What Chomsky said about “native speakers” in 1985

This is taken from a rambling but fascinating project by lexicographer Thomas M. Paikeday titled The Native Speaker is Dead published in 1985. He sent a 10 point memo to some linguists on the question of what is a native speaker.  I thought it would be useful to put this up here, since notable ELT bods such as Scott Thornbury used a recent native speaker debate to critique Chomsky (see Geoff Jordan’s response). As to whether Chomsky answered the memo is up for grabs. Personally I think, like David Crystal who also responded to the Paikeday memo, that Chomsky deftly sidesteps the import of the initial memo. The Paikeday book is available on the net but takes some searching, let me know and I can email it to anyone interested.

I marked one passage in orange as it is not clear if this was a response to a specific and separate question asked by Paikeday (on what Chomsky meant by “grammaticalness” from his book Aspects of the theory of syntax) or whether it was excerpted from the response Chomsky gave to the Paikeday memo. In Paikeday’s book this passage is the first one but it seems to be oddly placed to me.


I read your comments on the concept “native speaker” with interest. In my view, questions of this sort arise because they presuppose a somewhat misleading conception of the nature of language and of knowledge of language. Essentially, they begin with what seem to me incorrect metaphysical assumptions: in particular, the assumption that among the things in the world there are languages or dialects, and that individuals come to acquire them.

And then we ask, is an individual who has acquired the dialect D a native speaker of it or not, the question for which you request an “acid test” at the end of your letter.

In the real world, however, what we find is something rather different, though for the usual purposes of ordinary communication it is sufficient to work with a rather gross approximation to the facts, just as we refer freely to water, knowing, however, that the various things we call “water” have a wide range of variation including pollutants, etc.

To see what’s wrong with the question, let’s consider a similar one (which no one asks). Each human being has developed a visual system, and in fact visual systems differ from individual to individual depending on accidents of personal history and maybe even genetic differences. Suppose we go on (absurdly) to assume that among the things in the world, independently of people, there are visual systems, and particular individuals acquire one or the other of them (in analogy to the way we think of languages).

Then we could ask, who has a “native” visual system V, and what is the acid test for distinguishing such a person from someone who has in some more complex or roundabout way come to be “highly proficient” in the use of V (say, by surgery, or by training after having “natively” acquired a different visual system, etc.). Of course, all of this is nonsense.

But I think uncritical acceptance of the apparent ontological implications of ordinary talk about language leads to similar nonsense.

What we would say in the case of the visual system is this. There is a genetically determined human faculty V, with its specific properties, which we can refer to as “the organ of vision.” There may be differences among individuals in their genetic endowment, but for the sake of discussion, let’s put these aside and assume identity across the species, so we can now speak of the visual organ V with its fixed initial state V-0 common to humans, but different from monkeys, cats, insects, etc. In the course of early experience, V-0 undergoes changes and soon reaches a fairly steady state V-s which then remains essentially unchanged apart from minor modifications (putting aside pathology, injury, etc.). That’s the way biological systems behave, and to a very good first approximation, this description is adequate. The things in the real world are V-0 and the various states V-s attained by various individuals, or more broadly, the class of potential states V-s that could be attained in principle as experience varies.

We then see that the question about “native” acquisition is silly, as is the assumption that visual systems exist in some Platonic heaven and are acquired by humans.

Suppose now that we look at language in essentially the same way – as, I think, we should – extricating ourselves from much misleading historical and philosophical baggage. Each human has a faculty L, call it “the language faculty” or, if you like, “the language organ,” which is genetically-determined.

Again, we may assume to a very good first approximation that [the language faculty or language organ] is identical across the species (gross pathology aside), so that we can speak of the initial state L-0 of this organ, common to humans, and as far as is known, unique in the universe to the human species (in fact, with no known homologous systems in closely related or other species, in contrast now to V). In early childhood, the organ undergoes changes through experience and reaches a relatively stable steady state L-s, probably before puberty; afterwards, it normally undergoes only marginal changes, like adding vocabulary. There could be more radical modifications of a complex sort, as in late second language learning, but in fact the same is very likely true of the visual system and others.

Putting these complications aside, what is a “language” or “dialect”? Keeping to the real world, what we have is the various states L-s attained by various individuals, or more generally, the set of potential states L-s attained that could in principle be attained by various individuals as experience varies. Again, we see that the question of what are the “languages” or “dialects” attained, and what is the difference between “native” or “non-native” acquisition, is just pointless.

Languages and dialects don’t exist in a Platonic heaven any more than visual systems do. In both cases, there is a fixed genetic endowment that determines the initial state of some faculty or organ (putting aside possible genetic variation), and there are the various states attained by these systems in the course of maturation, triggered by external stimuli and to some rather limited extent shaped by them. In both cases, there is overwhelming reason to believe that the character of the steady state attained is largely determined by the genetic endowment, which provides a highly structured and organized system which does, however, have certain options that can be fixed by experience.

