A Chomskian post from the past

I was trolling through files on my hard drive, wondering what some of them were, when I came across a word processing document that impressed me. I was working on my specialist degree, five or so years ago now, and I think it was the piddling psychology class they make you take to give the psychology professors something to do. It was like the last class I had on my agenda, and like me, most of the students were old enough to be the professor’s parent. We were mostly amused by his efforts.

Anyway, there was some online discussion as part of the class, and this one was on Chomsky and others of that ilk. I had gone away for the whole week (could it have been that historical trip to the mountains that Thanksgiving?), and when I got back, I was bothered by the turn the conversation had taken. Most of the participants had taken “grammar” to mean “rules of speech,” and it took a pretty prescriptive turn. Silly.

This was my response, and I think it still reads well:

I notice there is some confusion in our discussion of Chomsky over the nature of grammar. “Grammar” is not that set of rules set up by the dominant power structure to govern our language, nor is it a set of exercises out of Warriner’s. Grammar, as Chomsky means it, is innate, that is, born with us, and it includes our ability to recognize and create sentences that no one has ever heard before nor ever will again. It is not literacy and it is not writing.

The comparison of transformational grammar to math [in the textbook] is interesting, since one of the biggest problems non-mathematicians have with symbolic logic is the idea that an argument/syllogism can be true even if the statements which make it up are false. To wit:

  • All women have three heads.
  • George W. Bush is a woman.
  • Therefore, George W. Bush has three heads.

The structure is perfectly valid, perfectly true, despite the fact that the premises are outrageous fabrications. This is grammar. The most famous example from Chomsky is the sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” immediately recognizable as a correct sentence even though it makes no sense. In contrast, “Dog the his ate brown under food tree the” is not a sentence in any language. Innate transformational grammar is what allows any child in our schools to a) recognize those words in that order as gibberish; and b) rearrange those words into a real sentence. If literacy is removed from the equation, any child in the school can perform that task without any instruction from us.

A thought experiment: take the “dog” sentence, and consider how you would present those words on cards to a non-reading child and ask him to put them in some grammatical order. If you decided to start simple and then ask the child to add the remaining words one at a time, you’d probably begin with “dog the ate food his.” How did you know that? That’s Chomskian grammar. The kicker is that eventually you come up against “under.” Even a moment’s thought is enough to show you that you can’t hand the child just the word “under” and expect him to proceed. You would have to give him “tree under the” and ask him to put all three words in, which he would proceed to do after rearranging them into a prepositional phrase. Finally, the word “brown” can go in any of three places, but only in those three places. That is transformational grammar.

Our concerns over “street” grammar and “standard” grammar are misplaced in this discussion. Standard grammar is one of the tools used by the dominant power structure to cement its influence, and anyone who intends to live profitably within that power structure needs to know how to speak and write it. Indeed, one of our duties as educators is to provide students the opportunity to avail themselves of that knowledge. However, bemoaning the decline or absence of that structure in our students is trivial. One might just as well compare the writings of Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln with those of our current political leadership and conclude that we were suffering from a precipitous decay in the public arena.

So, how would I use Chomsky’s theories in my media center? If I were coaching a student in his reading, I would (and do) rest comfortably in the knowledge that the child is capable of recognizing the sentence on the page, whether or not he is currently capable of translating those squiggly black marks under the illustration. The words on the page are not arranged randomly, but in a pattern that is born in the child’s brain and already expanded by his experience in the world so far. This is a hopeful, and helpful, hook: whether or not the child says, “Bobby be’s riding his bike” in his daily life, he will not be puzzled by the sentence, “Bobby rides his bike” on the page. Whether we then correct the child’s daily speech is a political choice, and with Chomsky, it’s all political anyway.

3 thoughts on “A Chomskian post from the past

  1. I was already to chime in about finite state automata, lexical analysis, and their application in computing. That be when I hit your sentence about Jefferson, Lincoln, and the implied deterioration in political discourse (at least that’s how I read it) since their day. I’m still poorly versed on the writings/speechifying of Lincoln, but I’m quite comfortable in saying that Jefferson essentially INVENTED the current state of political discourse.

    Just the same, I liked the paper. Especially the bit about grammar. Oh, and software folks are perfectly content with colorless green ideas. Ok, maybe not the AI folks, but their just trying to invent SkyNet (TM) to kill us all anyway.

  2. I was speaking of the gentlemen’s formal writings and speeches, and TJ and Abe were our two best. You will recall the haplessness of our President’s work at the time I wrote this. If not, perhaps this will serve as a reminder.

    Of course Jefferson was vituperative in his private correspondence and in his public campaigning.

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