Saturday, April 24, 2010

Noam Chomsky: a Cunning Linguist

The Well-Armed Lamb: Chomsky (who is over 80, now) on "Liberal Disillusionment with Obama"
Apologies for this post's heading.
This was a joke when I was an undergraduate:
Noam Chomsky is a cunning linguist.
Male undergraduate humor.
... this was back when Chomsky was known as a linguist, not a political advocate.

Aside: as it turns out, long after my undergraduate years, I had occasion to study Chomsky's linguistic theories as a graduate student. His theories of syntax - "generative grammar" - led in the computer age to "computational linguistics". The only problem with this theory, from an algorithmic perspective, being that only a Turing machine could represent natural language - a Turing machine being capable of formulating ANY formal structure. Human languages appear to require more than this level of organization, but within the "Chomsky hierarchy", even the next step up from a Turing machine is too restrictive to accommodate natural language.

This is all remembered, so probably not quite right... and even when I was immersed in this stuff, I wasn't bright enough to really grasp all of it.
That said, what struck me at the time was that pure syntax was insufficient to accommodate language - semantics, meaning, is necessary to make sense of grammar. Formally syntactically correct statements can be meaningless, while "ungrammatical" statements can express thoughts perfectly well.

On the bright side: I'm no longer engaged in this pursuit, and am happy to accept Chomsky for the fiercely progressive statesman that he is today.

1 comment:

  1. Usually octogenarians are conservatives, not progressives. May he continue to speak his mind and shame Obama and the spineless dems in congress into real progress.