One of the things that used to drive me crazy in Linguistics class at the University of Toronto in 1975 was the Chomskyan grammar.
My linguistics professor, a young, dapper Canadian who resembled the singer Robert Palmer and drove a motorcycle, would assure us as we tortured ourselves over Chomsky's grammar methods and rules that however wacky his politics were, his linguistics was sound.
Later, I was to sit in political science lectures where the professors would assure us the opposite: his politics were sound, but his linguistics was wacky. I came to believe both were true.
The linguistics method involved taking the mess of a language, as it was transliterated (imperfectly) to us, and then devise rules for why it did what it did. So you'd get the Xhosa language in Africa with its clicks, or Kyrgyz or Turkmen or some language where the rulers had decided to ration the vowels, and struggle to figure out why it went through this or that morphemic change in its various cases or tenses.
So this involved constructing elaborate schemes for how an "o" became an "a" during certain circumstances of stress -- like the "o" in "konechno" in Russia becomes an "a" in Moscow and other regions but doesn't in some -- or how the "ch" in "konechno" becomes more of a "sh" in the St. Petersburg region. World-burning stuff. Except -- as our young professor kept telling us -- we were doing this for a greater cause -- we were going to be able to teach machines to read languages -- computers were just getting started and networking of them was soon to come -- and it would all improve our lives.
So...Remember, there was no Internet then, and computers were literally giant things that took up entire rooms and required punch cards to run -- I had seen them myself in summer jobs at Xerox or Citibank where as a temp worker, I had to be the one to bundle the cards and mail them places or sit and tediously fill out their boxes for various chores they were going to do. I'll never forget the portly older gentleman in suspenders and beards, or or the middle-aged men in buzz-cuts, bow-ties and 1950s eyeglasses who raptuously worked on these machines until well in the wee hours of the night --sometimes overnight -- adapting themselves to these machines that were in fact supposed to make us have things easier.
I always found the Chomsky thing fake -- you had to concoct this entire scaffolding to explain why a language did this or that, and it felt as if you were faking things along the way. Our linguistics professor would praise or chide us depending on whether we came up with "elegant' or "messy" solutions -- I remember I got an "elegant" once merely by accident. This would involve whether you had to have many, many steps and complex ideas to get from, say, "o" to "a" in back formation, or whether you could do it more neatly and economically (that would be better for machines, see).
Linguistics 202 was a big disappointment to me -- they had snuck math in without telling me, and I hated math. I had joined Linguistics 101 enthusiastically, with vague ideas of learning lots of languages, or at least rudimentary forms of some of them and a few well, and going around the world and Doing Good, perhaps at the UN or in business or even as a missionary. I was filled with stories of people who, alternately, innoculated little children by learning the language of remote people suspicious of vaccinations and persuading them to take part in health programs (which they still are deadly suspicious of), or figuring out how to advertise for Coke effectively, or translating the Bible into the language of some indigenous tribe which would then acquire literacy. Those were the narratives of the day imbined from the combination of Life, Atlantic, and the National Geographic which we had in our home. I thought, in other words, that linguistics was about helping humans talk to each other, not helping machines to talk to humans.
As I have mentioned bfore, my father had learned Russian when he was put in immersive language training in the US Army Air Corps and fought in the Korean War, and my mother had been "youth ambassador to Spain" from her city in an international exchange program where she lived with a family for a semester in Zaragoza. Earlier, my grandmother had learned some Greek and Latin by literally sitting and eavesdropping outside the classes of boys, encouraged in this study as girls weren't at the time, and picking up some phrases. Foreign languages were the way in which these people from Irish immigrant families were going to get farther than upstate New York and I am grateful to them for that resolve.
Linguistics 101 at the U of T in those days was taught by an elderly man in a bow-tie and horn-rim glasses who did not spend his days by computers but had spent many years both as a missionary and a scholar. I read Benjamin Whorf at the time and thought linguistics was going to be this lovely literary experience where we would notice how the word "splash" had three consonants and vowel sounds that so perfectly reproduced the sound of water splashing. Our professor explained that there was "descriptive" linguistics and "prescriptive" linguistics. "Descriptive" was the camp he belonged in, and Whorf, and it had to do with learning languages and describing them and leaving it at that. He snarled at those coercive "prescriptives" who were doing damage to the organic mysteries of human language.
But by Linguistics 202 -- to show you how fast events were moving -- the machinists were already prevailing. These two camps warred over who was right, and they warred even over how to describe each other's beliefs, as so happens in ideological wars. One of the problems in trying to discuss this topic now, as you can see from the Wikipedia entry, is that the referents of these terms have now shifted. Now, "prescriptive linguistics" seems to refer to haughty British linguists who are horrified at Americanisms creeping into the King's English, and "descriptive" seems to mean those that let it all hang out and are willing to put words like "LOL" into dictionaries. I'm sure Peter Ludlow would describe this all differently than I am, with utter exasperation, as a professional linguistics professor -- and Chomskyan.
But I'm framing the rough-and-ready problem here: there are theories of human behaviour that try to seek rules for it, and rules for language, which is the expression of human thought, with the aim of making machines be able to interact with humans, and these theories tend to concoct abstract constructions for explaining the rules that don't always make sense, and then there are those who just describe languages and human behaviour as they are and don't attempt to seek patterns that might not be there or might be inexplicable. But then, there is the moral overlay, as the former become coercive and the latter refuse to concede to moral principles and bless "transgressive" or "emergent" behaviour merely because it exists. "There must be no stigmatism," they intone as they devise this or that social policy based on descriptives; the prescribers then seem to devise ever more complex rules to explain this or that thing away they don't like.
