Prescriptivism and Language Change in American English—E. Martyn SpecGram Vol CLXXX, No 3 Contents Numeri++—Praenomen Gentilicium Cognomen, Esq.

The Pragmatics of Noam Chomsky’s Menswear Criticism and Its Implications for Universal Grammar

P.G. McSim
Junior Research Fellow in Pragmatics
University of Arizona

On March 25th, 2016, Noam Chomsky and the journalist Glen Greenwald took part in an event at the University of Arizona. On greeting Greenwald, Chomsky said the following—

You know, there’s this interesting essay by Albert Camus, written during his first visit to the United States, in which he described his surprise at what he regarded as the poor clothing taste of Americans, particularly men’s choices of ties.

Somewhat surprised by this, Greenwald replied, “Are you sharing that anecdote because you dislike my tie?”, to which Chomsky answered, “Yes.”

Chomsky’s remarks appear to violate the maxims of Relevance and Quantity. His anecdote is much longer than the message he apparently wishes to convey, i.e., “I dislike your tie,” and the reference to Albert Camus adds no useful information. However, we know that when Gricean maxims are violated in this manner, it indicates that the speaker wishes to implicitly convey some message other than that which is expressed on the surface.

One reason for this is etiquette. To criticise another person’s dress sense at a public event may appear rude, so circumlocutions may be employed to avoid offence, for example, “That’s not exactly the sort of tie I would have chosen,” may imply the message, “I don’t want to appear rude, but I dislike your tie.” However, Chomsky clearly goes far beyond this. Why frame the message in a rather dull and meaningless reference to an obscure essay by Albert Camus? We must remember that among certain classes of people, the possession of literary knowledge is regarded as a sign of intellectual achievement, especially knowledge of authors and texts that the majority of people are unlikely to read for pleasure. We can therefore infer the message, “Without violating etiquette, I wish to imply that I am more intelligent than you, and I also dislike your tie.”

It appears that Greenwald was cowed by this gambit, since he subsequently wrote, “That’s how you receive a fashion critique from the world’s greatest public intellectual.”

Now let us consider Chomsky’s linguistic career. Since the 1960s, he has promoted the idea of Universal Grammar, whereby he claims that language is essentially impossible to learn, and that its structure must therefore be hardwired into the brain. He has developed this idea mainly by mapping English syntax to formal logic, a mathematical notation understood by few people other than theoretical computer scientists and Lojbanists. He persistently claims that a truly scientific understanding of the nature of language can only be obtained by constructing deliberately artificial example sentences, rather than observing language in actual use. He changes his formalisms on a regular basis, thus meaning that his previous theories and his subsequent ones are not mutually intelligible. His critics accuse him of a willful obscurantism that has added little, if anything, to our understanding of linguistics.

Such criticisms therefore imply that Chomsky’s career in general flouts the maxims of Quantity and Relevance on a grand scale, by using hundreds of complex research papers to say nothing at all. Pragmatically, therefore, we must conclude that Chomsky has some deeper message that he wishes to convey. We can infer that such a message may be along the lines of,

I am the world’s greatest public intellectual. I have a deeper and more profound understanding of the inner workings of language than youwho are scarcely worthy to grovel at my feetcan ever hope to comprehend.

And I hate your tie.

Prescriptivism and Language Change in American EnglishE. Martyn
Numeri++Praenomen Gentilicium Cognomen, Esq.
SpecGram Vol CLXXX, No 3 Contents