What Have We Learned...?

alex gross language at sprynet.com
Wed Dec 1 21:16:33 UTC 2010

I found one by-product from our recent discussion truly heartening: I 
actually received just one or two off-line messages admonishing me that I 
came across as an ignorant amateur, totally unaware of the depth and glory 
attained by  mainstream linguistics. And this of course explained why so few 
true professionals had bothered to respond on-line. But even these messages 
were rather friendly and apologetic in tone. So let me also be as apologetic 
as I can for what follows.

This was in fact a far cry from the response I first met with back in 1991, 
about five years before the Web, when using UNIX modules I crept onto the 
USENET group  sci.lang.translation, then a hot bed of TGG, to dispute the 
various reigning dogmas. On that occasion I was roundly denounced as a rank, 
untrained novice, a mere translator who had no right to post on the group at 

Not to mention the uproar I provoked when I began publishing articles as 
early as 1987 questioning these same dogmas in the pages of "Language 
Monthly," "Language Technology," "Language International," "Sci-Tech 
Translation Journal" (along with its electronic heir "Translation Journal"), 
and the "ATA Chronicle."  Or when I dared to introduce my complaints on that 
holiest of holy TGG USENET sanctuaries, alt.fan.noam-chomsky.

And let's not forget the even more outraged cries that rang out ten years 
ago when I first published my "33 Reasons Why the Chomskyans Are Mistaken" 
(soon with help from Sergio Navega to become "44 Reasons...") on 
language-related newsgroups and my own website ten years ago.

Consistent throughout all these complaints was the assumption by my critics 
that they were true professionals,  and I was nothing but a total amateur, 
someone who could never even hope to realize how totally all my arguments 
had long ago been demolished by TGG experts.

I found this remarkably amusing, since as early as 1990 I had begun writing 
my invited paper "Limitations of Computers As Translation Tools," published 
by Routledge in 1992 in John Newton's "Computers in Translation: A Practical 
Appraisal," alongside papers by a number of MT and Linguistics figures.

In the second section of that essay I demonstrated in no uncertain terms 
that the only amateurish arguments were in fact the ones presented by TGG 
advocates. I accomplished this by applying the sole applicable standards, as 
presented by Leonard Bloomfield in his essay "Secondary and Tertiary 
Responses to Language."

Using Bloomfield's benchmarks, it quickly becomes clear that every single 
notion in the Chomskyan canon is itself an example of rank amateurism. These 
standards still apply today, as you can confirm for yourselves by examining 
this piece here:


Once you have reviewed this text, I do not believe you will be able to 
refute a single one of its points. As appealing as some mainstream arguments 
may sound to the ignorant, no one but an amateur linguist advances the 
notion that there is a universal structure underlying all languages, that 
any one language is most likely to be a model for learning others, that 
"deep structure" and "hard wiring" prove, taking all circumstances into 
account, that the creations of one language can be held up as better, wiser, 
or richer than those of another (or any other of the many mainstream 

In other words, as measured by Bloomfield's standards, all those who 
embraced generative arguments proved merely by doing so that they were the 
true amateurs, the ones clearly ignorant of language and linguistics.

At this point there is no way of avoiding some truly imposing questions:

Precisely how could an entire school of would-be scholars embrace such a 
vacuous theory, what made them coalesce around this theory in the late 
Fifties, and why did these events take place at MIT?

The answer to all three of these questions can be found in a single name: 
Norbert Wiener.

Wiener's 1948 blockbuster "Cybernetics: Or the Control and Communication in 
the Animal and the Machine" was probably as available on the shelves of 
would-be intellectuals--and as little read--as Stephen Hawking's books are 
today.  Wiener first came to MIT after World War I  and remained a 
commanding presence there until his death in 1967. A MIT mathematics prize 
in his name has been available since that year.

As we all know, Wiener's work set the stage for everything computers have 
done--or failed to do--since then, even prefiguring much of artificial 
intelligence.  So it was neither brave nor creative that a young would-be 
linguist in his twenties would have hitched his wagon to the dominant 
academic star--if anything it was simply playing safe.  Nor is it remotely 
surprising that a number of other young linguists would have followed his 

But there was an even deeper problem: not only did these young linguists 
have no real notion about the workings of language as described by 
Bloomfield, but rather that they were almost equally ignorant of computers.

