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On Nature and Language

In this new and outstanding book Noam Chomsky develops
his thinking on the relation between language, mind, and brain,
integrating current research in linguistics into the burgeoning field
of neuroscience. The volume begins with a lucid introduction by the
editors Adriana Belletti and Luigi Rizzi. This is followed by some of
Chomsky™s recent writings on these themes, together with a
penetrating interview in which Chomsky provides the clearest and
most elegant introduction to current theory available. It should make
his Minimalist Program accessible to all. The volume concludes with
an essay on the role of intellectuals in society and government. On
Nature and Language is a significant landmark in the development of
linguistic theory. It will be welcomed by students and researchers
in theoretical linguistics, neurolinguistics, cognitive science, and
politics, as well as anyone interested in the development of
Chomsky™s thought.

noam chomsky is Institute Professor at the Department of
Linguistics and Philosophy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

adriana belletti is Professor of Linguistics at the University of

luigi rizzi is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Siena.
On Nature and Language
noam chomsky

with an essay on
“The Secular Priesthood and the
Perils of Democracy”

Edited by
adriana belletti and
luigi rizzi
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Preface vii

1 Editors™ introduction: some concepts and
issues in linguistic theory 1

2 Perspectives on language and mind 45

3 Language and the brain 61

4 An interview on minimalism 92

5 The secular priesthood and the
perils of democracy 162

Notes 187
References to chapters 1“4 191
Index 201


Invited by the University of Siena, Noam Chomsky spent the month
of November 1999 at the Certosa di Pontignano, a fourteenth-century
monastery and now a research facility of the University. It was an ex-
traordinarily intense and exciting month, in which faculty and students
of the University of Siena had a unique opportunity to come in close
contact with different aspects of Chomsky™s work, discuss science
and politics with him, exchange and sharpen ideas and projects, and
interact with him in many ways. The texts collected in this volume are
related to activities that took place in connection with this visit.
The first chapter provides an introduction to some basic con-
cepts of linguistic theory and to some elements of the history of the
field which are crucial for understanding certain theoretical questions
addressed in the following chapters.
The second chapter is related to a particular occasion.
Chomsky™s sojourn in Siena was organized twenty years after his visit
to the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa, an event which, through
the memorable Pisa Lectures, has profoundly influenced the field of
theoretical linguistics ever since. In connection with this anniversary,
Chomsky received, on October 27, 1999, the “Perfezionamento honoris


causa,” the honorary degree delivered by the Scuola Normale Superiore.
In that occasion, he gave the Galileo Lecture “Perspectives on Lan-
guage and Mind,” which traces central ideas of current scientific lin-
guistics and of the modern cognitive sciences to their roots in classical
thought, starting with Galileo Galilei™s famous praise of the “mar-
velous invention,” alphabetic writing, which allows us to communi-
cate with other people, no matter how distant in space and time.
The Galileo Lecture is published here as the second chapter.
The third chapter is focused on the relations of the study of
language with the brain sciences; it addresses in particular the perspec-
tives for an integration and unification of the abstract computational
models, developed by the cognitive sciences, with the study of the phys-
ical substrate of language and cognition in the brain. A preliminary
version of this text was read by Chomsky as a plenary lecture at the
meeting of the European Conference on Cognitive Science (Santa
Maria della Scala, Siena, October 30, 1999); the same issues were
also addressed in a somewhat more general setting in the public
lecture “Language and the Rest of the World” (University of Siena,
November 16, 1999).
The fourth chapter presents, in the form of an interview, a dis-
cussion on the historical roots, concepts, and ramifications of the
Minimalist Program, the approach to language which took shape un-
der the impulse of Chomsky™s ideas in the course of the 1990s, and
which has progressively acquired a prominent place in theoretical
Chomsky also gave a second public lecture entitled “The Secular
Priesthood and the Perils of Democracy” (University of Siena,
November 18, 1999), and bearing on the other major focus of his inter-
ests and activities: the responsibility of the media and other intellec-
tual organizations in modern society. The text corresponding to this


