I believe that everyone speaks the language(s) that exists in his or her mind. I think that’s lovely. The beauty of language is not the sound of a virtuoso at the piano; it’s the sound of birds chirping or a stream flowing, a sound untrained, but not rough, with the heart of a human being, like a child laughing. When I hear those beautiful sounds, I want to capture them and put them inside me. By learning language I can keep the sound going any time I want. As a result, there is no “better” language or “more beautiful” language inside linguistics. That judgment requires other criteria outside linguistics.
Though I often find myself agreeing more with Noam Chomsky’s politics than his linguistics, I realized that some of the basic premises I hold to about humanity came to me from my love of language, which incubated in the matrix of his linguistic thought. Both his politics and linguistics assume basic equality, whether among individuals and peoples in the former, or languages in the latter. The force of justice in all his thought led me to a love of all languages and their speakers.
Noam Chomsky came from a linguistic family. His father, William Chomsky, wrote several books on Hebrew and the pedagogy of Hebrew in the 1940s and 50s. This came at a time of renewal of the Hebrew language in the creation of the modern state of Israel. Many saw the reestablishment of Hebrew as a spoken language as a miracle.
Eventually Noam Chomsky insisted on the equity among languages, which I can’t help but see as arising against the apparent “specialness” of Hebrew. The religious and nationalist tones of Hebrew in the age of the nascent state of Israel likely influenced his linguistic thought as it did his political thought as a consistent critique of Israel. Like his frequent defense of Palestinian rights and rights of holocaust-denying French scholarship, he comes to the defense of the weak and unpopular. Rather than favor Hebrew, he honored all language as the product of human beings.
In the next few posts, I will outline a few linguistic assumptions that have influenced me strongly. They may or may not come directly from Dr Chomsky, but they are basic premises of the linguistic approach he founded.
Here are a few ideas that arose from Dr Chomsky about linguistics that changed how I see people.
- Grammar resides in every human brain.
- We describe grammar, we don’t prescribe it.
- Anything you can say in one language you can say in another.
- Borrowing words from other languages is par for the course.
Over the course of the next few posts in this series, I will elucidate the implications of these points—and the danger of their opposites.