Transformational Generative Glamour

Noam Chomsky has announced his support for Scottish independence. It’s news which hasn’t made much of an impact in the avowedly anti-intellectual UK media, which on the whole prefers to cater for a readership which thinks Chomsky was one of the baddies in Planet of the Apes. However Chomsky’s support for the Yes campaign is highly significant. He’s yer actual heavyweight intellectual. The best the No campaign can manage is the confused meanderings of the lost marbles of Gordon Brown.

Chomsky is perhaps best known for two things – his academic work in linguistics and philosophy, and his criticisms of US foreign policy. In both fields he’s made a reputation for himself as one of the leading thinkers of our day. In the meagre coverage of his thoughts on independence for Scotland, the focus has been on his political views – anti-nuclear, pro-peace, in favour of social equality and freedom of speech. Views which are considered controversial in a warped world.

Chomsky is widely regarded as the father of modern linguistics. He revolutionised the discipline in the 1950s with Transformational Generative grammar, a theory which attempted to explain the mental and developmental processes underlying children’s acquisition of language. Until Chomsky, linguistics had been descriptive, studying the external manifestations of language – the languages, dialects and accents, and the use of language in society. Chomsky’s work opened up new fields in the research and study of the internal manifestations of language, how language works within the human brain, its interface with thought, learning, and psychology. It transformed linguistics from a purely descriptive discipline into a theoretical one and created whole new fields of study. Chomsky is to linguistics what Einstein is to physics.

Chomsky developed his theory on language in response to the work of the psychologist FB Skinner, the man who famously claimed that he could teach a pigeon anything. For Skinner, it was all about positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement, reward and punishment. The mind, Skinner argued, was essentially a blank slate at birth. The child’s environment and rearing were the chalk which drew in the adult, and the child learned by responding to positive and negative stimuli.

Chomsky disagreed, pointing out that children acquire language without being explicitly taught it. Human children acquire language seemingly by accident, whereas animals reared amongst humans fail to acquire language at all.

Dogs don’t learn to speak, even though they’re often reared and live as part of a human family, like the Dug, who’s currently sprawled over the sofa with his head on my lap -getting in the way of typing. Animals learn to understand a number of words and phrases, but often we misperceive their ability to read our body language as an ability to understand our words. Our minds focus on the words, the dog’s mind doesn’t. And we can’t always be sure that the dog understands the same thing we do when we utter a particular word. We call the dog’s name, the dog hears “here’s something interesting”.

With children however, it’s very different. Young children absorb words like sponges. They master complex and difficult grammatical rules – and do so without anyone explictly teaching them. Because very often the adults aren’t even aware of the rules themselves.

Ask your average working class Glaswegian if they can tell the difference between a transitive and an auxiliary verb and if they’re a smart arse, as so many of us are, they might say “Ah jist done it. Ah did so.” Which is just what happened there. In the first sentence done is a transitive verb taking a direct object. In the second it’s grammatically an auxiliary. While you might hear Weegies saying “Ah jist did it. Ah did so.” because of the influence of standard English, you’ll never hear a Weegie saying “Ah jist did it. Ah done so.” If they were using the two in a slovenly and careless way, they’d be just as likely to say one as the other. But they’re not, so clearly something else is going on.

There is a rule in the grammar of Weegie that demands that the past tense of dae / do is “done” when the verb is used as a transitive verb, and did when it’s an auxiliary verb. Far from being taught this rule, its users were told it’s slovenly and incorrect, but it’s not. And when they choose to use the standard English rule, they do that correctly too. It’s complex and grammatically sophisticated behaviour. It obeys rules. Just different rules from standard English. But its speakers don’t know its a rule, and neither do those who criticise them for using it.

It was Chomsky who first pointed out the weirdy weirdness of this. How do you learn rules if no one realises they exist? And that’s the difference between a truly great and influential thinker, and an ex-politician who milks the lecture circuit and whores himself round directorships. The great thinkers ask the interesting questions, and offer the inspirational answers.

Chomsky argued that the only way to account for the fact that children learn these unteachable rules was for the deep structures of grammar to be already hardwired into the human brain – like Windows 8 on your laptop, which like the mental hardwiring of language also has the side effect of causing the occasional outburst of swerrie wurds. These deep structures were transformed by the language or dialect the child was absorbing from its family and community, which is like the programmes you have installed on your laptop. And this in turn generates the child’s production of language – all the stuff you create with your laptop, like the cute photie of the kitten you just emailed to your cousin in New Zealand, the angry Twitter exchange, and your attempt to win £1000 quid in Bella Caledonia’s indy poster competition that turned out not to be such a great idea when you looked at it the next morning.

