Friday 29 August 2014

On Language

(August 2014)

This is a compendium of two of Chomsky’s older books, from when he was primarily known for his linguistic work rather than his political stuff. It’s not an easy read, as reflected in the fact I began it sometime in March. It starts, in Language and Responsibility, with wider thoughts on public and political discourse which are still bang on the money, then in the middle section dips down into Generative Grammar, which I’m utterly unqualified to talk about, and finally in the last third (i.e. most of Reflections on Language) segues with an almost jarring seamlessness into the settling of academic scores, which is always fascinating for the neutral observer.* Especially when the more comprehensible sections are delivered in a tone so patronizingly pompous as to be almost physically tangible. At this point I’ll refer you all to Sayre’s Law.

From what I’ve read of and about his more recent political works it’s impossible not to have a healthy amount of respect for Chomsky as a thinker and activist, but to be honest the main benefit of reading this will probably be that I can now truthfully answer ‘yes’ the next time anyone asks if I’ve read any of his linguistics material. Just so long as there’s not a follow-up question…

*This is sarcasm.


  1. There's a collection of interviews that took place with Chomsky right after the commencement of the second Gulf War where he mostly casually talks about the role of the U.S. in the world in the near future, and ten years later there isn't much he was wrong about at that time...
    The collection of interviews is a book called "Imperial Ambitions."

    I suppose if I read "On Language", it'll be for the same reasons you have ;)

    1. I should read more of his political books, mostly it's been in the forms of article or extracts. I should definitely read some complete books. There are bits in this about the manipulation of the media and the range of tolerated dissent that still ring true four decades later, sadly.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. 'The reason the fights in academia are so bitter is because the stakes are so... small.'

    Chomsky. Props to his political writing, though as many a left-academic, he's forgotten the point is to convince people with communicative writing.* That's only been a problem since long before Orwell wrote essays about British champagne-socialists. His linguistics? Neither am I wanting follow up questions, though having read précis of it** I'll better understand it than if I'd read it from the horse's ass, but it doesn't seem to mirror, you know, empirical evidence.

    *Late Chalmers Johnson's a better read, among others.
    **How I managed not to fail a course on Hegel. 'Oh, it's not profound and difficult, merely very poorly written and protected by a cult.'

    1. "as many a left-academic, he's forgotten the point is to convince people with communicative writing."

      As luck would have it, I was in a discussion about Richard Dawkins just the other day ;)