Chomsky vs. Halliday

Reading: Hermann Parret’s interview with Michael Halliday, 1974


The other day I had this exchange on Twitter:

NemaVeze (i.e., me): It’s the first week of the semester. Once again, all my professors are talking about why Chomsky is wrong.

zoltanvarju: @NemaVeze yes, it is a common practice to start new linguistic theories with arguing against Chomsky – i think it is a lack of genuine ideas

NemaVeze: @zoltanvarju SFL, conversation analysis, corpus lx, socio variation are all valid un-Chomsky linguistic theories. But UG is default theory.

So I’ve been thinking lately about how all non-UG approaches to language have to start by justifying their existence with respect to UG.

In the case of Halliday’s functional grammar in particular, I keep coming back to this idea:

Language is not a thing, but a meaning-making potential.

That is, fundamentally, it’s not structure, it’s semiotics. Or, as Halliday puts it in his interview with Parret, what speakers can say is a realization of what they can mean, which in turn is a further realization of what they can do in a social context. Halliday says that we can’t understand any of these levels without considering all of them, while Chomsky says that we need to fully understand the can say level before we go any further. (Hence the importance of grammaticality judgments — for what it’s worth, I always wanted to answer “Can you say this in your language?” with “I guess you could, but why would you?”)

But the real question that occurs to me is, what is the implication of this distinction for our thinking about language acquisition? Quite famously, Chomsky theorized that there’s no way a child hears enough language to come to a complete understanding of the grammar of their L1 (specifically when it comes to saying what isn’t grammatical), and so there must be some innate specific language-learning faculty in the human brain. As I understand it, all the parameters of parameter theory are intended as a hypothesis about what that faculty looks like.

Now, I’ve been kicking around for a while the idea that this “poverty of the stimulus” argument is a sort of linguistic intelligent design creationism (see also Larry Trask), and so of course I’m imagining what Halliday’s functional grammar might say about this issue. Remember, language isn’t a “thing,” it’s a social semiotic.

So is it possible that what’s innate is nothing more than the capacity for symbolism?

Has anybody actually written about this? Or am I just thinking about the plot of Embassytown?

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Posted in SFL

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