lecture is published here as the fifth chapter. The same topic was also
addressed by Chomsky in other talks and seminars, particularly in
connection with his recent volume The New Military Humanism.
In the course of his sojourn in Siena, Chomsky also gave a
series of informal seminars on the latest technical developments of
the Minimalist Program, and reported on this topic at the workshops
connected to the research program “For a Structural Cartography of
Syntactic Configurations and Semantic Types” (Certosa di Pontignano,
November 25“27, 1999).
The common denominator uniting the first four chapters of this
book is the idea of studying language as a natural object, a cognitive
capacity that is part of the biological endowment of our species, phys-
ically represented in the human brain and accessible to study within
the guidelines of the natural sciences. Within this perspective, intro-
duced by Chomsky™s early writings and then developed by a growing
scientific community, theoretical linguistics gave a crucial contribu-
tion to triggering and shaping the so-called cognitive revolution in
the second part of the twentieth century. Based on about forty years
of scientific inquiry on language, the Minimalist Program now devel-
ops this approach by putting at the center of the research agenda a
remarkable property of language design: its elegance and concision in
accomplishing the fundamental task of connecting sounds and mean-
ings over an unbounded domain. Much of the interview presented in
the fourth chapter is devoted to elucidating this aspect of current re-
search, and exploring analogies with other elegant systems uncovered
by scientific inquiry in other domains of the natural world.
The second and third chapters of this book are immediately
accessible to non-specialists. The fourth chapter, while essentially
non-technical, refers to certain concepts of modern theoretical lin-
guistics and to aspects of the recent history of this field. The aim of


the introductory chapter is to provide some theoretical and historical
background for the following discussion on minimalism.
The materials collected in this volume were published in Italian
and English with the title Su natura e linguaggio as the first volume of the
Lezioni Senesi, Edizioni dell™Universit` di Siena, in April 2001. The
present volume differs from the Siena volume in that the introductory
chapter has been considerably enriched, and the Galileo Lecture has
been added, with permission from the Scuola Normale Superiore of
The twentieth anniversary of the Pisa seminars provided a good
occasion for a new visit to Tuscany, but very little (if any) of the time
Chomsky spent in Siena was devoted to celebrating the past. Most
of the time and the best energies in this intense and unforgettable
month were devoted to exploring and discussing new ideas and new
directions for future research on language. We hope that the texts
and materials collected here will convey not only the content, but also
the intellectual commitment and the excitement that pervaded the
discussions between Pontignano and Via Roma.

adriana belletti
luigi rizzi

Chapter 1

Editors™ introduction: some concepts
and issues in linguistic theory

1 The study of language in a biological setting
Dominant linguistics paradigms in the first half of the twentieth cen-
tury had centered their attention on Saussurean “Langue,” a social
object of which individual speakers have only a partial mastery. Ever
since the 1950s, generative grammar shifted the focus of linguistic
research onto the systems of linguistic knowledge possessed by indi-
vidual speakers, and onto the “Language Faculty,” the species-specific
capacity to master and use a natural language (Chomsky 1959). In this
perspective, language is a natural object, a component of the human
mind, physically represented in the brain and part of the biological
endowment of the species. Within such guidelines, linguistics is part
of individual psychology and of the cognitive sciences; its ultimate
aim is to characterize a central component of human nature, defined
in a biological setting.
The idea of focusing on the Language Faculty was not new; it had
its roots in the classical rationalist perspective of studying language
as a “mirror of the mind,” as a domain offering a privileged access to
the study of human cognition. In order to stress such roots, Chomsky

On nature and language

refers to the change of perspective in the 1950s as “the second cognitive
revolution,” thus paying a tribute to the innovative ideas on language
and mind in the philosophy of the seventeenth to early nineteenth
centuries, with particular reference to the Cartesian tradition. What is
new in the “second cognitive revolution” is that language is studied for
the first time, in the second half of the twentieth century, with precise
formal models capable of capturing certain fundamental facts about
human language.
A very basic fact of language is that speakers are constantly
confronted with expressions that they have never encountered in their
previous linguistic experience, and that they can nevertheless produce
and understand with no effort. In fact, normal linguistic capacities
range over unbounded domains: every speaker can produce and un-
derstand an unbounded number of linguistic expressions in normal
language use. This remarkable capacity, sometimes referred to as a
critical component of the “creativity” of ordinary language use, had
been noticed at least ever since the first cognitive revolution and had
been regarded as a crucial component of human nature. Nevertheless,
it had remained fundamentally unexplained in the classical reflection
on language. For instance, we find revealing oscillations in Ferdinand
de Saussure™s Cours on this topic. On the one hand, the Cours bluntly
states that “la phrase, le type par excellence de syntagme . . . appartient
` la parole, non ` la langue” (p. 172) [the sentence, the type of phrase
a a
par excellence, belongs to parole, not to langue], and immediately after
this passage, the text refers back to the definition of parole as “un acte
individuel de volonte et d™intelligence . . . [which includes] les combi-
naisons par lesquelles le sujet parlant utilise le code de la langue en
vue d™exprimer sa pensee personnelle . . . ” (p. 31) [an individual act
of will and intelligence . . . which includes the combinations by which
the speaking subject utilizes the code of langue in view of expressing

