Wait! What? Chomsky is wrong about something?

Noam Chomsky

I am a Chomsky enthusiast, admittedly. I have read several of his articles and books, and have viewed countless videos. I am no expert in Linguistics, but would sit through a video of his lectures on it.

So, when Tom Wolfe wrote in Harper’s magazine, an article entitled The Origins of Speech, I learned about the fallability of one of the “most important intellectuals alive”. Not that this is tragic. After all, who cares if an intellectual makes a mistake or not? It would be beyond naive to think that Chomsky’s pronouncements on any topic are flawless, and I am sure that Chomsky would subscribe to that admission, although much has been made on the part of others about his legendary rhetorical skills, which had served him well in live public debates and his countless speeches.


Tom Wolfe mentioned Chomsky’s insistence that Linguistics be seen as a science. As a science, it is unique, as Wolfe states, in that it requires zero field study. Linguistics is the only “science” that does this. Rather than be seen as, say, another Linus Pauling or Frederick Banting, it would be better to see him as an ancient Greek philosopher like Democritus. Democritus asked the question about the essential nature of matter and came up with “atoms” without all the bother of needing to observe samples under a scanning tunnelling microscope, for which he would have had to wait 2500 years for such a microscope to be invented.

toddler-blocksSimilarly, Chomsky asked the question about the essential nature of language acquisition as a philosopher. He asked the question of how children first acquire language from truly degenerate and imperfect samples found in the environment around him. The child is a toddler, perhaps age 2, so there is no way for the child to look up words somewhere on Google; no way to get perfect grammar samples; no way to know the parts of speech. The child’s cognitive skills are not up to a sufficient level, nor his motor skills, nor his reasoning skills. In addition, toddlers acquire language in very adverse situations, where the parent’s education and vocabulary are not great, and the growing environment is not the best. So, Chomsky reasoned, acquisition of language must be innate to our species. We chat up a storm just as surely as beavers build dams and birds build nests. Therefore, language acquisition must be tied to neurological processes more than it is tied to processes outside of the language learner. So, maybe there is a “language centre” in the brain, and maybe a universal grammar … ?

That’s a lot of reasoning, and a true scientist would demand “real-world” evidence, such as those obtained from field study, but as Wolfe points out, Chomsky himself downplayed that. That still doesn’t fault Chomsky, since that could still be for others to do, and I am sure a great deal of this has been done over the past 60 years that Chomskyan Linguistics has been around, if only by detractors of Chomsky’s theories and would try to knock it down somehow.

Peter Norvig

There has, and any linguistics based on samples and statistics have been treated as a separate paradigm of thought. While these would be dismissed by Chomsky and his followers, it did give us Google Translate. Google Translate, invented by Google research director Peter Norvig, is a unique beast. Google Translate knows nothing about any language, relying only on statistical occurrences of actual use of specific words and phrases in documents on the Internet. It uses what linguists call “corpus” linguistics: the study of language as it is actually used and observed to be used by people in the real world. And it does it with a significant degree of success. I have used it extensively, and can attest to its usefulness. Corpus linguistics would be dismissed by Chomsky as one dismisses a paradigm that is outside of one’s own.

Chomsky and those invested in his paradigm would have not been able to create Google Translate from universal grammar (UG) theory. UG is touted to exist, but such a UG is not fully realized, at least not to the point where a translating engine could auto-detect your language and translate it to another one for you the way Google Translate does. Corpus Linguistics appears to do the real work manifest in our techhnologies and education systems, while UG is that shiny new theory, 60 years old but largely still on the drawing board, attractive but too new to be applied to existing technologies right now. UG is like the wave mechanical model in physics, where you are better off with high school physics most of the time. Einstein may have been right and Newton may have been wrong, but you can still build bridges and skyscrapers with Newtonian physics.

Wolfe does not go into any of this stuff about paradigmatic differences, by the way. While there is effectively a schism between modern linguists, Wolfe chose to attack Chomsky in ways that border on ad hominem. Wolfe has been criticized for misinterpreting actions of Chomsky to fill out a particular narrative. He was painted, for example, as a kind of defensive person, unresponsive to criticism. This is laughable, since he is famous for responding to email from just about anybody. I had even corresponded with him in the past, and to this day I have never met him in person. His correspondence with me had always been thoughtful and helpful, and far from defensive or unresponsive.

#: The pound (?) sign?

I prefer to call the symbol “#” a crosshatch, as it is in many dictionaries. But this symbol has gotten quite a beating over the years since the computer age some decades ago.

There is now incredible confusion over what to call it. When interacting with Ma Bell, the telephone company calls it a “pound sign”. How on Earth could “#” be confused with “£”? I understand that “£” appears in place of “#” on a British computer keyboard (both are SHIFT+3). In its place, “#” is on American keyboards, in use even in Canada. My keyboard is a US keyboard, and “£” is a special character that I have to conjure up with some kind of HTML hocus-pocus. “££££££” (OK, so now I’m cutting and pasting). I would think, however, that the British have “#” on their telephone keypads; and the prospect of a British “#” being mistaken for a “£” would likely make them cringe. There is an indication that it is likely to literally mean pounds of weight in the old Imperial/US system, so that 12# could stand for “12 pounds”, for instance.

Now we have Twitter, and now everyone is calling it a “hashtag”. Well, yes, it is a hash (a kind of crosshatch) that tags a message to another one so a sender can stay under the character limit. It is certainly a hashtag if you use Twitter-speak, but that is because it is a symbol that has meaning to the computers and humans which run amok in the Twitter-verse.

To help things, some phone messages are now asking you to press “the number sign”, which is less wrong I suppose, and I am happier to press a “number sign” than I would be to press a “pound sign”, unless it is actually a “£” sign. If you actually call it a crosshatch, and say  in your phone message “Press crosshatch to continue”, few people would know what you are talking about. This is just sad, and reveals the awful truth that most people really don’t know what to call it. Conversely, we all know that it is a symbol which represents a number or a quantity, so the simplest thing to say to a stranger is “number sign” when you mean “crosshatch”.

And some people who want to be really fancy call “#” an “octothorpe”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this word was invented in 1973 by Bell Labs precisely to describe the “#” character on their newfangled touch-tone phones. The word octothorpe did not appear in the OED until the Fourth Edition (2004), and says that the origin is uncertain, but defaults to the claim by Bell Labs. Another website seemed to say that an octothorpe used to refer to 8 parcels of land surrounding a central square section of land. So that would make the property lines kind of like this: #. The most common spelling of octothorpe is without an “e”, but the OED says it’s OK to use it with one. By the way this backstory has never been confirmed, only claimed.

But you hardly hear of “octothorpe”, since there are so many other terms for it. The OED calls it a “hash sign”; and I’ve already mentioned “crosshatch”, “pound sign”, and “number sign”. There can also be “hash symbol”, and Twitter calls it a “hash tag”, but according to the OED, my preferred term is not exactly used for “#” (although other dictionaries say so). Instead the OED, spelling it “cross-hatch” (with a hyphen), says it can be used to mean two pairs of parallel lines crossing each other (kind of like #, but referring to the pattern generally).