Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background

English: A portrait of Noam Chomsky that I too...
A major influence on my language love, Noam Chomsky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

  1. Grammar resides in every human brain.
  2. We describe grammar, we don’t prescribe it.
  3. Anything you can say in one language you can say in another.
  4. 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.

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17 thoughts on “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background

      1. Thank you. I hope you, too, stay tuned to hear my arguments on this point.

        I was wondering, do we have expressions/feelings in English that can’t be translated into Korean, in your opinion? What might those be?

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      2. Yes, good question. I just translated

        http://holisticwayfarer.com/2014/12/03/i-am-rich/

        with a Korean native speaker (into Korean) to send to my mother.

        An excerpt, to answer your ques:

        I remember the colors of Christmas. We never had a tree, for the frivolity it was and probably for the space…Every December I’d walk through grey snow slush to Woolworth’s with my cousins, the giant five and dime that offered everything under the New York sun. Instead of walking out with Christmas presents for friends and family, every holiday jaunt I would leave the store thinking, “I’ll have some money next year.” And it took me 14 years to realize next year never came. But my parents still came through.

        There are many Eng words and expressions you have to convey in a way that is idiomatic in Korean (the direct idiom translation will unravel into something weird in Korean). But that wasn’t even exactly your question.

        I had to settle on a near synonym for the “slush” I had in mind. Slush is usually the ice dessert in Korean. We spent 30 minutes trying to translate the last sentence above “…came through.” There is also no word for “provide” the way we speak of fathers providing for their own.

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      3. I meet w/ my translation partner in a few days to finish the project. I’ll have to run through the whole piece and get back to you — if I remember. Unless you pop in on my site w/ a reminder, not that I’m asking but bc of your expressed interest. I have a very large readership and am very busy.

        Best,
        HW

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  1. “But my parents still came through.” was what I’d wanted to translate to mean they somehow managed to provide (for their kids). We had to say tried (“made effort”) to the best of their ability (using the word “strength” in Korean).

    It was fascinating finishing up the post (in Korean) today. “I am seeing how the question of sufficiency impacts the choices we make and how happy we are. Do I make enough, have enough? Does my child? Have I lost sufficient weight? Are my grades up to par? Is he good enough to marry?” No good synonym for “sufficient” or “enough” in Korean. You have to say “plenty” instead.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. this post brought me back to the linguistics studies in my university years… 🙂 I also rather disagree with No. 3… I recall we then discussed there are more than 50 words for “snow” in the Inuit (Eskimo) languages, while we have only one in Bg 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain | Loving Language

  4. Pingback: Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe | Loving Language

  5. Pingback: Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Anything can translate | Loving Language

  6. Pingback: Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: No “pure” language | Loving Language

  7. Pingback: Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background | amaranonye's Blog

  8. Pingback: Ecolinguism in Israel: Another place where languages go to die – Loving Language

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