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.