Deep (structure) thoughts

It’s Noam Chomsky’s birthday, and through a combination of serendipity and procrastination I’ve just finished a mini-review of Chomsky’s Linguistics (ed. by Peter Graff and Coppe van Urk and published by the MIT Working Papers in Linguistics. It’s a 700 page collection of selected linguistics writing by Chomsky’s from about 1970-2008. You can find the review in an upcoming issue of Choice.

Reading the book caused me to think of two of my favorite Chomsky quotes: “Precisely constructed models for linguistic structure can play an important role, both negative and positive, in the process of discovery itself. By pushing a precise but inadequate formulation to an unacceptable conclusion, we can often expose the exact source of this inadequacy, and consequently, gain a deeper understanding of the linguistic data” (Syntactic Structures, p 5). The other quote whose source escapes me reminds academics that if they are still researching the same things in their fifties as they were in their twenties, they are doing something very wrong.

It also reminded me of three odd misunderstandings about Chomsky and his work: The first is the common mispronunciation or mishearing of Noam as Norm—I once endured a talk by someone who referred to Norm Chomsky and Norman Jakobson. The second is a syntactic Spoonerism. Chomsky’s long and long unpublished book The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (Plenum Press, 1975, but written and mimeographed in the 1950s) is often misspoken (even by linguists) as The Logical Theory of Linguistic Structure (you can find this in print as well—ha).

And finally, and seriously, there’s the notion of deep structure. For linguistics, deep structure is (or was, since it is dropped from recent versions of many theories) simply a level of analysis in a formal model, the level in a derivation in which morphemes are inserted. But deep structure has often drifted to be misunderstood as underlying meaning or as universal grammar, three different concepts. We can blame it on the word “deep” or on Chomsky’s sometimes murky exposition or on various extensions by others over the years. In any case, the misunderstanding of deep structure is so wide-spread as to be enshrined in Merriam Webster, which gives these definitions:

    deep structure: a formal representation of the underlying semantic content of a sentence; also : the structure which such a representation specifies

    surface structure: a formal representation of the phonetic form of a sentence; also : the structure which such a representation describes

It’s not accurate, though it represents the way that the average speaker understands uses deep structure rather than specialists. But what if dictionaries used the commonly understood senses for other technical or scientific terms.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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