Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tariq Rahman’s reading of Chomsky

Noam Chomsky, Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute  of Technology, in the United States is arguably one of the world’s most versatile and creative thinkers. His lectures in South Asia are being widely reported in many papers. He is visiting Pakistan also. He is well known for being one of the most respected and acclaimed critics of American and Israeli policies in the world.
He has been critical of America’s violence in Vietnam; The Gulf War of 1991 with Iraq which has resulted in death and malnutrition for so many Iraqis; American and Israeli suppression of the Palestinians and nowadays the U.S’s use of overwhelming force against Afghanistan. As these are all political issues, people often forget that Chomsky is a profoundly original thinker in linguistics too. There are several books on the Chomskyan Revolution in linguistics but, since linguistics is not taught in a systematic manner at the advanced level in Pakistan, most people are unaware of Chomsky’s contribution to it.

The aims of Chomsky
            In the Managua lectures of 1986 Chomsky defined his aims. These are to answer the following questions:
1.                  What is the system of knowledge? What is in the mind/brain of the speaker of English or Spanish or Japanese?
2.                  How does this system of knowledge arise in the mind/brain?
3.                  How is this knowledge put to use in speech (or secondary systems such as writing)?
4.                  What are the physical mechanisms that serve as the material basis for this system of knowledge and for the use of this knowledge?
These questions lie in the domains of psychology and philosophy also. That is why Chomsky is not the kind of narrow linguist who only dabbles in nouns and verbs or compares words in different languages to find out which family a language belongs to. He is a revolutionary in linguistics because he has provided theories which give us insights into the processing of language in the mind.

Innateness of language
Basically, Chomsky argues that human beings are endowed with an innate capacity to learn language (Language Acquisition Device). We also have certain rules which are universal for language-learning (Universal Grammar) but we adjust these rules so as to learn the specific rules of the language to which we are most exposed in childhood. At the deep level our mind is equipped with the words (Lexicon) and the basic rules (phrase structure rules) which enable us to make sentences. These basic sentences are sequences of meaning and have to be transformed by other sets of rules to be spoken or written down. This device which we have in our minds is called ‘grammar’. As we have seen, it generates basic sets of meaning (kernel sentences) and transforms them by using transformational rules. Hence the grammar in our minds may be called ‘transformational-generative grammar’. In other words, we have a computer programme in the mind. This programme processes language to produce sentences. The programme is meant for the production of any human language but we modify it to produce our first language in early infancy. After this if we do learn other languages we tend to continue to use some of the rules of our first language to produce sentences in our newly learned language. That is why most of us retain a ‘foreign’ accent when we speak another language. This foreigness comes from using the old rules of our first language to produce sounds of another language.

Chomsky’s contribution
In short, Chomsky’s theories help us understand phenomenon like language acquisition. These are the insights Chomsky’s theories give us. These insights are now used into fields as complicated as robotics, artificial intelligence, psychology and philosophy. Although some aspects of Chomsky’s theories are unprovable this maybe because he is dealing with very complicated issues. It is like Stephen Hawking’s theories about what happens just before one enters a black hole or what happend a micro second after the Big Bang. One deals with abstractions and not with tangible objects to begin with. Even if some theories are mistaken, most of Chomsky’s work is still the major ‘paradigm’ (as used by Kuhn) in linguistics. His position in linguistics is like that of Einstein’s in physics---even to prove part of it wrong, you have to refer to the work as a whole.
            Had Chomsky taught the world only linguistics he might never have become as famous as he has. Chomsky has become famous both as a linguist and as a dissident intellectual. He is an American citizen; yet he opposed the U.S.A’s war in Vietnam. He is Jewish; yet he opposes Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian Arabs. This kind of fearless commitment to humanity is so rare as to evoke the world’s admiration. Yet, in his own country, he is reviled by the chauvinistic press, which he exposes.
            Chomsky has expressed deep insight into the nature and use of power---which is the central issue in politics---in a series of brilliant books. A book written with Edward Herman entitled Manufacturing Consent (1988) makes the point that in democracies, since governments do not find it convenient to jail or assassinate dissidents, peoples’ views are influenced by the pressure of the media in the desired direction so much that those who disagree look like fools or fanatics to the others. In an essay ‘Democracy and Markets in the New World Order’ he tells us that the ‘free market’ is ‘state protection and public subsidy for the rich, market discipline for the poor’. This means making the poor poorer but everyone agrees to use such sanitized words for it that nobody can understand how cruel and oppressive the system is for the powerless.

Chomsky’s political position

In a number of books and articles, like Fateful Triangle (1983), Chomsky tells us that America supports Israel against the Palestinian Arabs. The Israelis, he says, do not accept the Palestinians as equal human beings. They suppress them and use them as cheap labour. The Israeli settlements are formidable places where stone-throwing Palestinians boys are shot with impunity and torture is used regularly. He ends this books by predicting that the ‘peace process’ could actually make Israel dominant and end the Palestinian problem by crushing out the dissidents while co-opting the others in a new Apartheid kind of Israeli state. He says that if this happens the ‘privileged sectors of American, Israeli, and Palestinian society will have a lot to answer for’.


Chomsky’s writings on politics, whether it is East Timor or the West Bank or any other place, are based on empirical evidence of the kind which takes years to find. Most dissident writing on such subjects is high on emotion but short or facts. Chomsky’s writing is full of facts. His argument is built brick by brick, so to speak, and is impossible to demolish even if one points out inaccuracies as his critics very often do. As Edward Said said about Fateful Triangle, his sources are ‘staggeringly complete’ and the book maybe the most ambitious book ever attempted on the conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians. Now that Chomsky has spoken out against the U.S.A’s attack on Afghanistan he has again taught us that if we want to preserve decency and democratic values then we must have the moral courage of standing up to opinions which appear to be based on the consent of the powerful---that ‘consent’ which, in his immortal phrase, is ‘manufactured consent’.

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