Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Noam Chomsky on Esperanto got completely wrong

It's hard to admit, but one of the most influent linguist of the XX century has fallen in a whole chain of stupid errors about Esperanto in a recent interview, and I have the moral due to answer all his clear errors about it. Legenda: NC: Noam Chomsky; MA: Mark Aronoff, interviewer (also a linguist). It is worth to note that the context is as follows: a linguist that interviews a linguist about linguistics.
MA: A century ago, there was great interest in universal languages like Esperanto. In fact, many of the founding members of the linguistic society of America were interested in questions of universal language, and some of the earliest financial support for linguistics came from people and organizations that were interested in universal languages. A large impetus for that
was the feeling that people had difficulty understanding one another across cultures. There’s much less interest in international languages today, in part because people say English is now the universal language. Is that a good development, this ascendance of English?

MA demonstrates that he knows perfectly the context of linguistics at that time. See for instance the bibliographic entry about Volapük at the American Philosophical Society. Now let's read what Chomsky says (bold added by me):
NC. Well, there are separate issues here. The interest of linguists, as linguists, in
universal language was based on an illusion, which linguists had but no longer
have. That was the illusion that Esperanto is a language, and it isn’t. Yeah,
Esperanto has a couple of hints that people who know language can use based on
their own linguistic knowledge to make a language out of it, but nobody can tell
you what the rules of Esperanto are.
If they could tell you that, they could tell you
what the rules of Spanish are, and that turns out to be an extremely hard problem, a
hard problem of the sciences, to find out what’s really in the head of a Spanish
speaker that enables them to speak and understand and think the way they do.
That’s a problem at the edge of science. I mean, a Spanish speaker knows it
intuitively, but that doesn’t help. I mean, a desert ant knows how to navigate, but
that doesn’t help the insect scientist. [...] To be puzzled by simple questions is a very
hard step, and it’s the first step in science, really. And the same is true about the nature of Esperanto, or Spanish, on which it’s based, and so on. We don’t know the answers to the questions of what the principles of Esperanto do because if we did, we would know the answer to how language works, and that’s much harder than knowing how a desert ant navigates, which is hard enough. So, now it is understood that Esperanto is not a language. It’s just parasitic on other languages. Then comes a question, which is not a linguistic question, but a question of practical utility. Is it more efficient to teach people a system which is parasitic on actual languages, and somewhat simplifies, eliminating some of the details of actual historical languages; or is just more efficient to have then a whole lot of languages. And I think it’s now pretty widely accepted that the latter is better and not hard.

The first error of Chomsky about Esperanto is due simply to ignorance. Esperanto is not based on Spanish, as its launcher, Ludwig Lejzer Zamenhof, didn't now that language. It is true that we don't know the rules of Esperanto in chomskian terms, but it is also true that chomskian grammars don't cover any natural language at all as a whole, but only subset. So this is not a problem of Esperanto, nor Spanish or English. This is a problem about the models proposed by Chomsky.

The second error is about language planning. In the interview, Chomsky said:
NC: [...] linguists, of course, are trying to crevivify it, try to revitalize the languages [...] trying to invigorate communities to revive and study and teach and spread their own language. People often had not much formal education and ended being very good professional linguists, went back to their own communities, started educational programs, took part in not only maintaining the language, but reviving knowledge of it and trying to make it a living language again. That’s happened in some places. It’s failed in other places. Europe as well. So, say, in Wales, without any national effort, the language kind of revived. You hear kids in the streets or Cardiff talking Welsh. In Ireland, where there was a national effort, it’s apparently mostly failed. When these things work and when they don’t work is hard to say, but reviving the communities, the cultures, the languages, and where that’s not possible, at least salvaging the record of them, is a very significant task.

I consider that Welsh is on a good way to be revitalized, unlike Chomsky. But this is admittly questionable. What is not questionable is the case of Ivrit (modern hebrew), an incredible success in language revival: a language no more spoken spontaneously for century that became the official language of Israel because only one man believed that it would be possible. So why a speech community couldn't form itself around a language, such in the case of Esperanto? In fact, it is exactly what happened. Esperanto has a distinct community, so it isn't parasitic of other languages (by the way, what does it mean this exactly? A kind of diglossia, perhaps?)

In any case, the relation between Esperanto and its source languages, as Latin, French, Russian, English, German and so on is like the relation between Latin and Italian or Spanish. Italian isn't parasitic of Latin, it is derived from Latin. The same is true in the case of Esperanto.

In fact, even if etymology can say the origins of the Esperanto roots, the actual use of them can differ from the use of the language(s) from which they are borrowed. For instance, vetero has more or less the same use of the German das Wetter or the English weather, but veturo (vehicle) can be verbified directly as veturi so to bring the semantic space of the German verb fahren (to go through a vehicle).

Moreover, the power of analogy can build words that has no relation with the source languages, as samideano (sam- same, -ide- idea, -ano, member of), which is formed on a nominal paradigm as samlandano (lit. member of the same country, i.e. countryman).

These examples are taken from a language that is still alive, even after the persecution by Hitler and Stalin. Esperanto is a living language, this is a matter of fact. Fact that is neglected by Noam Chomsy. Hontinde.

Last note: the Latin quotation is prima facie, not prima facia.


  1. Vi tute pravas! Tiu Chomsky evidente ne konas esperanton.

    Kiel li rajtas diri, "Esperanto ne estas lingvo"? Ĉu li povas kontraŭi la pruvaĵon de mil denaskaj parolantoj de esperanto?

    Claude Piron priskribis la psikozon de la publiko (kaj de Chomsky) kontraŭ esperanto.

  2. Chomsky eraras kun liajn lingvistikajn kaj politikajn teoriachojn.

  3. Mi plene konsentas kun la auxtoro de la artikolo same.

    Tamen ne pri tiu statistiko rilata al la nombro de denaskaj parolantoj de Esperanto.

    De kie oni prenis tiun nombron?

    Eble laux la nombro de partoprenantoj en la listo denask-l?

    Se jes tiu indikus proksimume la nombron de nune konataj infanoj kiuj parolas denaske la lingvon, tamen tiu nombro nepre ne inkludas la nombron de homoj kiuj lernis denaske paroli la lingvon.

    On cxiam vidu kun malfido statistikoj pri nombro da homoj kiuj parolas E-on. Cxu estas tro altaj, cxu tro malataj, depende de emo de la "statistikisto".