Steven Pinker on Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar | Conversations with Tyler

Steven Pinker on Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar | Conversations with Tyler

COWEN: Moving chronologically through your
career, let me ask you a big‑picture question about language. I come to linguistics very much as an outsider. Noam Chomsky’s idea of a universal grammar,
which is somehow built into the structures of the human mind: in its early years there
seemed to be a promise of some very definite accounting of what that structure would be. After a while it seemed to collapse into this
very general idea of recursion, which to me as an economist seems almost tautological. If I came away from this debate and then I
read people writing within popular science: “Today language is a number of different
capacities brought together. They’re independent and just combined with
our ability to divine meaning from others.” Could it be the case that Chomsky’s hypothesis
was simply wrong? 2016, I know your books, but what’s your
take on that today? PINKER: It’s not easy to pin down what the
hypothesis is, partly because Chomsky himself revises his theory every decade or so, on
a principle of Mao’s Continuous Revolution. Just never let people settle into any kind
of comfortable consensus. [laughter]
PINKER: It’s a moving target. Also, as you say, it was neither specified
in a precise way nor field‑tested against a dataset of language variation, which I think
is unfortunate in terms of ordinary scientific practice. Linguistics is an eccentric field in some
ways partly because it was so polarized by a charismatic figure [Noam Chomsky] and his
opponents that it didn’t proceed in the ordinary direction of making the theory more
precise, more testable. With that caveat in mind, I think there is
such a thing as, you can call it “universal grammar” in the following sense: that the
child is biased to analyze the speech that he or she hears in particular ways. It does not simply record sentences verbatim. That’s the memory half of the language system,
but the algorithmic or computational or rule‑governed half tries to pull out combinatorial rules
from the speech stream. There are certain kinds of rules and elements
that a child is keyed to look for. That set of abilities would be what I would
call (if I used the term) universal grammar. There are commonalities across the world’s
languages that come from the fact that language is created anew every generation by the minds
of the children who construct it out of the data that they get from their parents and

9 thoughts on “Steven Pinker on Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar | Conversations with Tyler

  1. Funny that Marvin Minsky – a mathematician and cognitive neuroscientist, who wrote the first universal Turing machine and did foundational work in neural networks – has a criticism that is exactly the opposite: his opinion is that Chomsky is too precise, and is studying what he considers to be pseudo-mathematical relationships at such a small scale that they are conceptual minutiae, Minsky expressing a preference for looking for patterns a few more levels up, such as at the level of concept generation as associated with activities/goals.

  2. Pinker here represents a good critical target of Minsky's argument as well – Pinker has correlated data and demarcated patterns, much like psychologists have done with "personality" theory, locating supposed traits by their assumed expression as contained in lexical data. If Minsky was correct, people like Pinker are picking up descriptive patterns of mechanism at a fine level of detail, but ignoring the generative mechanisms that are actually useful to describe, and explanatory.

    This is where Chomsky was heading, and what Pinker never seems to discuss – what is the generative mechanism for the patters found in data? So far the data-driven approach just seems to confirm the existence of language, and is not clearly leading to a place where the generation of language is understood.

  3. Chomsky's most important point is, there is no language learning, there is only language growth. And he compares it to embryological development.

  4. Pinker is right – Chomsky was in fact wrong. Significantly, fundamental flaws in Chomsky's theory were pointed out early on, eg by Quine. Yet Chomsky continued to hog the field of linguistics. What happened was that a boom in research funding to explore TGG made it academically and financially attractive to linguists. Only the loudest voices were heard and linguists continued to bury their heads in the sand. So the linguistic academic field was to blame as much and even more than Chomsky.

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