We could think of the initial state of the language faculty, for example, as being something like an intricately wired system with fixed and complex properties, but with some connections left open, to be fixed in one or another way on the basis of experience (e.g., do the heads of constructions precede their complements as in English, or follow them as in Japanese?). Experience completes the connections, yielding the steady state, though as in the case of vision, or the heart, or the liver, etc., various other complications can take place. So then what is a language and who is a native speaker? Answer, a language is a system L-s, it is the steady state attained by the language organ. And everyone is a native speaker of the particular L-s that that person has “grown” in his / her mind / brain. In the real world, that is all there is to say.

Now as in the case of water, etc., the scientific description is too precise to be useful for ordinary purposes, so we abstract from it and speak of “languages,” “dialects,” etc., when people are “close enough” in the steady states attained to be regarded as identical for practical purposes (in fact, our ordinary usage of the term “language” is much more abstract and complex, in fact hardly coherent, since it involves colors on maps, political systems, etc.). All of that is fine for ordinary usage. Troubles arise, however, when ordinary usage is uncritically understood as having ontological implications; the same problems would arise if we were to make the same moves in the case of visual systems, hearts, water, etc.

About the term “grammaticalness,” I purposely chose a neologism in the hope that it would be understood that the term was to be regarded as a technical term, with exactly the meaning that was given to it, and not assimilated to some term of ordinary discourse with a sense and connotations not to the point in this context.

Such questions as “how many languages are there” have no clear meaning; we could say that there is only one language, namely, L-0 with its various modifications, or that there are as many languages as there are states of mind/brain L-s, or potential states L-s. Or anything in between. These are questions of convenience for certain purposes, not factual questions, like the question of “how many (kinds of) human visual system are there?”

Apparent problems about the number of languages, native speakers, etc. arise when we make the kind of philosophical error that Wittgenstein and others warned against.

I think that looked at [my] way, the questions you raise no longer seem puzzling, and in fact dissolve.


Paikeday, T. M. (1985). The native speaker is dead! An informal discussion of a linguistic myth with Noam Chomsky and other linguists, philosophers, psychologists, and lexicographers. Toronto and New York: Paikeday Publishing

Chomsky, he’s not the messiah, he’s a very misquoted linguist

Sean Wallis runs a great corpus linguistics blog. So I was intrigued as to a recent click bait post titled Why Chomsky was wrong about Corpus Linguistics. I thought initially he was going to go over the history that has been rightly critiqued by Jacqueline Léon in Claimed and Unclaimed Sources of Corpus Linguistics (pdf). In fact he uses an interview given by Chomsky in 2001. Further in developing his first point he takes as given Christina Behme’s assertion that Chomsky “acts now as if no data can challenge his own proposals”.

I think Wallis’ article about some major issues in corpus linguistics stands on its own well and does not need the Chomsky angle.

The part Behme quotes to the question What kind of empirical discovery would lead to the rejection of the strong minimalist thesis? is All the phenomena of language appear to refute it, she even emphasises the All!

I looked up the fuller quote she uses to make her claim about Chomsky dismissing any data that goes against his theory:

AB&LR:: What kind of empirical discovery would lead to the rejection of the strong minimalist thesis?

NC: All the phenomena of language appear to refute it, just as the phenomena of the world appeared to refute the Copernican thesis. The question is whether it is a real refutation. At every stage of every science most phenomena seem to refute it. People talk about Popper’s concept of falsification as if it were a meaningful proposal to get rid of a theory: the scientist tries to find refuting evidence and if refuting evidence is found then the theory is given up. But nothing works like that. If researchers kept to those conditions, we wouldn’t have any theories at all, because every theory, down to basic physics, is refuted by tons of evidence, apparently. So, in this case, what would refute the strong minimalist thesis is anything you look at. The question is, as in all these cases, is there some other way of looking at the apparently refuting phenomena, so as to preserve or preferably enhance explanatory power, where parts of the phenomena fall into place and others turn out to be irrelevant, like most of the phenomena of the world, because they are just the results of the interactions of too many factors?

Chomsky (2002), On Nature and Language, pg. 124

Looking at it one can clearly see Chomsky is expounding on the nature of scientific enquiry not denying data to his own theories. This pattern of Chomsky critics misquoting him for their own polemic appears often. I was still surprised that this one was so blatant. I did leave a comment on the Behme post so will update this post in the event of a response.

Thanks for reading and remember, Chomsky, he’s not the…ah you get the point.


Christina Behme responds, I think she accepts she was misquoting (if it makes me happy). You can read responses and decide for yourself, do comment either here or there should you wish to.


Chomsky, N. (2002). On Nature and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.