Editors™ introduction

his personal thought]. The freedom of the combinations of elements
which characterizes a sentence is “le propre de la parole.” On the other
hand, “il faut attribuer ` la langue, non ` la parole, tous les types de
a a
syntagmes construits sur des formes reguli`res . . . , des groupes de
mots construits sur des patrons r eguliers, des combinaisons [which]
repondent ` des types generaux” [it is necessary to attribute to langue,
´ a ´´
not to parole, all the types of phrases built on regular forms . . . , groups
of words built on regular patterns, combinations which correspond
to general types](p. 173). The Cours™s conclusion then seems to be that
syntax is half way in between langue and parole: “Mais il faut reconnaˆtre±
que dans le domaine du syntagme il n™y a pas de limite tranch ee entre´
le fait de langue, marque de l™usage collectif, et le fait de parole, qui
depend de la liberte individuelle” (p. 173) [but it is necessary to recog-
´ ´
nize that in the domain of the phrase there is no sharp limit between
the facts of langue, marked by collective usage, and the facts of parole,
which depend on individual freedom]. The source of the oscillation is
clear: on the one hand, the regular character of syntax is evident; on the
other hand, the theoretical linguist at the beginning of the twentieth
century does not have at his disposal a precise device to express the
astonishing variety of “regular patterns” that natural language syntax
allows. See also Graffi (1991: 212“213) for a discussion of this point.
The critical formal contribution of early generative grammar was
to show that the regularity and unboundedness of natural language
syntax were expressible by precise grammatical models endowed with
recursive procedures. Knowing a language amounts to tacitly possess-
ing a recursive generative procedure. When we speak we freely select
a structure generated by our recursive procedure and which accords
with our communicative intentions; a particular selection in a specific
discourse situation is a free act of parole in Saussure™s sense, but the
underlying procedure which specifies the possible “regular patterns”

On nature and language

is strictly rule-governed. Over the last fifty years, the technical char-
acterization of the recursive property of natural language syntax has
considerably evolved, from the assumption of “generalized transfor-
mations” forming complex constructions step by step beginning with
those underlying the simplest sentences (Chomsky 1957), to recur-
sive phrase structure systems (Katz and Postal 1964, Chomsky 1965)
capable of producing deep structures of unbounded length, to a recur-
sive X-bar theory (Chomsky 1970, Jackendoff 1977), to the minimalist
idea that the basic syntactic operation, “merge,” recursively strings to-
gether two elements forming a third element which is the projection of
one of its two subconstituents (Chomsky 1995a, 2000a). Nevertheless,
the fundamental intuition has remained constant: natural languages
involve recursive generative functions.
The new models built on the basis of this insight quickly per-
mitted analyses with non-trivial deductive depth and which, thanks
to their degree of formal explicitness, could make precise predictions
and hence could be submitted to various kinds of empirical testing.
Deductive depth of the models and experimental controls of their
validity: these are among the basic ingredients of what has been called
the “Galilean style,” the style of inquiry that established itself in the nat-
ural sciences from the time of Galileo Galilei (see chapters 2 and 4 for
further discussion of this notion). Showing that the language faculty
is amenable to study within the guidelines of the Galilean style, this
is then the essence of the second cognitive revolution in the study
of language. Initiated by Chomsky™s contributions in the 1950s, this
approach has profoundly influenced the study of language and mind
ever since, contributing in a critical manner to the rise of modern cogni-
tive science (see, in addition to the references quoted, and among many
other publications, Chomsky™s (1955) doctoral dissertation, published
in 1975, Chomsky (1957) and various essays in Fodor and Katz (1964)).

Editors™ introduction

2 Universal Grammar and particular grammars
The modern study of language as a mirror of the mind revolves around
a number of basic research questions, two of which have been partic-
ularly prominent:

“ What is knowledge of language?
“ How is it acquired?

The first question turned out to be of critical importance for the pro-
gram to get started. The first fragments of generative grammar in the
1950s and 1960s showed, on the one hand, that the implicit knowl-
edge of language was amenable to a precise study through models
which had their roots in the theory of formal systems, primarily in
the theory of recursive functions; on the other hand, they immediately
underscored the fact that the intuitive linguistic knowledge that every
speaker possesses, and which guides his linguistic behavior, is a sys-
tem of extraordinary complexity and richness. Every speaker implicitly
masters a very detailed and precise system of formal procedures to
assemble and interpret linguistic expressions. This system is con-
stantly used, in an automatized and unconscious manner, to produce
and understand novel sentences, a normal characteristic of ordinary
language use.
The discovery of the richness of the implicit knowledge of lan-
guage immediately raised the question of acquisition. How can it be
that every child succeeds in acquiring such a rich system so early in life,
in an apparently unintentional manner, without the need of an explicit

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