Noam Chomsky: Linguist and reformer

Editor's note: Re-published archive article(cf. Crescendo no.6, January 2022 "Le réseau AEFE : le monde des possibles")

Noam Chomsky has been an important figure in both of his major fields of interest, first as a linguist with rather challenging and out of the ordinary theories, then as an influential fighter for social justice in the world. Thanks to his passion towards justice and humanity he became an icon of the 20th century. His undeniable contribution to language studies and his perception of power and justice have made him a pioneer and a man of ideas in these highly challenging fields. 

Before being a political reformer, Chomsky is a linguist who has come up with theories about the link between grammar in languages and the human mind. His theory that has been perceived as controversial by many has actually had great influence in the linguistic field as a new way of looking into language. He argues that the human mind has some sort of familiarity and acquisition to language since birth. 

Chomsky believes that the link between the phonetic and semantic representation of syntax is acquired by individuals at a young age due to a mind that has evolved into already containing said basics. This theory is simply based on the thought that language is the most important medium that keeps humans attached to reality and to each other. All meaning, expression and communication passes through this medium that has become universal and primordial. Language might be something unique to everyone through idiolects or to regions through dialects but there is one main focus between all languages and all styles of speaking. This main focus happens to be how we humans acquire it through teaching. One way of describing Chomsky’s theory would be to say that every human being is born with some sort of already downloaded data on language which makes it possible to actually learn any language. 

Language is so deeply ingrained in our being that we tend to overlook it without actually considering the impact it has on us as individuals and as communities. In other words we forget how much influence language has had on humanity in history and today’s time. The idea that the human mind already has an explanation to language would be a shallow analysis since it is not only a way of communicating but a part of humanity itself. This can easily be underlined with a quote from Noam Chomsky: 

“There is no reason to believe … that the “essential purpose” of language is “communication”. Language can be used to transmit information, but it also serves many other purposes: to establish relations among people, to express or clarify thought, for play, for creative mental activity, to gain understanding, and so on. In my opinion, there is no reason to accord privileged status to one or the other of these modes.”

Accordingly, with his belief that language is a key to more than communication, Chomsky underlines that language is unique to the human species and attaches this medium to biological origins. Regardless of the fact that animals may seem to use language because they have some sort of communication, they don’t have other uses of language, notably the most important one: social relations. Human beings created communities, regions, relations and groups all by using language, it is the main element that brings people together. 

Chomsky mainly focuses on the acuity of language, he uses two distinct terms to express his theory: E-language and I-language. I-language being a part dedicated to language that a human being has at birth and builds language on, we could call it the initial state. However, E-language is the part that isn’t simple and is impossible to understand according to Chomsky. It constitutes the parts of language that are external. Chomsky insists on how this all creates a notion called Universal Grammar that points out the sides that are common to all languages. 

Overall Chomsky’s linguistic theory is based entirely on the existence of an initial state of the mind formed at birth and the process of building on that “blueprint” to achieve a certain level of language. His theory of Universal Grammar is the mere state that we construct language on and how we develop it as individuals. 

As stated previously, Chomsky has a great influence on the topics of justice and freedom. He became interested in anarchism and libertarian ideas due to his life growing up as a Jewish boy. He watched the atrocities that rose with fascism and the Nazi ideology accompanied by a wave of antisemitic horrors. Chomsky started by following the path of his teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, Zellig S. Harris. 

Chomsky, who later became a Junior Fellow of the Harvard University Society of Fellows and then a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), had an impact on social justice through many actions and criticisms. 

In a few words, Chomsky took over the subject of power and authority. From how these had an impact on population control to how intellectuals should follow the path to justice through action against certain authority. 

“It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies.”

In his books, essays and criticism perhaps the most dominant idea is the danger and consequences of US imperial policy and the interference of this power all around the world. Chomsky insists on the impact of the fragility of American democracy and how this has cost so much to the rest of the world. Chomsky has long been a critic of delicate issues such as the current state of capitalism, neoliberalism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been a major subject in his books. 

Chomsky who is a leading figure in linguistics and even sometimes called “the father of modern linguistics” and a fighter for social and civic justice has impacted these domains in great ways. From his theories to his love for freedom, Chomsky is a human being who has changed the point of view and inspired many, even rendered new perspectives possible and visible to everyone.

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