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organisms “ a mistake, he argues.
As far as I know, the approach Gallistel recommends is sound;
in the special case of language, it seems to me to be adopted by all
substantive inquiry, at least tacitly, even when that is heatedly denied.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that a part of the human biological
endowment is a specialized “language organ,” the faculty of language
(FL). Its initial state is an expression of the genes, comparable to the
initial state of the human visual system, and it appears to be a common
human possession to close approximation. Accordingly, a typical child
will acquire any language under appropriate conditions, even under
severe deficit and in “hostile environments.” The initial state changes
under the triggering and shaping effect of experience, and internally
determined processes of maturation, yielding later states that seem
to stabilize at several stages, finally at about puberty. We can think
of the initial state of FL as a device that maps experience into state L
attained: a “language acquisition device” (LAD). The existence of such
a LAD is sometimes regarded as controversial, but it is no more so
than the (equivalent) assumption that there is a dedicated “language
module” that accounts for the linguistic development of an infant as
distinct from that of her pet kitten (or chimpanzee, or whatever),
given essentially the same experience. Even the most extreme “radi-
cal behaviorist” speculations presuppose (at least tacitly) that a child


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On nature and language

can somehow distinguish linguistic materials from the rest of the
confusion around it, hence postulating the existence of FL (= LAD);19
and as discussion of language acquisition becomes more substan-
tive, it moves to assumptions about the language organ that are more
rich and domain specific, without exception to my knowledge. That
includes the acquisition of lexical items, which turn out to have
rich and complex semantic structure, even the simplest of them.
Knowledge of these properties becomes available on very limited evi-
dence and, accordingly, would be expected to be essentially uniform
among languages; and is, as far as is known.
Here we move to substantive questions within the first three
perspectives of the ethological approach, though again without re-
stricting inquiry into language use to fitness consequences: survival
and reproduction. We can inquire into the fundamental properties of
linguistic expressions, and their use to express thought, sometimes
to communicate, and sometimes to think or talk about the world. In
this connection, comparative animal research surely merits attention.
There has been important work on the problem of representation in a va-
riety of species. Gallistel introduced a compendium of review articles
on the topic a few years ago by arguing that representations play a key
role in animal behavior and cognition; here “representation” is un-
derstood as isomorphism, a one-to-one relation between mind“brain
processes and “an aspect of the environment to which these processes
adapt the animal™s behavior” “ e.g. when an ant represents the corpse
of a conspecific by its odor.20 It is a fair question whether, or how, the
results relate to the mental world of humans; in the case of language,
to what is called “phonetic” or “semantic representation.”
As noted, from the biolinguistic point of view that seems to me
appropriate “ and tacitly adopted in substantive work “ we can think of
a particular language L as a state of FL. L is a recursive procedure that


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Language and the brain

generates an infinity of expressions. Each expression can be regarded
as a collection of information for other systems of the mind“brain.
The traditional assumption, back to Aristotle, is that the information
falls into two categories, phonetic and semantic; information used,
respectively, by sensorimotor systems and conceptual“intentional sys-
tems “ the latter “systems of thought,” to give a name to something
poorly understood. That could well be a serious oversimplification,
but let us keep to the convention. Each expression, then, is an internal
object consisting of two collections of information: phonetic and se-
mantic. These collections are called “representations,” phonetic and
semantic representations, but there is no isomorphism holding be-
tween the representations and aspects of the environment. There is no
pairing of internal symbol and thing represented, in any useful sense.
On the sound side, this is taken for granted. It would not be false
to say that an element of phonetic representation “ say the internal el-
ement /ba/ in my language “ picks out a thing in the world, namely
the sound BA. But that would not be a helpful move, and it is never
made. Rather, acoustic and articulatory phonetics seek to understand
how the sensorimotor system uses the information in the phonetic
representation to produce and interpret sounds, no trivial task. One
can think of the phonetic representation as an array of instructions
for the sensorimotor systems, but a particular element of the internal
representation is not paired with some category of events in the outside
world, perhaps a construction based on motions of molecules. Similar
conclusions seem to me appropriate on the meaning side. It has been
understood at least since Aristotle that even the simplest words incor-
porate information of many different kinds: about material constitu-
tion, design and intended use, origin, gestalt and causal properties,
and much more. These topics were explored in some depth during
the cognitive revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,


