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Noam Chomsky’s Comrades and Rivals

Your favorite critic has plenty of frenemies.


Morris Hale

Morris and I teamed up to crank out that magnum opus on phonology known as The Sound Pattern of English (SPE). What's phonology, you ask?

Well, the short answer is that it's the study of the sound patterns of a language, or, sometimes, of all languages. So, like, have you ever noticed that no English words begin with the sounds "nd," even though tons of 'em end with those sounds? Noticing weird, obscure patterns like that is what phonology's all about, my friends.

Anyway, Morris and I were colleagues at MIT when we started rapping about phonology at the campus commons. Over 20-ounce coffees and some glazed crullers, we developed the idea that phonology is just part of the larger system of languages. So you start with the patterns of sounds in a language, and that connects up to the patterns of how words are put together, yeah?

Before writing this work, I had been so focused on syntax—on grammar, on the structure of phrases and sentences and all that—that I hadn't thought as much about phonology.

But with Hale by my side, we managed to see a whole new complexity in sentences. In SPE, we argue that the way words are said is as important as the order in which they are delivered. This is technical stuff, but trust me when I say it was a revolutionary contribution to theoretical linguistics.


Steven Pinker

Maybe Steven should be listed under "Rivals," but we were once close, so I'm going to honor the guy by keeping him in this category. He even wrote a book called The Language Instinct that gave due credit to my idea that people are born with an innate aptitude for language—it's hard wired, people.

But he later digressed from these ideas, claiming that humans acquire language more like birds mimicking the same tune they hear their parents tweeting. The big, thorny, divisive question is: Do children "learn language simply by imitating their parents or is there a built-in language-acquisition device (or what Steven Pinker called a 'language instinct')?"

Edward S. Herman

Ed and I got crazy political in the 1960s by refusing to pay taxes to a government waging war in Vietnam. We also made tons of really ugly accusations about the U.S. government, because we were becoming very skeptical that the Khmer Rouge was as bad as the media was claiming.

In an email titled "Noam Chomsky on Cambodia March 6th, 2002", I boldly pronounced:

Recall that […] charges about the KR and the Vietnamese, many of them fabrications at a level that would have impressed Stalin (as we demonstrated), were being used as a justification for US atrocities in Central America and elsewhere.

Ed and I bonded over this central idea: when it came to Vietnam and Cambodia, the U.S. was using a lot of sleights of hand.


My list of rivals, interrogators, doubters, haters, and opponents is long. Very long. Very, very long. But that's what happens when you're a controversial guy. Right? Here is a random sampling of those who have questioned the conclusions of my research.

George Lakoff

This cognitive linguist and I have had our share of differences. It may sound petty to say that we have argued over the importance of metaphors, but someone has to fight the good fight. He wrote this little book called Metaphors We Live By, in which he claimed that we live in a sea of metaphors without even realizing it.

Back in the day, George was one of my students at MIT, but the student always tries to surpass the master. Part of this book is really arguing that semantics are more important than grammar, which is another way of saying that the meanings of words matter more than their order. (Deep breaths).

Our disagreements led to what has been referred to as the "Linguistic Wars." Scary, we know.

Oh, and he later got very cozy with some powerful Democrats, consulting with them about their use of rhetoric in political speeches and whatnot. Copycat. Now would be the time to go your own way, Georgie Boy.

Michel Foucault

Goodness me. In 1971, this French philosopher and I had the biggest smackdown since the 1995 WWF Battle Royal. (Look it up, if you care.) This debate, which goes by the name of "Human Nature: Justice versus Power," drilled deep on whether or not a "common human nature exists."

You know, like, are people fundamentally good or bad or what? And are they fundamentally anything, on account of biology and whatever, or are they more blank slates born into bad sociopolitical messes? (You're probably seeing a pattern here—I'm kind of hung up on the whole "nature vs. nurture" debate, no matter what I'm writing about.)

We also went for the jugular on the relative importance of justice and power. Foucault claimed that power and justice are social constructions exploited to benefit the oppressor. I said, "By golly, power and justice are products of nature."

Elizabeth Bates

Another cognitive scientist who disagreed with me. Yikes. I have feelings, too, you know.

Anywhos, like legions of others, Elizabeth had a bone to pick with me in the nature versus nature debate. She even went so far as to question my idea that infants have "a high degree of early knowledge and that development is more a matter of unfolding inborn traits".

She also took shots at my idea that language is processed in a particular part (a.k.a. "module") of the brain. I respect anyone who dares to question my Universal Grammar theory, but that doesn't mean I have to, um, like her.

Keith Windschutttle

I have to start this entry by addressing the chutzpah of this fellow who labeled me a "hypocrite" in the pages of The New Criterion. We almost went to blows over my opinions on 9/11. He actually took umbrage that I diminished the significance of the attack in the face of American terrorism.

(This criticism is nothing compared to being called out by Christopher Hitchens for "Holocaust revisionism" and for supporting that Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, but I digress…)

I simply made the argument that America should spare us its finger pointing. After all, the U.S. has a spotty record on the whole slaughter-as-foreign-policy bit.

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