It was assumed at the time that sooner or later computers were capable of 
solving everything (or failing that, close to everything). Even then these 
machines were conceived on what seemed to be a inconceivably vast scale, 
which as we know would only become geometrically more enormous.

The hardware was there, which meant to those working in the field that most 
problems would sooner or later be solved. Even if their solution turned out 
to be work-intensive or vastly time-consuming, once the work and time had 
been invested, the solution would appear in retrospect to have been a 
trivial task.

But hardware does not work without software, and it was in the creation of 
this software that the whole mainstream project started to fall apart, even 
from the very beginning.  Software cannot be created without an algorithm, 
which in turn must be elaborated first as pseudocode, and finally as working 
code that will run without bugs on the machine. But even creating an 
algorithm for "language" soon became an intractable task. Perhaps this 
explains the chaotic lurching of mainstream theory over the years from TGG 
to G&B to P&P to something called "Minimalism."

And finally leading to the devious decision, when these would-be linguists 
finally caught on that they weren't getting anywhere with language, that 
what they had really and truly been doing all along was "philosophy." But 
here too amateurism may have crept in, since they remained blissfully 
unaware that the true relationship between language and philosophy had been 
spelled out two centuries earlier by the German physicist and wit Georg 
Christoph Lichtenberg, when he wrote:

"Language originated before philosophy,
and that is what is the matter with philosophy."

In any case these savants had no chance of creating an adequate algorithm 
for language, simply because the work of mainstream linguists has not been 
anchored in any genuine realities of language since 1957.  Wiener himself 
recognized the shortcomings of the mainstream approach as early as 1966, 
when he wrote about MT in his work "God and Golem, Inc.":

"I do not believe that linguistic science is so far advanced as to make a 
set of rules of this sort practicable, nor that there is any prospect of its 
being so advanced in the predictable future."

He was also acutely aware of how dangerous the many errors created by MT 
could become:

"Short of this state of affairs, a translating machine will have a chance of 
error. If any important consideration of action or policy is to be 
determined by the use of a translation machine, a small error or even a 
small chance of error may have disproportionately large and serious 

Wiener also insisted that translators should be actively included in every 
stage of creating and critiquing MT, and in many ways he foresaw the advent 
of CAT and to some extent even TM systems. But he was not correct in his 
supposition that back-translation by an MT system from Language B to 
Language A (after another system had gone from Language A to Language B) 
would necessarily uncover all errors.  And as gifted a mathematician as he 
undoubtedly was, he did not grasp the many problems set theory holds for all 
MT or TM systems, as discussed just a few paragraphs beyond the Bloomfield 
section in my paper. (Citations & summary from Wiener, op. cit., pp. 77-80, 
available on-line)

Wiener was also deeply concerned by the contradiction between the practice 
of science and funding by the military,  and as early as 1947 he authored an 
article in "The Atlantic," urging his fellow scientists to avoid such 

We all know that a family living beyond its means may risk going into 
bankruptcy. The same is true of small businesses  or even, as we have 
recently seen, vast commercial consortiums previously imagined as "too big 
to fail."  Even governments or entire nations can fail and be subjected to a 
humiliating process of disbanding and total reorganization.

But what is the fate of a whole learned faculty when it has visibly and 
dramatically failed in its objectives over fifty years, consuming the lives 
of three generations of linguists in the process? It may be time to 
seriously ask this question and formulate responsible answers. Julien Benda 
came close to this topic in his famous "La Trahison des Clercs," 
translatable at various points between  "The Betrayal of the Intellectual 
Class" and "The Treason of the Academics."  In its wholesale desertion of 
provable linguistic principles and willing acceptance of DOD funding, it may 
well be that an entire learned class has once again become guilty of a 
comparable act of treason.

Once again, I wish to apologize if I have gone too far in describing the 
negative aspects of much recent linguistics work.  I realize that some of 
you have had little choice in this matter and have in fact worked well and 
creatively despite an unfriendly climate. I promise not to discuss this 
matter any further from a negative point of view, and in my next posting 
(early in 2011, if I am permitted to post it) I would like to provide a more 
positive vision of how the study of language can develop in coming years and 

All the best to everyone!


PS--after my first message on this topic here, I noticed a slight spike in 
sales of my 60s book.  Thanks to those of you who may have been responsible!

More info still available at:


The principal purpose of language is not communication but to persuade
ourselves that we know what we are talking about, when quite often we do 


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