Noam Chomsky on Language’s Great Mysteries
Noam Avram Chomsky was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 7, 1928. He attended the University of Pennsylvania where he studied linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy. In 1955, he received his Ph. D. from the University of Pennsylvania, however, most of the research leading to this degree was done at Harvard between 1951 and 1955. Since receiving his Ph. D., Chomsky has taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he now holds the Ferrari P. Ward Chair of Modern Language and Linguistics.
Among his many accomplishments, he is most famous for his work on generative grammar, which developed from his interest in modern logic and mathematical foundations. As a result, he applied it to the description of natural languages.
His political tendencies toward socialism and anarchism are a result of what he calls "the radical Jewish community in New York." Since 1965 he has become one of the leading critics of U.S. foreign policy. He published a book of essays called American Power and the New Mandarins which is considered to be one of the most substantial arguments ever against American involvement in Vietnam.
Question: What are the major debates in linguistics?
Noam Chomsky: Well, as in most sciences, especially the human sciences, almost every major question is open. So, for example, take two obvious questions. One is, how come there are any languages at all? The second question is, why are there apparently so many? These are pretty elementary questions, but they're sensible questions. Roughly, say one hundred thousand years ago, which is almost nothing in evolutionary time, the questions couldn't be raised, because there weren't any languages—maybe two hundred thousand, but roughly that area.
So it's a sensible question. One is the question, how did languages suddenly emerge in the evolutionary record, and it's pretty sudden by an evolutionary framework, the amount of time involved. And then, how come they proliferated? How come there isn't just one? Well, there's steps towards answering that. There's progress, I think, my own view, I should say is pretty idiosyncratic, it's not widely held. But I think we understand enough about the fundamental computational basis of language to see that—to develop kind of a plausible scenario for how there might have been a reasonably sudden emergence of the fundamental nature of language.
And also, of why the apparent diversity, is pretty superficial. So that if, say a Martian was looking at humans the way we look at, say frogs, the Martian might conclude that there's fundamentally one language with minor deviations. And I think we're moving towards an understanding of how that might be the case and it is pretty clear that it has to be the case. The time of development is much too shallow for fundamental changes to have taken place and we know of no fundamental changes.
So a child from a hunter-gatherer tribe, a Stone Age tribe, in, say the Amazon, brought to Cambridge and raised here, will go on and be a quantum physicist at MIT. There's no known differences in relevant cognitive capacities. So there's something fundamentally the same about all of us, and it's whatever emerged pretty recently and we have to work out the—to show that the enormous apparent variety, is a kind of superficial variation and also to explain how it might have suddenly appeared in the evolutionary record.
Recorded on: Aug 18, 2009
Noam Chomsky contemplates the basic, yet still unanswerable, questions of linguistics.
Swiss researchers identify new dangers of modern cocaine.
- Cocaine cut with anti-worming adulterant levamisole may cause brain damage.
- Levamisole can thin out the prefrontal cortex and affect cognitive skills.
- Government health programs should encourage testing of cocaine for purity.
A little goes a long way.
- A recent study from the Department of Health and Human Services found that 80 percent of Americans don't exercise enough.
- Small breaks from work add up, causing experts to recommend short doses of movement rather than waiting to do longer workouts.
- Rethinking what exercise is can help you frame how you move throughout your day.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In their findings the authors state:
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
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