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Key insights from

The Secrets of Words

By Noam Chomsky, Andrea Moro

What you'll learn

Noam Chomsky (1928-) is an American linguist who has written extensively on linguistics, philosophy, and politics. He is a prolific author, having written over one hundred books across numerous fields. He has been labeled “the father of modern linguistics” both because of his positive contributions and his debates with figures such as B.F. Skinner and Michel Foucault. Andrea Moro (1962-) is an Italian linguist who specializes in neurolinguistics. His research so far has explored the theoretical and experimental aspects of syntax. In The Secrets of Words, Chomsky and Moro engage in an informal dialogue about topics in linguistics, history, science, and philosophy. Chomsky particularly expresses hesitancy regarding the “euphoria” surrounding technological innovation and its capabilities, because of what it assumes about the nature of language and human cognition.


Read on for key insights from The Secrets of Words.

1. There is no “complete system of language” to be discovered.

Across academia in the early to mid-20th century, there was an implicit assumption of reductionism. This meant that every field of inquiry could be at some point “completed.” Every subject could be reduced to its parts without remainder, and explained completely. Every question could be answered, every mystery found out, every problem solved.

This was assumed in linguistics as well. At some point, all possible languages, in their morphology, phonology, syntax, and semantics could be systematized and mechanized. In the 1950s and 60s, this assumption and the projects that depended upon it fell out of favor in the face of irreducible complexities in numerous fields. In linguistics, Chomsky’s work on the neuroscience of language formation was significant in changing the paradigm.

Chomsky is famous for rejecting the assumption that language can be fully explained. He has remarked famously that language is like a snowflake. It develops and unfolds according to natural laws, as something intelligible. Though language does have beautiful and intricate patterns that are not merely cultural conventions, this does not mean that our comprehension of those patterns will one day be complete.

That language is intelligible does not mean that our knowledge of it may one day amount to total mastery. Beyond what is presently intelligible in the field, Chomsky sees boundaries to our inquiry which may or may not be true limits on human knowing. Chomsky’s work on language formation in the structures of the brain presently represents one such boundary. Though we have some knowledge of the different regions of the brain and their function, we lack insight into how the brain processes and comprehends language. It is possible that some of the answers we are presently seeking at the intersection of linguistics and neuroscience are inaccessible.

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2. Language is not just an arbitrary cultural convention, it has some kind of biological basis that precedes experience.

One of Chomsky’s most significant contributions to linguistics has been the theory of generative grammar. This theory posits that human beings have an innate grammatical structure which encompasses universal principles of human language. For example, children are able to pick up their native language by exposure to the speech of their parents, without explicit formulation of the rules by which that language operates. How do we explain this phenomenon? Though children are educated in the explicit rules of grammar as they grow up, this does not explain the capacity children have to speak a language appropriately prior to learning its rules. This implies that there is a biological structure in the brain by which all humans process language.

Chomsky remarks that children ignore the linear order of words when processing their first language. Though they hear words as we all do, one after another “like beads on a string,” they pay attention to the structure in their minds that they create from the words. Our cognition in this area does not operate according to linear speech, but rather to non-linear structures we compose from the linear speech we hear.

Neuroscientific research carried out by Moro has given further empirical weight to Chomsky’s theory. He discovered that when someone processes an artificial language composed of linear rules as opposed to a standard language that is not, the brain is able to distinguish between the artificial linear rules and the non-linear rules. Specifically, the neural network that the brain employs to process the artificial rules Moro constructed is different from the one employed to process non-linear rules. This neurobiological evidence suggests that our brains have an innate capacity, prior to experience, to process language.

3. We must be wary of our euphoria over technology and human knowledge.

On the topic of innovation and contemporary scientific research, we must be wary of our present euphoria about the future. Our euphoria impresses upon us “the sense that we have an answer to everything.” On the contrary, as Chomsky makes clear while surveying the history of the 20th century, we do not and cannot have an answer to everything. The broad brushstrokes with which innovators and researchers paint the pressing issues of our day end up oversimplifying the issues themselves.

This specter of reductionism clings to our enthusiasm for progress, and disfigures genuine inquiry. We must check this euphoria at the door, for we cannot let our optimism oversimplify our reality. Such euphoria is prevalent in the fervor over artificial intelligence and deep learning. Efforts to create artificial beings often assume that some region within the brain will, once properly mapped out, reveal the secret to re-creating intelligence. As a linguist, Chomsky thinks this is far from a complete portrait of the problem. We must also consider not only this “where” problem about the brain, but the “what” problem about what information really is. Without a proper understanding of what the brain is communicating from neuron to neuron, this innovative project will not be realized.

This one specific example illustrates for Chomsky the way that we oversimplify the problems facing us, while also overestimating the domain of human knowledge. It is important to sidestep the euphoric sentiment surrounding the present areas of inquiry in favor of a more realistic approach. Yet, it may become apparent that our own assumptions about both the limits and the nature of our knowledge are worthy of reexamination.

