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Hello, and welcome to our expert
interview for the third module. Today we're honored to have with us maybe
a linguist who needs no introduction, Professor Noam Chomsky. Thanks for scheduling us in. >> Glad to talk to you. >> So, we'll just start
right away if that's okay? >> Sure thing, of course, yeah. >> So first of all, and I'm sure you've
answered this question many times before, but I think it's something that really
interests our, the participants of this course, which is the reason that you
got into linguistics in the first place. [LAUGH]
>> The real reasons? >> Well. [LAUGH]
>> I was a 16-year-old undergraduate at the University
of Pennsylvania, and I had gone to the university
with great expectations. The catalog looked really exciting. >> [LAUGH]
>> High school had been very boring, but this looked like a way out, but
practically every course I took was just more of boring high school
material and I lost interest. There was one course that I was
quite interested in, Arabic. There was a fine professor. Fine scholar, an Italian anti-Fascist
immigrant, this was 1945. Sure got a way with the but I was ready to practically ready to drop out
of college I was so bored with it. When I happened to meet Zellig Harris
through separate connections. Political, common political interests. And he was a very impressive person, and I always enjoyed talking to him. And he suggested to me that I
proof read his, a draft of his, the book of his that was coming out. It came out later as 'Methods
in structural linguistics.' It was my introduction to the field. Then he suggested that I start taking
his graduate courses, which I did, and then he suggested other graduate
courses with other faculty members. Philosophy, mathematics,
and I started doing that. Ended up with a very weird
undergraduate education, which consisted of a scattering
of graduate courses. [LAUGH] With no professional credentials,
but I just kind of got more and
more interested in the field. Had some, there was some background
involved, my father was a Hebrew scholar. >> Yeah.
>> His doctoral dissertation had been on Kimhi, the medieval Hebrew grammarian And when I was maybe 12 or
13, I'd read his doctoral dissertation, and some work on the history of semitic. I was interested in that, and all of
that fed into these common interests. >> Yeah. So it all just
came together at some point? >> Yeah.
>> It just felt- >> True credentials and linguistics or any other field would never be admitted
to any respectable department. >> [LAUGH]. >> [LAUGH] Okay, so well you've been studying linguistics
all of your life I think and what is about language
that you think is so fascinating that you've
kept on studying it? >> Well, language has been recognized for
centuries by philosophers, by scientists; Decartes, Darwin
the whole list, >> Yeah.
>> as the essential unique human endowment, the striking faculty that distinguishes
humans from other organisms. That's the traditional view, and I think
there's considerable evidence for it. So, and it is kind of
the human essence in a way. It's the source of their creativity or originality or
ability to think and what-not, plan in ways that are unique
in the animal world. And when we, it also has some very
strange properties when you look at it carefully. So language is a,
what's called a digitally infinite system. It's infinite. There's no limit to the number of
expressions that you can produce and understand. Which is already interesting because
how do you gain an infinite capacity from finite data? >> Yep. >> And it's also digital,
it's not continuous, like say the communication
system of bees is a continuous system. >> Yeah.
>> The language is a digital system; five word sentences, six word sentences,
but no five and a half word sentences. And digital infinity is
an interesting property. It's, by the mid 20th century it
had become quite well understood. The theory of computation the mathematical
theory of computation and so on. And it became possible, then, really for
the first time to try to capture accurately what the nature
of this property is. And it's there are many interesting, it's quite unusual in
the biological world. You don't find such systems. And traditionally it
had been pretty hard to study because the concept of
digital infinity computability, was not really clearly
understood theoretically until pretty much early mid 20th century. Within mathematics and then it was-. >> So-. >> Yeah-. >> So what I be correct
it summarizing when I say that it's both the mathematical elements of the system and
the way in which, by studying language,
you can study the way that we are. >> Yeah, the essence of human beings
>> Yes, the essence of humanity. >> Kind of creature we are. This is the kind we are. Not the whole story, but it's a. But that combination of
accessibility to formal inquiry, careful formal inquiry, and
human significance is, I've found, a kind of irresistible combination. >> Yeah, yeah. Well we, of course wholeheartedly agree. >> Yeah. [LAUGH] >> As you know,
budding linguists. Yeah, another question we have is
