Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

The Science of Language: Interviews with James McGilvray

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

The Science of Language: Interviews with James McGilvray

Article excerpt

The Science of Language: Interviews with James McGilvray. By Noam Chomsky. Cambridge University Press. 328pp, Pounds 50.00 and Pounds 15.99. ISBN 9781107016378 and 602403. Published 15 March 2012

This isn't a book by Noam Chomsky, it isn't really composed of interviews, and it contains no "science of language".

Yes, 44 per cent of it contains transcribed conversations between James McGilvray and Chomsky, but this isn't interviewing. Interviewers probe. McGilvray just gently nudges Chomsky to deliver mini-lectures. The preface characterises their chats as "like discussions between friends", but this strange mix of hopeful stimuli and rambling responses is like no discussion between friends I ever heard.

"Merge - the basic computational principle: how far down does it go?" asks McGilvray.

Chomsky responds: "Whatever the lexical atoms are, they have to be put together, and the easiest way for them to be put together is for some process to just form the object that consists of them. That's Merge. If you need more than that, then ok, there's more - and anything more will be specific to language."

"So in principle," says McGilvray, "von Humboldt might have been right, that the lexicon is not this - I think his term was 'completed, inert mass' ..."

Chomsky breaks in: "... but something created ..." (the ellipsis dots are McGilvray's).

McGilvray accepts the prompt: "... something created and put together. But if it's put together, is it put together on an occasion, or is there some sort of storage involved?"

"It's got to be storage. We can make up new words, but it's peripheral to the language." (Here McGilvray amends Chomsky's "language" to "language (system's core computational operations)".)

It continues thus, jargon jostling with loose conjecture and dogmatic assertions. Chomsky avers that words never refer to anything in the world; that "the entire discussion of the last century or so" about relations between physics and chemistry "was crazy"; that Darwin was wrong and evolution by natural selection (like Skinnerian behaviourism) cannot work; that there was no "serious research" on morality before 2000; that the practice of debating "is a tribute to human irrationality"; etc.

Chomsky's musings are often familiar from other recent collections of transcribed dicta, e.g. in The Architecture of Language (2000) or Of Minds and Language (2009). For example, he claims that children have an innate grasp of the psychic continuity of persons, and his basis for the claim is that his grandchildren enjoy a story in which a baby donkey gets turned into a rock. …

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