In a recent post I quoted a well known figure from memory – never a good idea in public – of his 1996 interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr. The figure in question, Noam Chomsky, made his mark initially in linguistics, where his contribution can be summarised as an insistence on the need for a transformational grammar in natural language acquisition, and a more dubious proposition – akin to invoking God in scientific explanation – that only by possession of what he calls a language acquisition device (LAD) could human beings, in almost all cases by the age of three, possibly rise to the daunting cognitive challenge of learning to speak.
But I was not quoting the man as linguist. Chomsky is now known beyond linguistic circles as a radical opponent of global capitalism, in particular for penetrating critiques of the way we are misled by a media whose political economy ensures that, regardless of the subjective honesty of journalists (and I believe, albeit with growing difficulty, that most journalists are subjectively honest) we in the West are deeply misinformed about the world and the roles of our rulers in it.
Here are the words I attribute to Chomsky, as spoken to Marr:
… I am sure you believe everything you say. What I am saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sat in that chair interviewing me.
My post was reproduced in the excellent OffGuardian, where it has drawn, at time of writing, 119 below-the-line comments. Tucked in among them is this exchange:
Generous soul that I am, I let Richard have the last word. But stuff like this gives me pause for thought on the nature of writing. Anyone who looks into that, whether as writer or disinterested inquirer coming at the subject without preconceptions, will surely see that a key aspect is the juggling of a formidable array of constraints. Writers constantly switch gear between high level abstraction and such low level1 detail as verb-subject agreement (easily breached in the multi-layer phrasings that writing permits by its freeing up of memory) and the avoidance of comma splicing. In my political writing, for instance, I strive to be fresh – not to bore or alienate readers with mind-bypass cliches of the ‘running dogs of capitalism’ and ‘presstitutes’ sort – and above all to be truthful. At the same time I seek to work with and for the most part within grammatic rules, but without fetishising them.
Without fetishising them. That’s critical. I see writing as rule based but creative. The rules are not set in stone, other than for those less interested in communicating than in asserting often as not class superiority. For the rest of us, committed writers in particular, and to a degree varying with communicative context and genre,2 they shift to keep up with the demands of language’s two core functions: as tool for communicating, and as tool for thinking.3 So if you tell me I must not split infinitives, nor end sentences with prepositions, I’ll ask why not. And if you want less mashed spud but fewer sausages, please tell me why, if the distinction has any merit, there’s no corresponding distinction for increments: more mash, but manier bangers …
… not that such musings excuse my laziness. That I supplied the link to the transcript Richard makes such devastating use of, in demolishing my case against the idiot d’Ancona, hardly mitigates things. In fact it worsens my crime, highlighting the fact I couldn’t be arsed to check, even when at proverbial fingertips, the exact form of words used. I told the world that Chomsky – who, as bevin points out, is not a Yorkshireman – said “sat” when he in fact said “sitting”, and I don’t suppose I’ll ever forgive myself.
- I’m not using the terms, high and low level, in any value-judgmental sense. Neither is more or less important in this context.
- At risk of spelling out the blindingly obvious, legislatory draughtsmen, commercial translators and technical writers may make less free with grammatic rules than may admen, blues singers and sci-fi authors.
- There are those, socio-linguists in particular, who see another of language’s functions – forging social identity – as hardly less important. This of course is highly relevant to any discussion of ‘standard’ language.