what is the most surprising thing that you know now, but that you didn't
know when you started doing linguistics? >> Well, at the very beginning. First of all I should say
in connection with what you said before, that this is not the way language was
language was looked at, at that time. >> Yeah. >> In fact the general view of
language was that languages can vary arbitrarily, and each one is
different from every other one. You shouldn't approach any particular
one with any preconceptions and that language simply... A good illustration of
how language was conceived was actually Harris' book the 'Methods in
structural linguistics. It was a collection of procedures, that a linguist can use
in the field to organize the materials that he
collects from an informant. That's what linguistics was. There was nothing much
to say theoretically, and maybe some things about, you know,
the structure of phonology, which kind of features there are. But beyond that, not very much. The, and that was because
of the inability, at the time, it's not really a criticism,
to capture what a generative procedure is. What is an infinite generative procedure? >> Mm-hm. >> But the most,
it was pretty clear at the very beginning, say around 1950, that whatever the,
that each language has a kind of a basic property which
ought to be common to all languages. That is that a
generative procedure which yields an infinite array of
hierarchically structured expressions. >> Mm-hm. >> Each of which has a determinate
fixed interpretation at two, at the interface with two
other biological systems. The sensory motor system for
externalization and the internal, conceptual, planning thought systems
that sometimes go to conceptional, intentional system. So there's these two external
conditions that the generative procedure must satisfy. And this system
had to evolve somehow. There was a time when it wasn't there. Now it's there. It's apparently uniform among humans. There's no known differences in
linguistic capacity in the human species. So for example if you take
someone from an Amazonian tribe which hasn't had
contact with other humans for 20,000 years and
bring them up in say, Boston. They'll be like my grandchildren. And conversely, there's no known
linguistic or other cognitive differences. >> Yeah.
>> So somehow something arose, which is fixed. And it seems to be pretty recent,
but we didn't know that at the time. But by now it's pretty clear,
reasonably clear that it hasn't evolved for at least 50 or
60,000 years, since humans left Africa. And that if you go back,
not long before that in evolutionary time, there's no evidence that existed that
this was not anachronistic. What I'm saying is now reasonably
well known, it was then not known. What was known was that
it somehow evolved, and that it seems to be the same for
all people. Now that raises a very
serious question. It suggests that when you try
to write a linguistic, a grammar, a grammar of a particular language,
it looks extremely complex. >> [LAUGH]
>> Each one looks very different from the last one you tried. And therefore, the mechanisms
that you have to propose for this basic principle appear
to be extremely complicated. If you look at early generative grammars,
1950s, 1960s, the theoretical framework allowed for very complex operations,
interdirections of operations. And that seemed to be necessary for
just descriptive adequacy, to try to capture the data. But it was obvious that
it couldn't be correct. For one thing, there's no way in
which they could have been learned. And for another reason, they couldn't, it couldn't have evolved,
the system, this complex. So the right answer,
somehow has to be that, there's an extremely simple system
which somehow yields this diversity and complexity just for the interaction
of extremely simple principles and general laws of nature,
which are probably laws of computation. But that looked like
an idle dream at the time. >> [LAUGH]
>> The most interesting discovery is that it may not be an idle dream. >> Hm.
>> There's no reason today, I think, to take seriously a thesis
which can't prove, but I think we're kind of approaching, that
language is an almost perfect system. Meaning a perfect system would be
one that satisfies universal and linguistic conditions of
computational efficiency. >> Hm. >> These are essentially laws of
nature that uses the simplest possible generative operation,
combinatorial operation. We know what that is. And then by the way, just the way it
works yields the apparent diversity and complexity of languages through
small modifications here and there. >> Hm.
>> That sometimes builds a strong, minimalist thesis. And it would have looked
crazy 20 years ago hopelessly impossible 50 years ago and
now, more or less plausible. >> So, what you're saying is that
actually, it's all surprisingly simple. Or it's surprisingly orderly, maybe? >> It's almost,
it's a possible thesis, which maybe your generation will prove, is that
language is close to a perfect system. >> [LAUGH]
>> It's close to the, at its core, it's close to the optimal way of
satisfying the interface conditions. There's more.