Chomsky’s ideas did not enjoy universal support, and set off a whole chain of other research seeking either to prove or disprove his views, including the famous experiments to teach sign language to chimpanzees and other great apes – which produced mixed results. It also sparked off investigations into Universal Grammar, and the commonalities behind the rich diversity of human languages. Research and study based on Chomsky’s contributions to linguistics, or research based on critiques of Chomsky, continue to this day.

Arguments rage on, because academics like disagreeing with one another – it’s sort of their job. But in one important sense Chomsky’s once controversial opinion is now universally accepted, everyone agrees that the human ability to acquire language is hardwired into the brain before birth – although there is still little agreement about what exactly this hardwiring consists of. And everyone also agrees that whatever your take on the current incarnation of Chomsky’s theory of grammar, his opinions cannot be ignored.

The point of this over extended discussion of Chomsky’s contribution to linguistics, philosophy, and psychology is to show that he’s not just some obscure academic best known for his trenchant criticisms of American foreign policy. Chomsky will go down in the annals of history as a figure comparable to Sigmund Freud, or Charles Darwin. He changed the way we think about things.

And when you’ve got one of the world’s leading intellectuals on your side, it knocks wee Dougie Alexander’s and Rory the Tory’s attempts at pseudointellectualism in defence of the Union into a U-KOK’ed bowler hat.

But there’s another reason Chomsky’s approval appeals to me personally if to no one else. In older Scots the word grammar came to mean a magical incantation, and then mutated further in sense and in sound to become the word glamour, meaning “enchantment” – which Walter Scott introduced into English whereupon it further shifted in meaning to signify fabulosity. Scotland’s transforming itself, generating new possibilities, and we’re changing the world with words. That’s real magic. It’s the transformational generative glamour of independence.

No wonder Chomsky approves.


26 comments on “Transformational Generative Glamour

  1. daibhidhdeux says:

    Cracking article.

    Tremendous news about Chomsky on re-independence.

    In terms of his philosophy, am a huge fan – saw him give a public lecture in Glasgow many years ago.

    In terms of linguistics, a hugely controversial but stimulating man and contributor to the field.

    However, am more of a Halliday man, myself.

    All good stuff for it enriches the debate and our knowledge.

    Sustains the heritage of The Enlightenment.

    Speaking of which, and shoogling back to his philosophy as a springboard, looks like the “Union” really is terminally fcuked: A gray-skinned proto-corpse on the brink of being cadavered (some “non-standard” usage stuff going on there for the simple craic of it, and the joy of a Ponzi scheme – foisted on our forebears and us – finally imploding).

    Slainte to you, the Dug, and your beloved.

  2. […] Transformational Generative Glamour […]

  3. iheartscotland says:

    Thanks for another terrific blog. I always thought of Chomsky as a political animal.I never realised his field was in linguistics. Anyhoo, ‘Chomsky was one of the baddies in Planet of the Apes’ …..Love it.

  4. macart763 says:

    Well worth the visit every time.

    “Scotland’s transforming itself, generating new possibilities, and we’re changing the world with words. That’s real magic. It’s the transformational generative glamour of independence.”

    I’m sure Chomsky would indeed approve. 🙂

  5. […] Wee Ginger Dug covered the story here, […]

  6. Liz Walker says:

    Did grammar become glamour as in the song Raggle Taggle Gypsies where he “put a glamour o’er her ” as in an enchantment so that now anyone who is glamorous has us hypnotised or spellbound?

  7. Liz Walker says:

    Sorry must have somehow missed the last psragraph.Too early I’ve obviously not woken up yet.

  8. Robin says:

    Very interesting article. How far this will reach between the lugs of the “neinsagers” am no sure tho’.
    Despite the explanation it will, as always, continue to make me cringe when I hear “done” instead of did and I dare say I will continue to correct my kids and grandchildren if the use done instead of did. But I can make allowances since both my kids are perfectly bi-lingual with other languages to a lesser extent and two of the grandchildren speak three languages and the other two two. It is amazing what they come out with sometimes and you ask yourself, how did they learn that?

  9. Liz Walker says:

    Sorry must have somehow missed the last paragraph.Too early I’ve obviously not woken up yet.

  10. Maggie Craig says:

    Inspired and inspiring post, Paul. You’ve spun gold here.

    A wee linguistic aside. When my son first began to speak I was pushing him in his buggy and a guy walked past us. “Man,” said my son. A second man passed us. “More man,” came the observation and I remember thinking that was entirely grammatical by the rules junior had already taken in but hadn’t yet refined.

    So excited by Noam Chomsky’s comments. Off to tweet about your blog now.

  11. David Smillie says:

    Enjoyed this very much Paul. Please keep it up.

  12. […] Noam Chomsky has announced his support for Scottish independence. It's news which hasn't made much of an impact in the avowedly anti-intellectual UK media, which on the whole prefers to cater for a…  […]

  13. Ronald Henderson. says:

    Those of you interested in language and the human mind/brain should also take a look at the work of Canadian professor Steven Pinker. He is the author of several books including ‘The Language Instinct’ and ‘The Blank Slate’. (the modern denial of human nature)’.

