Why I do not like Noam Chomsky

  1. He is excessively adulated by American linguists; his contribution to linguistics was important, but by no means a be-all and end-all, as it is often portrayed as being.
  2. He is incapable of expressing himself clearly, using much obfuscation of vocabulary and style, and misleading susceptible undergrads into mistaking muddledness for profundity and ponderousness for ineffability. The Chomskybot is a wondrous mechanisation of this inarticulacy.
  3. Just about all of Northern America has had its consent manufactured by Chomskyan linguistics; there are very few places (notably West Coast) where alternative brands of linguistics are practiced.
  4. Chomsky's view of language is reductionist and narrowly formalist: to pin names to phenomena, and pass the buck to the convenient black hole of the putative genetic predisposition towards language, explains nothing. Functionalist approaches to language, which attempt to explain why those particular forms have arisen, are much more enlightening even if not as rigorous. While the study of form is significant in linguistics, it cannot constitute an end in itself.
  5. Every decade, Chomsky gets out of bed and blows up linguistics with a new edict; and inexorably, everyone jettisons the last ten years of syntactic research, to keep up with the Noam. It happened with Syntactic Structures, it happened with Extended Standard Theory, and now it's happened with Government and Binding. Well you can keep your Minimalism: my linguistics is not run on one man's whim.
  6. Chomsky has hype down to a fine art, but for all that, he hasn't delivered all that much to machine translation, pscyhology (not that he has considered a single psycholinguistic experiment in his work --- and psycholinguistics does not paint a Chomskyan picture), neurophysiology, or the art of public speaking.
  7. I just don't find Syntax interesting. OK, some do, but I don't. And even when it comes to Syntax, I think XPSG is much more attractive than the epicycles and cruftiness of GB.
  8. I doubt his ideas as a dissident are all that original, and the huge amount of US Defence money he was snarfing in the '60s even as he got started with the protests on 'Nam make him look pretty suss. This man is no thorn in the side of the military-industrial complex --- who have a knack of neutralising would-be thorns by letting them cry out in the wilderness, anyway.
  9. Chomsky and his followers have an infuriating disregard for other fields of linguistics, which I (and most linguists at least in Australia) find far more interesting. The fact that it took sociologists to get discourse linguistics started in the '70s, because Chomsky had ruled it uninteresting as performance, speaks volumes. (Recall that De Saussure had similarly dismissed syntax in his day as 'parole'.)

    An anecdote should help illustrate this. I attended a talk by Chomsky when he last visited Australia (January 1995). It was a linguistics talk, which meant he got all obfuscatory: methodological dualism was introduced as equivalent to mental materialism, and vice versa, and if you missed the first two minutes of the talk, you'd have no idea what was going on. At one point, Chomsky said something like "if you're a physicist, you don't stick a video camera out the window and start filming. You conduct controlled experiments. Similarly, if you're a linguist, you don't just turn on a tape-recorded and start taping people. You construct sentences."

    In one word: Bollocks.

    In a few more words: constructing sentences does give us some insights into language we wouldn't otherwise get --- although the enterprise is fraught with difficulties and fine print. But to say that turning on a tape-recorder and analysing speech as it actually happens is not linguistics, and to say that abstruse artificialities like every sailor loves any sailor are a legitimate target of linguistic research --- and "um" isn't, is lunacy. And to say that in Australia, where linguists are fieldworkers and therefore stick tape-recorders in peoples' faces as a matter of course, will not win you favour...

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Last revision: 1999-3-30