of the oral presentation covers the
first 40 pages of the published text. It is followed by extensive
discussions. Those, as detailed by the editors in their preface, have
been the outcome of an intense cooperative enterprise between all
parties in the conversations. Questions were both posed orally and in
written form. Chomsky replied in both media (orally in Delhi and in
writing from Cambridge, Mass.) There is the usually unavoidable amount
of repetition and unclear statements. Mostly those are due to the
difficulty of the subjects. As it well known to those who read him,
Chomsky's view is that we do have indeed two sort of intellectual
abilities, or faculties. One is roughly coinciding with common sense,
and one is a science forming faculty (far more difficult to
characterize in simple terms) which we can indeed apply, though it
requires training, financial and cognitive resources devoted to it and
so forth. It is worth noting, for the record that his view on the
matter (see pp. 40-42) is that there ought to be more science, "just as
there ought to be a lot more literature and art. These are enriching
parts of human life; they should be made accessible to people. That
means we should devote resources to them." The fact that we don't
devote enough of the financial resources is deemed pretty irrational
and it has to do with lack of democracy. There are no personalities
involved in research (there is no "Chomskyan" theory of anything) and
that the attempts to make technical material available to people
lacking relevant training are legitimate and very valuable. For those
who care about specific connections between Chomsky's political views
and his linguistic work, the answer is simple and straightforward:
none. There is a tenuous similarity in that, in the wording of one of
the questions, both lack any roles for community and culture. In his
reply Chomsky makes it clear that there isn't such a thing as anybody's
science: rational enquiry is open to anybody. Political views, common-
sensically, have to do with human communities. On the other hand there
is nothing interesting known about relations between communities and
cultures and the questions to be asked about a specific biological
system. The specific biological system in question is language and
everything else is not unimportant or uninteresting. Quite directly
Chomsky thinks that we ought, ethically as it were, be bound by
clarity. In some areas we have some depth of understanding and in
others (perhaps most, and often the ones with the highest level of
human interest) we are all "in the same boat." It is a silly game for
self-styled "intellectuals" to make something trivial sound profound,
clothing it in cloudy persiflage.

It is coherent then to approach rationally, with the tools of rational
enquiry, the areas in which some depth and understanding are available.
Chomsky's main interest is language and the book is useful as a short
(at times too short) introduction to what is the status of the theory
in the area. I shall state to be clear at the outset, my own belief in
the matter. Of the galaxy of theories, hints, approaches, programs, and
so forth that tackle the mental side of the universe, linguistics is
perhaps the only area in which some real understanding was gained and
in which real progress was made during the past century. The only close
competitor is probably the theory of vision.

The book can be read as a field report on the current status of
research in the vein of the Minimalist Program. The program itself is a
revolutionary stance (it is not a theory as of now) taking on board
assumptions that have been made almost by anybody (there is a language
faculty, there is serious likelihood that is specific to humans, it is
in some sense a part of a mind/brain.) The program though indicates
ways in which it pares down the apparatus. The main scheme of a
minimalist approach is to see three systems interacting. A certain
state of the language faculty (see p. 8, e.g.) Is the closest
theoretical enquiry can give one to the intuitive concept of language.
A state of the language faculty can be characterized by principles
(assumed to be invariant among individuals) and parameters. Parameters
are responsible for the perceivable differences between languages
(Hindi sounds different from Japanese, and neither seems to be anything
like Xhosa.) So much is known in the last thirty years as the
principles and parameters approach. The minimalists bring in a very
novel idea. It may be possible to see that the constraints (the "rules"
that generate traditional grammar rules for verbs in German, e.g.)
aren't rules at all. They are "taxonomic artefacts" (p. 14). What is
there are sets of parameters that once fixed, against the background of
purely general principles, generate linguistic expressions. The
language organ interacts (or "interfaces") with sensory-motor systems
and with a conceptual-intentional system. I use the plural for the
sensory motor system since (see p. 9) it is empirically known from the
existence of sign languages that systems other than the sound
production can access the language faculty. The conceptual-intentional
system is utterly mysterious in the simple sense that not much is
understood about it. In a slogan, it is where language gets used to
talk about something or other. Chomsky is, by the way, extremely
skeptical about the view that linguistic expressions as such have
intentionality in the philosophers' sense of "aboutness".