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On nature and language

though much of the work, even including the well-studied British em-
piricist tradition from Hobbes to Hume, remains little known outside
of historical scholarship. The conclusions hold for simple nouns,
count and mass “ “river,” “house,” “tree,” “water,” personal and place
names “ the “purest referential terms” (pronouns, empty categories),
and so on; and the properties become more intricate as we turn to
elements with relational structure (verbs, tense and aspect, . . .), and
of course far more so as we move on to more complex expressions.
As to how early in ontogenesis these complex systems of knowledge
are functioning, little is known, but there is every reason to suppose
that the essentials are as much a part of the innate biological en-
dowment as the capacity for stereoscopic vision or specific kinds of
motor planning, elicited in considerable richness and specificity on
the occasion of sense, in the terminology of the early modern scien-
tific revolution.
There seems nothing analogous in the rest of the animal world,
even at the simplest level. It is doubtless true that the massive explo-
sion of lexicon, and symbolic representation, are crucial components
of human language, but invoking imitation or symbol“thing corre-
spondence does not carry us very far, and even those few steps could
well be on the wrong track. When we turn to the organization and gen-
eration of representations, analogies break down very quickly beyond
the most superficial level.
These properties of language are almost immediately obvious
on inspection “ which is not to say that they are deeply investigated or
well understood; they are not. Moving beyond, we find other proper-
ties that are puzzling. The components of expressions “ their features,
in standard terminology “ must be interpretable by the systems that
access them; the representations at the interface with sensorimotor
and thought systems consist of interpretable features. One would
therefore expect that the features that enter computation should be
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Language and the brain

interpretable, as in well-designed artificial symbolic systems: formal
systems for metamathematics, computer languages, etc. But it is not
true for natural language; on the sound side, perhaps never true. One
crucial case has to do with inflectional features that receive no semantic
interpretation: structural case (nominative, accusative), or agreement
features such as plurality (interpretable on nouns, but not on verbs or
adjectives). The facts are not obvious in surface forms, but are reason-
ably well substantiated. Work of the past twenty years has provided
considerable reason to suspect that these systems of uninterpretable
features are quite similar among languages, though the external man-
ifestation of the features differs in fairly systematic ways; and that a
good deal of the typological variety of language reduces to this ex-
tremely narrow subcomponent of language. It could be, then, that the
recursive computational system of the language organ is fixed and
determinate, an expression of the genes, along with the basic struc-
ture of possible lexical items. A particular state of FL “ a particular
internal language “ is determined by selecting among the highly struc-
tured possible lexical items and fixing parameters that are restricted
to uninterpretable inflectional features and their manifestation. It
could be that that is not a bad first approximation, maybe more than
that.
It seems that the same uninterpretable features may be impli-
cated in the ubiquitous dislocation property of natural language. The
term refers to the fact that phrases are commonly articulated in one
position but interpreted as if they were somewhere else, where they
can be in similar expressions: the dislocated subject of a passive con-
struction, for example, interpreted as if it were in the object position,
in a local relation to the verb that assigns it a semantic role. Disloca-
tion has interesting semantic properties. It may be that the “external”
systems of thought (external to FL, internal to the mind“brain) require
that FL generate expressions with these properties, to be properly
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On nature and language

interpreted. There is also reason to believe that the uninterpretable
features may be the mechanism for implementing the dislocation
property, perhaps even an optimal mechanism for satisfying this exter-
nally imposed condition on the language faculty. If so, then neither the
dislocation property nor uninterpretable features are “imperfections”
of FL, “design flaws” (here using the term “design” metaphorically, of
course). These and other considerations raise more general questions
of optimal design: could it be that FL is an optimal solution to inter-
face conditions imposed by the systems of the mind“brain in which
it is embedded, the sensorimotor and thought systems?
Such questions have been seriously posed only quite recently.
They could not be raised before there was a fairly good grasp of the
fixed principles of the faculty of language and the restricted options
that yield the rich typological variety that we know must be rather
superficial, despite appearances, given the empirical conditions on
language acquisition. Though naturally partial and tentative, such un-
derstanding has increased markedly in the past twenty years. Now
it seems that questions of optimal design can be seriously raised,
sometimes answered. Furthermore, the idea that language may be
an optimal solution to interface conditions, in non-trivial respects,
seems a good deal more plausible than it did a few years ago. Insofar
as it is true, interesting questions arise about the theory of mind,
the design of the brain, and the role of natural law in the evolu-
tion of even very complex organs such as the language faculty, ques-
tions that are very much alive in the theory of evolution at elementary
levels, in work of the kind pioneered by D™Arcy Thompson and Alan
Turing that has been somewhat at the margins until recently. It is con-
ceivable that the comprehensive ethological approach discussed ear-
lier might be enriched in these terms, though that remains a distant
prospect.


