For centuries experts held that every language is unique. Then one day in 1956, a young linguistics professor gave a legendary presentation at the Symposium on Information Theory at MIT. He argued that every intelligible sentence conforms not only to the rules of its particular language but to a universal grammar that encompasses all languages. And rather than absorbing language from the environment and learning to communicate by imitation, children are born with the innate capacity to master language, a power imbued in our species by evolution itself. Almost overnight, linguists’ thinking began to shift.
Avram Noam Chomsky was born in Philadelphia on December 7, 1928, to William Chomsky, a Hebrew scholar, and Elsie Simonofsky Chomsky, also a scholar and an author of children’s books. While still a youngster, Noam read his father’s manuscript on medieval Hebrew grammar, setting the stage for his work to come. By 1955 he was teaching linguistics at MIT, where he formulated his groundbreaking theories. Today Chomsky continues to challenge the way we perceive ourselves. Language is “the core of our being,” he says. “We are always immersed in it. It takes a strong act of will to try not to talk to yourself when you’re walking down the street, because it’s just always going on.”
Chomsky also bucked against scientific tradition by becoming active in politics. He was an outspoken critic of American involvement in Vietnam and helped organize the famous 1967 protest march on the Pentagon. When the leaders of the march were arrested, he found himself sharing a cell with Norman Mailer, who described him in his book Armies of the Night as “a slim, sharp-featured man with an ascetic expression, and an air of gentle but absolute moral integrity.”
Chomsky discussed his ideas with Connecticut journalist Marion Long after numerous canceled interviews. “It was a very difficult situation,” Long says. “Chomsky’s wife was gravely ill, and he was her caretaker. She died about 10 days before I spoke with him. It was Chomsky’s first day back doing interviews, but he wanted to go through with it.” Later, he gave even more time to DISCOVER reporter Valerie Ross, answering her questions from his storied MIT office right up to the moment he dashed off to catch a plane.
You describe human language as a unique trait. What sets us apart?
Humans are different from other creatures, and every human is basically identical in this respect. If a child from an Amazonian hunter-gatherer tribe comes to Boston, is raised in Boston, that child will be indistinguishable in language capacities from my children growing up here, and vice versa. This unique human possession, which we hold in common, is at the core of a large part of our culture and our imaginative intellectual life. That’s how we form plans, do creative art, and develop complex societies.
When and how did the power of language arise?
If you look at the archaeological record, a creative explosion shows up in a narrow window, somewhere between 150,000 and roughly 75,000 years ago. All of a sudden, there’s an explosion
of complex artifacts, symbolic representation, measurement of celestial events, complex social structures–a burst of creative activity that almost every expert on prehistory assumes must have been connected with the sudden emergence of language. And it doesn’t seem to be connected with physical changes; the articulatory and acoustic [speech and hearing] systems of contemporary humans are not very different from those of 600,000 years ago. There was a rapid cognitive change. Nobody knows why.
What first sparked your interest in human language?
I read modern Hebrew literature and other texts with my father from a very young age. It must have been around 1940 when he got his Ph.D. from Dropsie College, a Hebrew college in Philadelphia. He was a Semitist, working on medieval Hebrew grammar. I don’t know if I officially proofread my father’s book, but I read it. I did get some conception of grammar in general from that. But back then, studying grammar meant organizing the sounds, looking at the tense, making a catalog of those things, and seeing how they fit together.
Linguists have distinguished between historical grammars and
descriptive grammars. What is the difference between the two?
Historical grammar is a study of how, say, modern English developed from Middle English, and how that developed from Early and Old English, and how that developed from Germanic, and that developed from what’s called Proto-Indo-European, a source system that nobody speaks so you have to try to reconstruct it. It is an effort to reconstruct how languages developed through time, analogous to the study of evolution. Descriptive grammar is an attempt to give an account of what the current system is for either a society or an individual, whatever you happen to be studying. It is kind of like the difference between evolution and psychology.
And linguists of your father’s era, what did they do?
They were taught field methods. So, suppose you wanted to write a grammar of Cherokee. You would go into the field, and you would elicit information from native speakers, called informants.
What sort of questions would the linguists ask?
Suppose you’re an anthropological linguist from China and you want to study my language. The first thing you would try to do is see what kind of sounds I use, and then you’d ask how those sounds go together. So why can I say “blick” but not “bnick,” for example, and what’s the organization of the sounds? How can they be combined? If you look at the way word structure is organized, is there a past tense on a verb? If there is, does it follow the verb or does it precede the verb, or is it some other kind of thing? And you’d go on asking more and more questions like that.
But you weren’t content with that approach. Why not?
I was at Penn, and my undergraduate thesis topic was the modern grammar of spoken Hebrew, which I knew fairly well. I started doing it the way we were taught. I got a Hebrew-speaking informant, started asking questions and getting the data. At some point, though, it just occurred to me: This is ridiculous! I’m asking these questions, but I already know the answers.
Soon you started developing a different approach to linguistics. How did those ideas emerge?
Back in the early 1950s, when I was a graduate student at Harvard, the general assumption was that language, like all other human activities, is just a collection of learned behaviors developed through the same methods used to train animals—by reinforcement. That was virtually dogma at the time. But there were two or three of us who didn’t believe it, and we started to think about other ways of looking at things.
In particular, we looked at a very elementary fact: Each language provides a means to construct and interpret infinitely many structured expressions, each of which has a semantic interpretation and an expression in sound. So there’s got to be what’s called a generative procedure, an ability to generate infinite sentences or expressions and then to connect them to thought systems and to sensory motor systems. One has to begin by focusing on this central property, the unbounded generation of structured expressions and their interpretations. Those ideas crystallized and became part of the so-called biolinguistic framework, which looks at language as an element of human biology, rather like, say, the visual system.
You theorized that all humans have “universal grammar.” What is that?
It refers to the genetic component of the human language faculty. Take your last sentence, for example. It’s not a random sequence of noises. It has a very definite structure, and it has a very specific semantic interpretation; it means something, not something else, and it sounds a particular way, not some other way. Well, how do you do that? There are two possibilities. One, it’s a miracle. Or two, you have some internal system of rules that determines the structures and the interpretations. I don’t think it’s a miracle.