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Chomsky's linguistics and military funding: a non-issue

There is no evidence that Chomsky’s research program has been driven by a desire to devise a theory that is devoid of any potential military applications.

lead Noam Chomsky mural, Fairmount, Philadelphia, PA., June, 2011. Wikicommons/ Robert Moran. Some rights reserved.Chris Knight’s thought-provoking piece makes two independent assertions, though Knight sees them as crucially linked. The first is that the Pentagon had high hopes of applying the results of Chomsky’s theorizing for military purposes. The second is that Chomsky’s horror at the idea of serving the military in any way led him to develop a theory of language ‘so utterly abstract and other-worldly – so completely removed from any practical application – that no matter what insights he came up with, nothing could possibly be used to kill anyone’.

My opinion is that Knight is right on the mark in his first assertion and completely wrong in the second. Contemporary accounts and subsequent history bear out the deep interest of the military in language-related research. However, there is no evidence that Chomsky’s research program has been driven by a desire to devise a theory that is devoid of any potential military applications.

Military interest in linguistics goes back at least as far as the beginning of the Second World War. American linguists at the time were convinced, and were successful in convincing others, that their methods of analysis were directly applicable to the preparation of the language instruction manuals that the American forces would need.

As early as 1942, it was reported that the director of the program that forged a link between the field of linguistics and the war effort was ‘called upon for advice on language problems by practically every agency of government which has these problems: Office of Strategic Services, Board of Economic Welfare, Department of Justice, as well as the numerous departments of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps’. 1.

Knight documents very well the reasons for military interest in grammatical theory, as carried out at MITRE and elsewhere in the 1960s. The fact that the linguists involved saw themselves as developing their own personal research programs is quite irrelevant, in my opinion.

By the 1980s less abstract versions of generative grammar were being developed, which indeed seemed more amenable to practical applications (including military ones) than Chomsky’s research at the time. Much of this work has taken place at Stanford and satellite organizations around that university. The most important of the resultant projects, the LinGO system, has never received any military funding primarily because the manager of that system, a devout Mennonite, refuses to accept it.

Today, the military is a huge backer of work in natural language processing. However, most work in that area is based on ‘deep learning’ (that is, neural networks trained on very large corpora), making use of virtually no insights from linguistics. It might be pointed out that the neural network approach to cognition is anathema to Chomsky.

Abstract approaches?

The idea that Chomsky has proposed highly abstract approaches to grammar to fend off potential military applications is implausible, to put it mildly. Knight is aware that ‘from the beginning of his career at MIT’, Chomsky preferred a formal abstract approach to language.

But here we are talking about the mid 1950s, a decade before military interest in his work. So how could his initial formal abstract treatment of language have been driven by a desire to develop a theory that could not be used to kill anyone?

Knight goes on to write that his students at MITRE ‘would tinker with his latest theory to make it more realistic’ and that ‘Chomsky went along with this for a while, but then resolved to retreat into pure abstraction’. I have no idea what Knight is talking about here. I am unaware of any MITRE-employed students tinkering with the theory to make it more ‘realistic’ or with Chomsky going along with their tinkering.

In the late 1960s (after the MITRE period), Chomsky did indeed propose a variant to his theory that was somewhat less abstract in a certain way than his earlier variants (the so-called ‘lexicalist hypothesis’), but he motivated it on purely linguistic-internal grounds. The relationship between this theoretical variant and the potential for military funding is obscure, to say the least. Chomsky’s theories have evolved considerably over the past 60 years, but I see little overall change in terms of their abstractness.

Needless controversy

According to Knight, Chomsky insists ‘that human language is purely individual, not a system of social communication’. That is a gross oversimplification of Chomsky’s position. It is true that Chomsky has always focused on language as a cognitive faculty — he has as much right as anybody to follow his own interests. But he has never denigrated other orientations to the study of language, as he stressed in the following quote:

Internalist biolinguistic inquiry does not, of course, question the legitimacy of other approaches to language, any more than internalist inquiry into bee communication invalidates the study of how the relevant internal organization of bees enters into their social structure. The investigations do not conflict; they are mutually supportive. In the case of humans, though not other organisms, the issues are subject to controversy, often impassioned, and needless.

In fact, Chomsky has devoted dozens, if not hundreds, of pages to exposing the manipulative use of language, in particular by the leaders of the American political establishment and their apologists, and to showing that the term ‘freedom of speech’ is often used as a protective cover by those who would wish to deny it to others. In one book for example, he exposes the use of terms like ‘aggression’, ‘doves’, ‘hawks’, ‘peace process’, and ‘terrorism’ in American political discourse.

Surely, the fact that Chomsky sees no inconsistency between such work and his grammatical theorizing (to the point where both occur within the covers of the same volume) is prima facie evidence that he believes that the study of formal grammars and their properties complements, rather than challenges, the study of language in its communicative setting.



1.M. Graves and J. Cowan quote from the journal Hispania in 1942.

About the author

Frederick J. Newmeyer works in syntax and the history of linguistics. He is an emeritus professor at the University of Washington, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia and at Simon Fraser University, and a past-President of the Linguistic Society of America.

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