By now, I think, this is, I'm not speaking of
a consensus in the field by any means. This is my personal opinion,
and a few other people. I think by now, there's mounting evidence
that the relation to the interfaces is as measured. That is that the, in particular the
relation to the sensory motor system to externalization is ancillary. It's a secondary property. The core system of synthetics and semantics, and thought and so on, is independent of the properties
of externalization. So for, in particular, for example,
it's independent of linear order of words. We have to speak. The words have to come
out in linear order. >> Yeah. >> But I think that's just
a property of the articulatory system. But it isn't a language, it's a filter
through which language has to pass. And in fact if you look at other
systems of externalization, like sign, we now know, it wasn't known 40 or
50 years ago, but its now known that sign is essentially
the same as spoken language. >> Right. >> Right. >> It has remarkably similar properties but the externalization is different
because it's a different modality. So you can use simultaneity in sign or spatial orientation in ways that you,
say anaphora for a reference and so on, that you can't use in the linear,
spoken language. And if you had other modalities it,
different conditions. But if this is correct, and I think
there's good reason to believe it is, then virtually all actual linguistic
work is on a peripheral system. >> It's on a system of externalization. And that makes practical sense. And so for example,
if somebody wants to learn, say Dutch, they don't have to learn, they can't
learn the fundamental principles. Nobody knows them to teach them. What you learn is the pronunciation, the
vocabulary, the facts about word order or things like that,
which seem to be extremely superficial. >> Yeah.
>> Very complicated, but extremely superficial. And don't, apparently don't feed don't yield consequences for
the core syntax and semantics, which it's independent of. And so for example, say the relation
between a verb and an object, a transitive verb and an object is
the same semantically whether the verb precedes or follows the object,
it doesn't care, you know. And that seems to generalize quite, quite widely to some interesting
properties of language. >> So if this is correct, as I suspect it is,
then the core principle, the basic principle that I mentioned
at the beginning, generating an infinite array of hierarchic structures mapping to the interfaces should really
be mapping to one interface - the thought >> Yeah, conceptual
>> interface. Then there's another system, which is,
has to do with externalization, putting in public what's going
on internal to your mind. Which is probably mostly unconscious. Now there's
another possibility, I think, which looks to me increasingly plausible
is that much of the mental operations that
are going on when you interpret, understand, create, produce
expressions is not only unconscious, but beyond the level of consciousness. >> Yeah.
Actually we were, this sort of ties in with
another question we had. because you're currently also
involved in bio-linguistics. And well, what is the focus of that field,
we would like to know. And could you maybe explain
something about it? About bio-linguistics? >> Well this again sets
us back about 65 years. Around 1950 when this kind of work began. There were a few of, there was
kind of a party line if you like. A broadly accepted
>> [LAUGH] >> consensus in the field, it was, it's essentially behavioral science. You study behavior,
organizational behavior. In linguistics you study
the arrangement and organization, and the patterns of data that you pick up. And things, language acquired by training, by habit, by this evolution wasn't, maybe natural selection, or
something, but, nothing to say. But there were a few of us
who had a different view, actually three graduate students. One of them is in the adjacent office,
Morris Halle, another is Eric Lenneberg,
who went on to found Biology of Language. The three of us were graduate
students at Harvard around early 50s. And we just
disagreed sharply with the consensus view. A part of the disagreement
was the recognition of what, seems to me a truism
that is widely contested. And that is that language, your
language, is an internal property of you, that is inside you, it's not in the world. It's inside you're brain
represented somehow. Nowadays something's wrote in pie
language and internal language. >> Yeah.