A lot more could be said about this, but let me come to the point. I didn't do well in linguistics 202 as it was taught in those days. For one, I missed some classes in the first semester and fell behind. My grandfather was very ill with cancer and I went home to visit him. He had taken us children for candy every Sunday and bought us Easter chicks, and then taught us how to play chess and deliberately lost so we could feel as if we understood how to win. My grandmother was taking care of him alone. So I felt that it was right to visit him in his last weeks. I then returned home again for his funeral.
My solutions grew less elegant and there was no question I was going to "pull a hook" (get a C or worse) in this course, and drag down my entire grade average which otherwise was on track to get a scholarship, which I needed to stay in university. My father was laid off with thousands of other people at Xerox Corporation -- they needed less of the ceramic engineers who worked with their hands on the carrier beads and more of the computer engineers.
So I then decided to do something that we were always discouraged to do at U of T, which had year-long courses with exams at the end, not semester courses with exams at each semester. I decided to drop out of linguistics half way, and find some half-year course -- very rare -- to sustain my grade average. I found a half-year course just in the works of Turgenev, but it was a third-year level. I cajoled the professor into taking me and struggled terribly with some of the work in the original Russian, but managed to earn at least a B. Linguistics as a meta-science was over for me -- except for another half-year course called "The Morphology of the Russian Folk Tale" which couldn't seem to resist having some Chomsky with the literary insights.
Chomsky has remained for me the epitome of machine thinking, and thinking by contrived rules. Curiously, he has a theory of inherency (from where? God? the evolution gods?) to go with the elaborate devised mechanical rules -- children are born with an innate apparatus that makes them learn language in a certain way, instead of as a learned behaviour. (I've always wondered about that, given how Russians never learn to pronounce the sound "th" that American children learn and Americans never learn to pronounce the soft "l" that Russian children learn -- everyone has had the shock of awareness that "even little children speak this difficult language" they are trying to learn.)
This is part of the "nature versus nurture" debate, and it's funny that Chomsky, who is a Marxist-Leninist on so many other questions, rejects the evolutionary biologist's aversion to nativism. But then, Chomsky, as we learn from Wikipedia, hated the Skinner box:
"Skinner's behaviourist idea was strongly attacked by Noam Chomsky in a review article in 1959, calling it "largely mythology" and a "serious delusion". Instead, Chomsky argued for a mathematical approach to language acquisition, based on a study of syntax."
Maybe Skinner was just a bit early with his box -- later, they had the Internet delivered to computer towers to become the Skinner's box.
In any event, this is a longer and more complex discussion than I can do justice to here, but I want to say this:
o There are people who devise rules to explain everything about human nature or human events. Chomsky is one of those for whom every evil in the world traces back to the government of the country he lives in; every evil is a direct result of American imperialism; every evil outside of America refracts from Israel -- and so on. Russia's evil never really enters the equation. China or Iran never enter the equation. America is always the quintessential, innate source of evil from which every other evil emanates. Their rules may be logical; their solutions may even be elegant, but you sense that beyond the contrived construction is an entire world that they just didn't discover or acknowledge, and perhaps a world that couldn't always be expressed in mathematical and mechanical terms.
o There are people who concoct rules to explain mysteries -- conspiracies -- that seem to logically follow from their curious and probing and skeptical thinking and which they construct together, getting farther and farther away from intuition and common sense -- which they began with, questioning the constructions of others.
I remember my one encounter in life with Noam Chomsky. I was invited to speak at a panel at the Socialist Scholar's Conference in the 1980s. My topic was the independent peace and human rights movements of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and how they represented a new kind of social movement for this region and how it was important to be raising human rights and peace issues together. Chomsky was going to talk about what he always talked about, evil American imperialism and its wars. There were two or three other socialists on the panel. I wasn't a socialist, but was accepted as a guest because I came from a liberal human rights organization.
In the audience sat Barack Obama, as was later chronicled, the future two-term first black president of America, but while I remember Cornel West, I don't recall Obama, who wasn't famous then.
I was a little nervous as a young person at the thought that I'd have to debate Chomsky, and face down his anti-Americanism and tacit pro-Sovietism which he usually handled by deflection. So I was surprised to discover, after reading his aggressive articles and books, that he was quiet, withdrawn -- and flat. He didn't make eye contact. He didn't directly engage. In fact, thinking about this now, I wonder if Chomsky wasn't the first famous Asperger's patient, undiagnosed. He had a short haircut and nerd glasses and dressed very "straight" in conservative pants and shirt and sweater, unlike the audience in those days that had a lot of big hair, jeans and long ethnic skirts and batiks.
He didn't debate. He laid out his own theses and simply ignored mine. That was understandable -- I was a nobody by comparison. But given that there was a very big debate then at the time as to whether Western peace movements should take on board the defense of movements like Poland's Solidarity or East European pacifists or Soviet political prisoners like Sakharov (who opposed above-ground nuclear testing, the invasion of Afghanistan, and later opposed "Star Wars"), it was frustrating that he wouldn't lay his cards on the table. Yeah, I get it that he has his own sort of Trotskyist critique of the Soviet Union as "state capitalism" and that feels like criticism. But then, it's not a critique of the communist ideology and communist reality as worse than "American imperialism" at the end of the day, is it.
What am I saying with yet another one of my long, rambling posts with memoirs of my youth and insights of old fights of yesteryear? That the reasons for the Newton shooting are complex, but not that complex; that the solutions for the Newton shooting are complex, but not that complex, that some of those trying to explain solutions away are constructing elegant logic about guns or mental illness that may not fit other situations; that human life is complicated.
Even so, there will still be foreigners who ask in bewilderment, why do Americans say "grosheries" instead of "groseries"? And why do Americans love free speech but love guns just as much? Should they control either the one or the other or both and live in peace?