    ‘The Blank Slate’ shows how authorities, agencies and governments have attempted over the centuries to condition the way we think but human nature always triumphs in the end. We are not programmable robots and our politicians ought to bear that in mind; it would save them and us from an awful lot of frustration and needless heartache.

  14. Mosstrooper says:

    Always a joy to read the musings of the wee ginger dug. As for definitive dialogue ‘twixt adult and child I proffer this, overheard in one of our large shopping malls.

    Naw, yir no gettin nae mair sweeties ’til yiv feenished yir chips!

    Discuss, using both sides of the paper.

  15. Great read. Love the idea we’re changing the world with words. Positive words.

  16. Eilean says:

    My wee ginger dug can talk. An example is “Woof rawl rawl” which translated means. “Get aff yon computer and take me oot fur a walk ya big bastert” which is precisely what she is doing right now. 🙂

  17. James D says:

    There’s a definite market for a new app or something that translates Glaswegian/Scots etc. into English. There seems to be a few that do it the other way round Eng-Glesg but not Glesg-Eng.
    Can someone get on that please, cos I have at least two potential customers hoping to emmigrate to an IndyGlescae/Glasgee/Glesga! (with all variations too please)

  18. Capella says:

    Another brilliant article. I was so glad to hear that Chomsky was positive about the independence prospect as he’s always been a bit of a hero of mine. Youtube is awash with Chomsky videos and interviews but I hope you all saw him being interviewed by a young, and clearly out of his depth, Andrew Marr.

  19. Zen Broon says:

    Good article and Chomsky’s political support is welcome, but his linguistic influence now seems to be on the wane. As you say Chomsky’s once-dominant theory of ‘universal grammar’ like Pinker’s popular ‘language instinct’, claim language is hard-wired into the brain.

    However nowadays cultural linguists and anthropologists such as Daniel Everett argue pretty persuasively that culture is the biggest influence on language and Chomsky’s ‘nature not nurture’ paradigm has misguided linguistics for years.

    Sociolinguistic approaches IMO are far more useful when considering the example you give of the survival of and current use of the Scots language.

    • weegingerdug says:

      That’s not an unfair assessment. One of the biggest problems I had with Chomsky’s theory – at least in its early incarnations (I must confess I’ve not kept on top of his more recent work) – is that it seems to be incompatible with evolutionary theory, and until recently that prevented serious work into the biggest question of all in linguistics – how did human language evolve.

      I also agree that culture is the biggest influence on language – look at Japanese or Korean grammar for example, the hierarchical nature of traditional Japanese and Korean society is actually encoded into the grammars of the languages. And since those sorts of stratified societies are a recent development compared to the evolution of the human species, it’s very difficult to see how these aspects of Japanese or Korean grammar can reflect some Universal Grammar that evolved many 10s of thousands of years ago when human culture was far simpler and our ancestors were living in societies which were not stratified in the same way.

      However even Everett accepts that humans have some sort of instinct for language which is hardwired into the brain. How that instinct is actualised is very different depending on the culture and upbringing of the speaker. In a similar way songbirds have an instinct to sing. This is quite different from the views of Skinner, who denied any genetic or instinctual component at all. It’s not a question of nature OR nuture, but rather nature AND nuture.

      Having said all that, I’m not at all a fan of Pinker’s work. He gets into all sorts of contortions trying to resolve the contradiction between Chomsky’s theory and evolutionary theory. Personally I don’t believe in Universal Grammar. I think grammar is a side effect of semantics. But what do I know.

      The Australian linguist RMW Dixon is a fierce critic of Chomsky. (He’s got his own critics too, but that’s by the by.) Dixon was one of the first linguists to make a serious study of native Australian languages and pointed out that Chomsky’s influence had created a generation of linguists who were far more interested in exploring a series of formalisms and theories than in doing the traditional linguistic work of recording languages. This is urgent in Australia and the Americas, where there are 100s of languages which are threatened with extinction and haven’t been adequately recorded or described – and some of these language pose challenges to traditional views of grammar.

      The point I was trying to make in the article, which I may not have succeeded in getting across, is that great thinkers are great not because they always come up with the correct answers, but because they ask the right questions and that inspires further research and study. Chomsky asked the right questions.

  20. […] Noam Chomsky has announced his support for Scottish independence. It's news which hasn't made much of an impact in the avowedly anti-intellectual UK media, which on the whole prefers to cater for a…  […]

  21. Interesting article. Distilled, that would be . . .

    Thinking Scots – he’s the smartest guy in the room.

    Noam’s yer homie. Trust the Chomsky.

    VOTE YES !

  22. […] Wee Ginger Dug covered the story here, […]

Comments are closed.