>> If language is an internal property of a person. Then, it's a biological system. And you ask yourself what kind
of a biological system is it? That's bio-linguistics, and at that time
there wasn't a lot to say about it. But over the years its
become a richer topic. Eric Lenneberg's book 'Foundations of biology of language',
or something like that. Came out in 1967, and
in many ways it's still one of the best. I think he has the best discussion
of evolution of the language, that one of the best. Til this, but
all of these topics were, kind of, thought about, but
there wasn't much to say about them. So let's say evolution of language, these are topics that were
discussed right away. You had to recognize that
somehow the system evolved, and it has to be simple enough so
that it could have evolved. It's a condition a kind of
over-arching condition on construction
of linguistic theories. And it showed, that every one
of them's just got to be wrong. Because they're much too complex
to have possibly evolved. That's actually the motivation for
searching for something, like what I call the strong
minimalist thesis. >> Yeah. >> The, it could have evolved, the
question now is is this possible. But there wasn't much literature about it. There were lots of meetings,
conferences, symposium courses, I taught joint courses with a laureate in Biology at MIT for years, but very little came out because
there wasn't much to say. Linguistic theories were too complex for a sensible approach,
either to acquisition or to evolvability. In the 1980s, 1990s that began to change, there
were things you could say. One change that was significant was
around 1980 when the, what's called the principles and
parameters approach crystallized. That actually opened up
lots of possibilities. The earlier approach to linguistic
theory within this general framework was that linguistic theory
provided a kind of a format for grammars. Each grammar of each particular
language had to fit that format. And you picked the grammar on the basis
of some evaluation measure given data. So the idea is a child has data,
there's a fixed format in its head, which is genetically determined. And then it picks the simplest
grammar in terms of the fixed technique of measurement, given the data. That does, in principle, yield an answer
to how language can be acquired, but it doesn't work, because it
requires astronomical calculations. So it's, it's totally unfeasible. If understood it's in principle. Possible, but can't be right. The, principles and
parameters approach, which was, pretty much crystalized in the early 80's,
offered a different way of looking at it. The principles are fixed, they're part
of the genetic endowment, and we hope to make them simple enough. So that they could have evolved,
that's the, what became called the minimalist program it's just the continuation of
the effort since the early 50s, heading hopefully to the strong
minimalist thesis or something like as
the answer to be reached. The parameters are the options available
to the trials to fix given data and there's quite interesting
work on parameter setting and the choices and
arrangements of parameters and so on. There is incidentally an interesting
evolutionary problem on the side. Where'd the parameters come from? And, there are some
interesting ideas about that. One possibility which is being explored is
that there really aren't any parameters. It's just that the principles are Underspecified in certain respects. >> And that specification of what is underspecified gives the various options. >> If that turns out to be true, it'll solve the evolvability problem. But this is really hard work. To try to show in detail that the strikings, the superficial diversity and complexity
that you see, is actually misleading. And that it's reducible to some
fundamental, simple principles. And this is pretty
familiar in the sciences. And I think any science you look at
the data just looks hopelessly complex. In physics say that was true in the,
when Galileo and his associates tried to find
simple principles of motion, they were pretty much ridiculed because it's obvious that
it's hopelessly complex. Just look at the leaves blowing in
the wind and so on and so forth. >> Yeah.
>> And it took a long time for the understanding to be reached
that you can account for diverse and complex phenomena
in terms of simple principles if you can discover what they are and
how they function. >> The same in biology. Now, in fact, at the time, when it was
generally assumed in linguistics that languages are arbitrarily different from
one another and no limit on diversity, then pretty much the same is
assumed about biological organisms. That the diversity and
complexity of organisms was so great, that each one had
to be studied on its own. Over the years,
it's been found that that's not true. That there's striking uniformities
conservation of fundamental forms limited possibilities for
organisms and something. In fact, it's gotten so far that there's even a proposal which
is taken seriously, though not accepted, that there's a universal genome,
one genome for everything. Just minor variations of it. It's not an outlandish proposal by now, it's just like the strong
minimalist thesis. >> Yeah. So, I'm afraid we're, I suppose
that we're running out of time soon. And I'm sure that you have,
many other obligations today. So, [LAUGH] just as a,
to wrap it up, of course, there's people watching this video who
are already interested in linguistics, they're taking this
introductory online course. So, after this course they will know
a little bit about linguistics. What would you recommend for them? Would they, should they read your,
your oeuvre? >> [LAUGH]. >> Or is that maybe one
step too far at this point? >> They should, everything I've been
saying is a minority opinion. I'm not giving a consensus in the field, and that should be understood. >> Yeah. >> All my life, in fact I've been part
of a small minority of linguists that go kind of against the stream. So that has to be taken into account. >> Yeah.
>> It's the way it looks to me, it's not the way it looks to the field. But that's for you know, students have
to figure that out for themselves. >> Yeah.
>> [LAUGH]. >> There's a diversity of opinion which
are the right ways to think about these things >> But that's-. >> But it's
>> That's a good thing, I suppose. Right?
>> Sorry, to interrupt. That's a good thing, I mean-. Differences of
opinion lead to interesting new-. >> Exactly,
that's what makes the field exciting. >> Yeah. >> And, and this one is a very exciting
one, both because of the significance of the study of language, as we talked,
it's kind of the core of human nature. >> Yeah. >> The apparent conflict, and I think it's apparent between the
diversity and complexity of the data. And the recognition that there's got to be a core fundamental
simple explanation for it. >> Because of the conditions of learnability- >> Vulnerability, and so on. And that, kind of,
superficial contradiction, makes an extremely interesting field. >> Yeah. >> Good. Yeah.
Thanks very much.

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