This webpage uses Javascript to display some content.

Please enable Javascript in your browser and reload this page.

Home | Fiction | Nonfiction | Novels | | Innisfree Poetry | Enskyment Journal | International| FACEBOOK | Poetry Scams | Stars & Squadrons | Newsletter

Theory of Knowledge

Reconstruction of Qur’anic Thoughts with an Attempt to Unify Rationalism and Empiricism

By S.M. Zakir Hussain (Bangladesh)

(Author’s e-mail:

Click here to send comments

Click here if you'd like to exchange critiques

The Basics of Chomskyan Theories of Language


1. Question related to the shift of viewpoint in linguistics: What are the main differences between the traditional grammars and the theories that Chomsky has proposed?

Chomsky’s Answers: The most glaring difference between the traditional grammars and Chomskian views is that the traditional grammars were considered to be solutions, while, as Chomsky claims, the Chomskian approaches enable us to look at language from a new angle and thus help us discover new problems. In fact, Chomsky has shown us the way to ask questions (See Chomsky 2000, pp-15-16).

Another big difference between the two lines of thought is that it is only the latter that looks for the components of the mind as well as the lexical categories that help a human being generate infinite number of expressions on the basis of finite input.  That is why Chomsky has said that “the most comprehensive grammars and dictionaries – Oxford English Dictionaries, ten-volume grammar of English and so on – were skimming the surface. They only included hints that an intelligent person could somehow use to get information about the language. They were thought to be descriptions of the language but they simply weren’t; they were much too superficial. (See ibid., p-12).”

A very important difference, as Chomsky himself has pointed out, between the two lines of thought is that the traditional grammar only deals with exceptions and fails to explain or simply ignores the regularities in language (See Chomsky 1965, p-5).

However, the most important point of difference between the two lines of thought is that while the former considers language to be the output as produced by speakers, the latter talks of the language faculty, which is nothing but an organ like other organs such as the visual organ, the auditory organ and so on.
2. Schema-Changing Questions: Do you think that the ‘logic’ in the following two sentences is acceptable?

? 1.1. A boy has grown into an adult because he has read many books.

? 1.2. She has grown up to five feet and five inches because she has received good training on mathematics.

By the reasoning with which we can declare the above conclusions invalid, we can also say that the following notion, which is often assumed to be true, is utterly false:

? 1.3. Humans can use language because they learn it at home and at school.
Let us quote from Chomsky:

Take any ... growth process, say the fact that an embryo grows arms, not wings, or, to taker a post-natal example, that people undergo puberty at a certain age. If someone were to propose that it is the result of experience, people will just laugh. So, if someone were to propose that a child undergoes puberty because of, say, peer pressure ..., people would regard that as ridiculous. But it is no more ridiculous than the belief that the growth of language is a result of experience (Chomsky 2000, p-7).

3. Research Question: Language is some of the things that are too complex to be described and analyzed even with the latest scientific concepts and technology (Cf. Chomsky 2000). How, then, can a child happen to learn its native language so efficiently within so short a time, even without any formal instruction?

Chomsky’s Answer: Language is a faculty of the human mind, an innate ability that grows up just as a person grows up when he or she takes food (Chomsky 2000, p-6). It can neither be acquired nor learned; rather, it can simply be transformed into generally accepted symbols that have developed in the external world. This is the notion that brought about the theory of Transformational Generative Grammar (TGG). The deep structure can be transformed into surface structures according to the re-write rules.

4. Question related to the variety of languages: How is the existence of different languages to be explained, then?

Chomsky’s Answer: The different languages are nothing but the different states that the language faculty attains when a person is exposed to different linguistic environments (See Chomsky 2000, p-6).

5. Question related to the concept of language acquisition: What does the phrase ‘language acquisition’ mean, then?

Chomsky’s Answer: The cognitive system is interwoven with the language faculty. Before exposure to a particular linguistic environment, a child has no content in its language faculty, but it does have a universal grammar, termed Io (Internalized language at its initial, content-free state). If triggered at the right time, this Io state develops into different states through maturation and external experience. What then builds up as a symbolic reservoir is termed as the E-language (Externalized language) (See Chomsky 2000, pp-6, 8). In Chomsky’s words, “ ... to say that somebody knows a language, or has a language, is simply to say that their language faculty is in that state. The language, in that state, provides instructions to the performance systems (ibid., p-8)”.

6. Question related to performance:  How is the language faculty linked with the external world, so that competence can build up and different levels of performance can be achieved?