The point is "that you now, for the first time ever, have some coherent
idea of what a language might be. " (p.15) The minimalist program comes
along and asks new questions. Two questions, among others, how much of
what we attribute to language is only due to the techniques we adopt
and how much is really motivated by empirical evidence and how good is
language as a solution to boundary conditions imposed by the
architecture it is in. The second one allows an answer: perfection or
near perfection. Language may be a perfect, near-perfect, solution to
an engineering problem, namely the problem of providing something
legible at the interface. The question and its possible answer are
daring, if for no other reason than its strangeness. Very little in
nature is perfect in this sense. Evolution, the gods, or your preferred
"engine of creation" appear nearly always to be taking bits and pieces
in a junkyard and come up with something that more or less does the
job. If language is perfect, or even almost perfect in this sense, it
would be weird, very strange indeed. It may come close to the sheer
oddness of the fact that nature likes to write letters following strict
mathematical rules. It was remarked centuries ago by Galileo, and
rediscovered constantly in the most unexpected locations: in one of the
replies Chomsky makes the same point by citing the known fact that
Fibonacci series show up all over the place (see p. 49)

The program is not a nice fellow. It is a program with an attitude. One
would have to show that there are no linguistic levels apart from the
phonetic/articulatory and the semantic ones. The only constraints
operative are the ability to use expressions at the interface: "...
there shouldn't be any other levels because other levels are not
motivated by legibility conditions." (p. 21) All other devices (surface
and deep structures, etc.) have got to go, they're technical jargon
that covers up lack of understanding. Second thing to go by the board
is lexical peculiarities. A lexical item, a collection of properties,
called features, contains no features other than those that are
interpreted at the interfaces: "... [we] have to show that when we
abandon X-bar theory, indices, and other such devices, we find
solutions which are not only as good but even better ones." (p. 22).
Third no structural relations other than those forced by legibility,
hence no adjacency, theta-structure, scope at the level of logical
form. For the more technically inclined only local relations are kosher
in minimalism, "perhaps nothing else. That means there is no
government, proper government, no Binding theory internal to language,
and no interactions of other kinds. To the extent that language is
perfect, all of this has to go." (ibidem).

This is, very schematically, what minimalism is all about. A violent
paring of linguistics as known for the last century. The volume
sketches quickly the traits of the program and goes over several of the
standard issues that arise with Chomsky (the dubious status of
semantics, the nonexistence of semiotics as a scientific theory of
anything, etc.) For those interested in his own point of development
they will find tantalizing hints on the present status of the
implementation of the program. In particular on locality conditions
(see, especially, p. 27-28, relation , w.r.t. displacement properties
have to be so local to be internal to a word.)

What is more interesting in my opinion is the clarity with which
certain issues of general interest are presented. It is often and
widely thought that it is a trait of rational inquiry to be sensitive
to evidence. The job of a theory, we used to be taught in school, is to
save phenomena. Chomsky takes exactly the opposite tack. It is
worthwhile, I believe to explore this side of the minimalist program.
It is the most revolutionary. Consider the following quotation, from an
interview by Adriana Belletti and Luigi Rizzi with Chomsky, in 1999,
available on WWW):

"The phrase [Galilean style] was used by nuclear physicist Steven
Weinberg, borrowed from Husserl, but not just with regard to the
attempt to improve theories. He was referring to the fact that
physicists "give a higher degree of reality" to the mathematical models
of the universe that they construct than to "the ordinary world of
sensation." [4] What was striking about Galileo, and was considered
very offensive at that time, was that he dismissed a lot of data; he
was willing to say "Look, if the data refute the theory, the data
are probably wrong."

In the same vein, Chomsky says here: "[those familiar with technical
literature] are aware that there is a ton of empirical evidence to
support the opposite conclusion on every single point that I mentioned.
Furthermore, the core assumption of highly productive recent work -and
its pretty impressive achievements- is that everything I said is wrong;
that is, languages are highly imperfect in all these respects, as
indeed you would expect- they have indices and bar levels, D-
structures, S-structures and all kinds of relations, and so on and so
forth. Nevertheless, I think the contrary could well be true." (p. 23)
This strikes me as a remarkable departure from the quasi-Baconian ideal
of science as a careful sifting of evidence, however apparently
insignificant. Chomsky now takes the typical position of the mature
scientist in the most core of the core sciences (mathematical physics);
it is there that most often we do, as a matter of fact, start from
mathematical and logical consideration and then we look for a piece of
something that proves the theory right.


Palma is a member of the department of Technology and the Human
Sciences of the University of Technology of Compiegne, and of the Jean
Nicod Institut in Paris. He was trained in philosophy and is interested
(mostly) in the philosophy of mind and language. His pet theories are
about indexicality in natural language.


 
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