4. Linguistics is partially a scientific discipline, and must be treated as such.

As our various scientific inquiries unfold, we must recognize that the methods by which we do science are often just as important as the objects we study. Much of both Chomsky’s and Moro’s work has been concerned with the overlap between linguistics and neuroscience. In his defense of generative grammar, Chomsky is expressly concerned with indicating the biological basis of our language faculty. Thus, greater linguistic knowledge is connected to greater neuroscientific knowledge.

How these two fields overlap is an issue of the philosophy of science. What Chomsky has rejected in the scientific approach to language is radical behaviorism. This position assumes, amongst other things, that everything can be understood as a mechanism, a chain of causes and effects that can be solved once all of its parts are known. This position animated the reductionism of the 20th century, encouraging the euphoria that Chomsky finds troubling. Under this method of doing science, the field of linguistics is reducible to the field of neuroscience. All knowledge about language can be understood as a mechanism of brain processes sending signals back and forth.

Chomsky rejects this method of studying language, because language is too complex to be reduced to neuroscience. The fields overlap, but one does not contain the other. Though there is no complete system of language to be discovered, the innate capacity for language in the brain does require relevant neuroscientific research, what Chomsky calls neurolinguistics. The biological basis of language in Chomsky’s theory is the point of contact between linguistics and the empirical sciences. Though this still requires assumptions about how scientific inquiry unfolds and what goals it assumes, it should only cause us to question how linguistics and neuroscience intersect. We must be careful about how linguistic research unfolds, because understanding language as a mechanized system does not make proper sense in light of our innate capacity.

5. We must recognize our limits, both in linguistics and human knowledge.

Though we have progressed greatly over the past few centuries in the empirical sciences and innovation, we cannot continue to assume our progress will be boundless. As Chomsky has made clear, our scientific endeavors are sometimes premised upon assumptions that are flawed and unhelpful. We must be aware of the fact that the answers we painstakingly research and discover either fail to answer the questions we have, or raise new ones in their wake. Rather than despair over this phenomena, Chomsky remarks that this is merely the reality of human existence. Every ability to do something entails the lack of ability to do something else. We have legs that can run one hundred meters, but we are unable to fly. Our inherent ability to run well entails our inability to fly.

Likewise, this applies to our mental abilities. We are limited by what we can know. What we can know in linguistics raises questions about the inner workings of the brain. Some of these questions may lie beyond our capabilities. Even with the help of neuroscience to answer some of them, it is by no means clear that we will answer all of them. Instead of being frustrated by our limits, we must learn to accept that questions will always remain.

In the study of linguistics, this means that questions concerning language and our usage of various languages will persist. As our knowledge in linguistics advances, we will be confronted with limitations surrounding new questions. Accepting the limits upon our fields of inquiry will lend further clarity, which should fill us with greater passion and curiosity for the truth. 

6. We must learn to be surprised by simple facts.

Rather than assume too much and oversimplify the world around us, we must be diligent in attending to the simple facts of the world we live in. “It is important to learn to be surprised by simple facts.” Chomsky wants to emphasize that we must cultivate a wonder for the world in all of its mysteries. From that wonder, genuine passion for discovering truth will emerge. This is not something that comes automatically, but requires nurture and cultivation.

Like any skill, what matters most is not inherent talent, but the effort we apply to hone our capacity for something into a robust ability. It doesn't matter what one’s specific field is, it only matters that we attend to it diligently, patiently, and respectfully. In the earlier example of technological innovation and artificial intelligence, this means more than attending to the big picture question of what artificial intelligences may look like. It means appreciating the finer details of computer technology. Understanding computer code, hardware, and the nature of the computed information underlies bigger projects like artificial intelligence and the inner workings of the human brain.

From a deep understanding of the smaller, simpler facts of a subject, we become more intimately connected to the field we pursue. In that, we recognize both the complexity of the subject, and the significance of every simple fact we have discovered so far. This has two main effects: First, it stokes our curiosity to seek more of the truth. Second, it impresses upon us the humility to recognize that we are seeking after truth piece by piece, step by step, moment by moment.

While it is easy to conceive of discovery as something grandiose or large, we have to recognize that this very often is the exception, not the rule. Oftentimes the fruits of our inquiry will be the simple facts that come up through diligent effort. Appreciating these is essential to our long term growth in knowledge. The more grandiose, large-scale discoveries all begin at the level of simple assumed details that are easily missed.

This conscious habit of attention must be cultivated, not chiefly so that we may answer our questions, but rather so that we appreciate those phenomena which give rise to our questions in the first place. In the study of linguistics, this means focusing first on the words we often overlook for the sake of a larger system. In doing so, we will benefit from the secrets that words possess.

Endnotes

These insights are just an introduction. If you're ready to dive deeper, pick up a copy of The Secrets of Words here. And since we get a commission on every sale, your purchase will help keep this newsletter free.

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