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Language and the brain

Still more remote are the fundamental questions that motivated
the classical theory of mind “ the creative aspect of language use, the
distinction between action appropriate to situations and action caused
by situations, between being “compelled” to act in certain ways or
only “incited and inclined” to do so; and in general, the question of
how “members of animal bodies move at the command of the will,”
Newton™s phrase in his review of mysteries that remain unresolved,
including the causes of interaction of bodies, electrical attraction and
repulsion, and other basic issues that remained unintelligible, by the
standards of the scientific revolution.
In some domains, inquiry into components of the mind“brain
has made dramatic progress. There is justified enthusiasm about the
promise of new technologies, and a wealth of exciting work waiting
to be undertaken in exploring mental aspects of the world and their
emergence. It is not a bad idea, however, to keep in some corner of
our minds the judgment of great figures of early modern science “
Galileo, Newton, Hume and others “ concerning the “obscurity” in
which “nature™sultimate secrets ever will remain,” perhaps for reasons
rooted in the biological endowment of the curious creature that alone
is able even to contemplate these questions.




91
Chapter 4


An interview on minimalism
noam chomsky
with Adriana Belletti and Luigi Rizzi




The roots of the Minimalist Program
I

ab & lr: To start from a personal note, let us take the Pisa
Lectures as a point of departure.1 You have often characterized the
approach that emerged from your Pisa seminars, twenty years ago, as
a major change of direction in the history of our field. How would you
characterize that shift today?
nc: Well, I don™t think it was clear at once, but in retrospect
there was a period, of maybe twenty years preceding that, in which
there had been an attempt to come to terms with a kind of a para-
dox that emerged as soon as the first efforts were made to study the
structure of language very seriously, with more or less rigorous rules,
an effort to give a precise account for the infinite range of structures of
language. The paradox was that in order to give an accurate descriptive
account it seemed necessary to have a huge proliferation of rule systems
of a great variety, different rules for different grammatical construc-
tions. For instance, relative clauses look different from interrogative
clauses and the VP in Hungarian is different from the NP and they are

University of Siena, November 8“9, 1999; revised March 16, June 18, 2000



92
An interview on minimalism

all different from English; so the system exploded in complexity. On
the other hand, at the same time, for the first time really, an effort was
made to deal with what has later come to be called the logical problem
of language acquisition. Plainly, children acquiring this knowledge do
not have that much data. In fact you can estimate the amount of data
they have quite closely, and it™s very limited; still, somehow children
are reaching these states of knowledge which have apparently great
complexity, and differentiation and diversity “ and that can™t be. Each
child is capable of acquiring any such state; children are not specially
designed for one or the other, so it must be that the basic structure of
language is essentially uniform and is coming from inside, not from
outside. But in that case it appears to be inconsistent with the observed
diversity and proliferation, so there is kind of a contradiction, or at
least a tension, a strong tension between the effort to give a descrip-
tively adequate account and to account for the acquisition of the
system, what has been called explanatory adequacy.
Already in the 1950s it was clear that there was a problem and
there were many efforts to deal with it; the obvious way was to try to
show that the diversity of rules is superficial, that you can find very
general principles that all rules adhere to, and if you abstract those
principles from the rules and attribute them to the genetic endowment
of the child then the systems that remain look much simpler. That™s
the research strategy. That was begun around the 1960s when various
conditions on rules were discovered; the idea is that if you can factor
the rules into the universal conditions and the residue, then the residue
is simpler and the child only has to acquire the residue. That went on
for a long time with efforts to reduce the variety and complexity of
phrase structure grammars, of transformational grammars, and so on
in this manner.2 So, for example, X-bar theory was an attempt to show
that phrase structure systems don™t have the variety and complexity


