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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A review of Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky. A film by Michel Gondry (2013).


Having seen the film at the Auckland Film Festival in 2014, I was surprised at the relatively high attendance (it was the second screening), negating the sometimes heard adage that Chomsky is an old hat. Gondry doesn’t pull any punches when he says that he better do this film before he dies (Chomsky is 85 in 2013).

Being a bit of an expert on Chomsky (see my book on Chomsky, 2006) I didn’t learn anything new about Chomsky in the film but it did strike me how difficult it is to get Chomsky’s ideas across to someone like Gondry who is obviously very well disposed towards Chomsky. Gondry as a film maker (animation being his forte) does of course not have the technical knowledge required to understand some of the finer details of Chomsyian linguistics and philosophy. Chomsky’s political ideas are not explored – which would have been a more accessible topic for Gondry.  

Chomsky’s key assertion that language is not a reflection of the world – real and unreal - but that the world is a reflection of language, is not easy to understand, and Gondry simply cannot get his head around it. When Chomsky explains the evolution of language, i.e. a mutation in the brain that gives rise to the language capacity and subsequent thought, first within an individual and progressively inherited by a larger group, etc., and then comments that therefore ‘communication’ was not the primary driver – this key moment was also lost on Gondry, and I suspect on the majority of the people watching the film. The language capacity that developed in the brains of the people allowed them to think (imagine, plan, interpret and whatever cognitive labels one wants to use) and only then did they think about externalising their language, i.e. train their vocal chords and what have you to come up with actual speech and thus communicate. Chomsky did try to make the point that we mainly use language and thought inside our heads – we talk to ourselves (=think) much more than we talk to others. My own additional assertion is that language absolutely equals thought.

This key concept of interpreting the world as we see it in our heads can be explained by various analogies. The dog or the tree we see out there is only a dog and a tree in our heads – they are mental representations. The dog who sees another dog or a tree receives this as visual information but the dog cannot put a label on either. The dog has no language. For the human species the mental representation of a tree is a complex assembly of many factors, not just the visual image of a particular tree. Chomsky mentioned ‘psychic continuity’ as one factor that children seem to hold dear, i.e. an entity like a donkey can be transformed into a rock in a fairy-tale but remains a donkey nevertheless. Chomsky also exemplified this by recounting the conundrum of the Ship of Theseus but again Gondry seemed to miss the point.

Without language we would not be able to interpret the world, like naming the dog ‘dog’ and the tree ‘tree’. In the animal kingdom there are dogs and trees but no ‘dog’ and no ‘tree’ – the old adage that animals are ‘dumb’ is therefore quite correct. All of this sounds a bit like a Zen paradox but when you think about it, it does make sense. Of course language as a biological organ in the brain must be subject to the laws of nature – laws that scientists have formulated within their capacity for language. Hence the study of language (linguistics) can be conceived as a paradox: the snake biting its own tail. Chomsky however doesn’t go as far as that. He simply credits the language capacity with the endless curiosity to ask interesting questions as to how and why everything works as it does – including the question as to how language actually works. He says that in that quest we are still at the level of Galilean science, debunking many of the myths that have grown up around language. Given that even many linguists still grapple with Chomsky’s science of linguistics, one has to agree with him on that score alone. Gondry doesn’t stand a chance!
Neither did poor old Gondry really get the title of his film. Question formation in English syntax involves the movement (known as MOVE in modern biolinguistics) of the verb in the ‘first’ verb phrase in the structure of a declarative sentence, as in

         [[the man] who is tall]] [IS happy]

In other words (excuse the pun) we move IS to the front of the sentence and get the question

         IS [[the man] who is tall]] [happy]?  

This amazing capacity by the language facility to extract structural key elements and manipulate them to construct new sentences is indeed a feat that Chomsky always marvels about. Gondry as a non-linguist is as dumb-founded as the casual non-physicist (who nevertheless takes an interest in popular physics) to whom we try to explain Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

It is also interesting that Chomsky used the analogy – that may turn out to be real thing – of language and mathematics having a very curious relationship. Sentences use iteration (via MERGE) in terms of integers only, i.e. you cannot have a sentence with 10 words and a half. If we accept Tegmark’s recent assertion (2014) that mathematics IS our universe, then maybe we get beyond Galilean linguistics and advance to Newtonian or even quantum-mechanics-linguistics (envisaged by Chomsky as ‘biolinguistics’). When I (2014) recently presented some of these ideas in a conference to language teaching professionals, few of the interested attendees (10 or so) had any clues about what I was talking about. The rest of the 290 conference goers had of course no idea who or what Chomsky is all about, hence didn’t show up to my paper at all. As such it was good to see that in the general population (of Auckland at least) there is quite some interest in Chomsky – judging by the 50 or so watchers some of whom could be heard discussing ‘linear’ versus ‘structural’ representations of a sentence like ‘Is the man who is tall happy?’ as they walked out of the movie theatre. Maybe I should have used the moment and take over the movie stage and enlighten everybody as to the true nature of Chomsky’s revolutionary ideas – something that didn’t quite succeed in Gondry’s otherwise fantastically animated film about Chomsky.

Chomsky did try on occasion to break out from Gondry’s narrow focus, for example by mentioning the French – Gondry being French of course – government’s recent treatment of the Roma much in the way the Nazis treated them. There was no response from Gondry but to his credit he did read from the Harrison report that Chomsky mentioned about the US treatment of holocaust survivors, quoting "We appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them, except that we don't exterminate them." Chomsky is a veritable mine of information, and more of such devastating material would have made the film much more relevant at a time when the Israeli government inflicts the same insane punishment on the population of Gaza. Gondry’s animation skills would be truly revolutionary in such a context, perhaps similar in effect to that other masterpiece of animation, Waltz with Bashir by Ari Folman (2008).

Sperlich, W. (2014). Can a theory of the lexicon inform the teaching of vocabulary?  
CLESOL conference paper, Wellington, 10-13 July, 2014.

Sperlich, W. (2006). Noam Chomsky. Reaktion Books.

Tegmark, M. (2014). Our mathematical universe. Knopf.