Chomsky’s Answer: There are two main systems of the body and the mind that lie outside but have access to the language faculty. One is the conceptual–intentional (CI) system, which gets the prompt for action from the intention dimension and identifies the semantic unit to be triggered. The other is the sensorimotor system, which organizes information received and sent through the performance devices. Thus each expression has two forms – the symbolic form and the logical form. They in fact act as the interface between the language faculty and the mind–brain systems. From this point of view, the structure of the language faculty gives an approximate account of the structure of the mind (Chomsky, 2000, pp-8-9).

7. Question related to the performance systems: Are the performance systems part of the language faculty?

Chomsky’s Answer: The performance systems such as the ears, the mouth etc. have different functions. However, “to some extent at least, the performance systems seem to be part of the language faculty”.  (ibid., p-5).

8. Question related to the relation between the language faculty and the external world: How can the properties of the language faculty be realized in the physical world?

Chomsky’s Answer: Intention triggers inner universal grammar to arrange lexical categories in the top-down process, implying that structures in fact emerge from intentions to express meaning. Although an intention originates from the mind, it has the potential to organize linguistic symbols because the language faculty has the ability to coordinate between the different sub-systems of the mind. Because the language acquired is a certain state of the language faculty of the mind, any movement in it gets manifested as strings of words, which, at the outer level, are symbolic units, but which are in fact abstract ideas.

9. Question related to the inheritability of a particular external language: Are people genetically adapted to one language or another?

Chomsky’s Answer: No, they are not. The language at the level of Io is only ability – and not even a skill, which has to be earned through deliberate efforts. This ability is content-free but structure-rich. The child simply picks up contents from the environment it is placed in.
10. Question related to the commonness of all languages: Is there anything common among all the languages of the world?

Chomsky’s Answer: Yes, there is. The universal grammar as a faculty is the same for all people. However, they vary from one another in syntactic and culturally-conditioned aspects. Such differences can be explained in a parametric way as measures of deviations, called parameters in the Principles and Parameters approach.

11. Question related to the Principles and Parameters approach: What does the Principles and Parameters approach say?

Chomsky’s Answer: This approach is totally different from the TGG approach and the X-bar theory that emerged as an extension of the TGG theory. It assumes that “there are no rules at all and there are no grammatical constructions at all. So there’s nothing like rules for relative clauses in Japanese or rules for verb phrases in German, and so on”. “These things” adds Chomsky, “are real but as taxonomic afterfacts – in the sense in which, say, terrestrial animals are real. It is not a biological category; it is just a taxonomic category (Chomsky 2000, p-14).

In other words, rules are not rules as such because they have been constructed and followed in a normative way. Rather, they happen to be called rules because they represent the inner aspects of the language faculty. Thus, even when there are no rules, there are describable regularities, for which such apparent ‘rulelessness’ is recursive and acceptable.

Rather, it is simply the case that the principles “hold across languages and across constructions”. The variations from one language to another are “parametric variations”, which seem “to be a finite space.” Also, such rules “seem to be limited to certain small parts of the language: some parts of the lexicon and certain peripheral aspects of the sensorimotor system interface (ibid. 14).” This approach explains that although there may be, and really are, exceptions to rules, there can be no exception to the architecture of the language faculty vis-à-vis the linguistic output as observed in any language. That is why Chomsky says that the principles and parameters approach “proposes a way to resolve the tension between explanatory and descriptive adequacy (p-15)” that are expected of any grammar.

12. Question related to the relation between the language faculty’s ability to express the mind: To what extent does the language system of any community represent the language faculty and the mind?

Chomsky’s Answer: Chomsky has the view that language has been inserted into (or has evolved in) the mind as an organ and it has interconnections with the other organs of the mind. Because language expresses the reactions of all other systems to internal or external stimuli, it somehow or other coordinates those systems. The relationships of the language system with these organs, which Chomsky calls boundary conditions, have solutions in the language faculty. Chomsky asks the important question, “... how good a solution is language to certain boundary conditions that are imposed by the architecture of the mind (Chomsky 2000, 17)?” In different places of his works, Chomsky claims that language can be considered as the perfect solution as far as the boundary conditions are concerned.

1. Chomsky, Noam, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, MIT Press, 1965
2. Chomsky, Noam, The Architecture of Language, eds. Mukherji, Nitmalangshu; Patnaik, Bidudhendra Narayan; and Agnihotri, Rama Kant; Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2000

Continued ...



Author of:

Secret Knowledge of the Qur'an