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.