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On nature and language

they appear to have because there is some general framework that they
all fit into, and that you only have to change some features of that
general system to get the particular ones.
What happened at Pisa is that somehow all this work came to-
gether for the first time in the seminars, and a method arose for sort
of cutting the Gordian knot completely: namely eliminate rules and
eliminate constructions altogether. So you don™t have complex rules
for complex constructions because there aren™t any rules and there
aren™t any constructions. There is no such thing as the VP in Japanese
or the relative clause in Hungarian. Rather, there are just extremely gen-
eral principles like “move anything anywhere” under fixed conditions
that were proposed, and then there are options that have to be fixed,
parametric choices: so the head of the construction first or last, null
subject or not a null subject, and so on. Within this framework of
fixed principles and options to be selected, the rules and the con-
structions disappear, they become artifacts.
There had been indications that there was something wrong
with the whole notion of rule systems and constructions. For exam-
ple, there was a long debate in the early years about constructions
like, say, John is expected to be intelligent: is it a passive construction like
John was seen, or is it a raising construction like John seems to be intelligent?
And it had to be one or the other because everything was a construc-
tion, but in fact they seemed to be the same thing. It was the kind of
controversy where you know you are talking about the wrong thing
because it doesn™t seem to matter what you decide. Well, the right
answer is that there aren™t any constructions anyway, no passive,
no raising: there is just the option of dislocating something some-
where else under certain conditions, and in certain cases it gives you
what is traditionally called the passive and in other cases it gives you
a question and so on, but the grammatical constructions are left as


94
An interview on minimalism

artifacts. In a sense they are real; it is not that there are no rela-
tive clauses, but they are a kind of taxonomic artifact. They are like
“terrestrial mammal” or something like that. “Terrestrial mammal”
is a category, but it is not a biological category. It™s the interaction of
several things and that seems to be what the traditional constructions
are like, VPs, relative clauses, and so on.
The whole history of the subject, for thousands of years, had
been a history of rules and constructions, and transformational gram-
mar in the early days, generative grammar, just took that over. So the
early generative grammar had a very traditional flair. There is a section
on the Passive in German, and another section on the VP in Japanese,
and so on: it essentially took over the traditional framework, tried to
make it precise, asked new questions and so on. What happened in
the Pisa discussions was that the whole framework was turned upside
down. So, from that point of view, there is nothing left of the whole tra-
ditional approach to the structure of language, other than taxonomic
artifacts, and that™s a radical change, and it was a very liberating one.
The principles that were suggested were of course wrong, parametric
choices were unclear, and so on, but the way of looking at things was
totally different from anything that had come before, and it opened
the way to an enormous explosion of research in all sorts of areas,
typologically very varied. It initiated a period of great excitement in the
field. In fact I think it is fair to say that more has been learned about
language in the last twenty years than in the preceding 2,000 years.
ab & lr: At some point, some intuitions emerged from much
work within the Principles and Parameters approach that economy
considerations could have a larger role than previously assumed, and
this ultimately gave rise to the Minimalist Program.3 What stimu-
lated the emergence of minimalist intuitions? Was this related to the
systematic success, within the Principles and Parameters approach


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On nature and language

and also before, of the research strategy consisting in eliminating
redundancies, making the principles progressively more abstract and
general, searching for symmetries (for instance in the theoretically
driven typology of null elements), etc.?
nc: Actually all of these factors were relevant in the emergence
of a Principles and Parameters approach. Note that it is not really a
theory, it™s an approach, a framework that accelerated the search for
redundancies that should be eliminated and provided a new platform
from which to proceed, with much greater success, in fact. There had
already been efforts, of course, to reduce the complexity, eliminate re-
dundancies, and so on. This goes back very far; it™s a methodological
commitment which anyone tries to maintain and it accelerated with
the Principles and Parameters (P & P) framework. However, there was
also something different, shortly after this system began to crystallize
by the early 1980s. Even before the real explosion of descriptive and
explanatory work it began to become clear that it might be possible
to ask new questions that hadn™t been asked before. Not just the
straightforward methodological question: can we make our the-
ories better, can we eliminate redundancies, can we show that the
principles are more general than we thought, develop more explana-
tory theories? But also: is it possible that the system of language itself
has a kind of an optimal design, so, is language perfect? Back in the
early 1980s that was the way I started every course “ “Let™s ask: could
language be perfect?” “ and then I went on the rest of the semester
trying to address the question, but it never worked, the system always
became very complicated.
What happened by the early 1990s is that somehow it began
to work; enough was understood, something had happened, it was
possible to ask the question in the first session of a course: could lan-
guage be perfect? and then get some results which indicated it doesn™t


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