Prof. Daniel Harris
To say that Noam Chomsky has been influential in linguistics is to underestimate the
breadth of his reach. Robert Longacre went as far as claiming that “the field was profoundly
shaken by him” (qtd in Newmeyer, 23). Speaking of Chomsky's 1957 book Syntactic Structures,
Newmeyer describes its conception of a grammar as a theory of a language as revolutionary,
given that “it was widely considered, not just in linguistics, but throughout the humanities and
social sciences, that a formal, yet nonempiricist, theory of a human attribute was impossible”
(24). Chomsky used syntax, which earlier accounts had excluded from language, to explain the
“creativity” of human language (Newmeyer, 25). The focus on syntax was part of Chomsky's
internal conception of language, which, according to Newmeyer, “demands that one ceases to
think about a grammar as an operationally derived synthesis of a corpus, and that one begins to
regard it as a theory of a language” (28).
Besides syntax, this approach has directly influenced computational-relational theories of
the mind, which provide the explanatory power to interpret findings in psycholinguistics and
language acquisition (Chomsky 2000, 24-25). The effect was also felt in philosophy in that
syntax, “with its implications for limitless yet rule-governed creativity”, forced philosophers to
pay attention when they had paid very little to the structural linguistics that came before
On the other hand, Chomsky and other proponents of this approach have put forward
either vague or no proposals at all when it comes to linguistic meaning. This void has usually
been filled by referential semantics, the dominant approach to linguistic meaning among both
philosophers and linguists. At its most basic, referential semantics is the idea that words and
sentences are meaningful by virtue of the relations they bear to external, non-psychological
things that they are supposedly about. Given this, any adequate theory of linguistic meaning has
to, at the very least, acknowledge and propose an explanation for the fact that ‘water’, the
linguistic expression, has a direct relation to water, the physical entity. Chomsky has advanced
several criticisms of this approach, which will be explored in this paper. Even so, some
philosophers and linguists, most notably Peter Ludlow, have argued that the two approaches are
compatible, that a referential semantics for an internalized language faculty can exist. The
purpose of this paper is to explore both approaches and question whether they could ever be
combined, i.e. that a referential semantics for Chomsky's conception of language is doubtful.
The first step is to examine these two views of language, starting with the external view.
The external view of language, with a rich history in both philosophy and linguistics,
came out of the “commonsense notion of language”, described as having “a crucial sociopolitical
dimension” that hinders the sistematicity needed to study it (Chomsky 1986, 15). Chomsky gives
the example of Chinese being spoken of as one language even though “the various 'Chinese
dialects' are as diverse as the several Romance languages”, while Dutch and German, in contrast,
are spoken of as two separate languages even when “some dialects of German are very close to
dialects that we call 'Dutch' and are not mutually intelligible with others that we call 'German'”
(Chomsky 1986, 15). This commonsense notion of language also has a “normative-teleological
element” such that, according to Chomsky, in the case of children or an adult learning English as
a second language, “we have no way of referring directly to what that person knows: It is not
English, nor is it some other language that resembles English” (1986, 16). Even when called
slang or broken English, the description is always of some defective state in comparison to the
goal in mind.
Modern linguistics arguably avoided the sociopolitical and normative-teleological
dimensions of the commonsense notion of language by “considering an idealized 'speech
community' that is internally consistent in its linguistic practice” (Chomsky 1986, 16). On the
side of philosophy, this notion was developed extensively by David Lewis. He describes
language as “a social phenomenon... wherein people utter strings of vocal sounds, or inscribe
strings of marks” to which, in turn, “people respond by thought or action” (Lewis, 3). The person
using language “knows that someone else, upon hearing his sounds or seeing his marks, is apt to
form a certain belief or act in a certain way”, which is why he acts as he does (Lewis, 4). The
person responding to these sounds or marks also has beliefs about the way in which the first
person will respond to further sounds or marks. Both are in a position to “infer something about
the conditions which caused that state of mind” that caused the other to produce the sounds or
marks they did, which could result in coming to “believe these conclusions” or acting “upon
them in accordance with his other beliefs and his desires” (Lewis, 4).
Lewis captured the consistency of linguistic practice in his notion of conventions,
“regularities of action, or in action and belief, which are arbitrary but perpetuate themselves
because they serve some sort of common interest” (Lewis 4). A convention is defined as a
regularity R in a population P if and only if: 1) everyone conforms to R; 2) everyone believes
everyone conforms to R; 3) this belief gives everyone a reason to conform to R; 4) conformity to
R is generally preferred; 5) R is arbitrary, meaning other regularities exist that could serve the
purpose of R; and 6) conditions 1-5 are common knowledge of P (Lewis, 5-6). Lewis does point
out that “a few exceptions to the 'everyone's can be tolerated”, meaning as long as almost
everyone follows these conditions, they still hold (5). Chomsky regards this as a “lucidly
developed” characterization of an externalized conception of language, interpreting it as “a
pairing of sentences and meanings... over an infinite range”, which a population uses when
distinct regularities “hold among the population with reference to the language, sustained by an
interest in communication” (Chomsky 1986, 19).
The internal view of language, in contrast, is one of “innate, biologically determined
principles, which constitute [a] component of the human mind” (Chomsky 1986, 24). These
innate principles can be thought of as a “'language acquisition device' that takes experience as
'input' and gives the language as an 'output'... that is internally represented in the mind/brain”
(Chomsky 2000, 4). This output, an I-language, is “a state of an internal system which is part of
our biological endowment” (Ludlow 2003, 143). Basically, an I-language is “some element of
the mind of the person who knows the language, acquired by the learner, and used by the
speaker-hearer” (Chomsky 1986, 22). This I-language “determines an infinite array of
expressions, each with its sound and meaning”; it is “generative” in that it generates these
expressions (Chomsky 2000, 5).
The reason referential semantics is part of an external view of language should be slowly
becoming obvious. When language is viewed as linguistic conventions, these conventions are in
place for the sake of communication about things. Using words to communicate, if words are
about things, they must have some sort of relation to things, and this relation has been called
reference. In his preliminary discussion on reference, Ludlow reminds us that, as Chomsky has
stressed many times, “'reference' is not a pre-theoretical notion, but... a theoretical term the
meaning of which will depend upon the broader semantical theory” (Chomsky 2003, 41).
Ludlow discusses three kinds of reference theories which he refers to as R0, R1, and R2.
R2, the pertinent notion for our discussion, involves “at a minimum a four-place relation that
involves the speaker, the expression used, context, and aspects of the world”, the last of which
could be understood in ways that Chomsky would object to (Ludlow 2003, 142). Why would
Chomsky object? Ludlow answers as follows:
An I-language, after all, is supposed to be part of an agent’s psychology, and ultimately
part of the agent’s biology. The properties of an I-language are therefore (on Chomsky’s
view) individualistic – as noted above, they are properties that hold of the agent in
isolation (like having particular genetic make-up). The properties of a referential
semantics, on the other hand, appear to be anything but individualistic. They are not
properties that an agent can have in isolation, since they express relations between
linguistic representations and, among other things, aspects of the world external to the
agent. (Ludlow 2003, 144)
An I-language, given that it is individualistic and, as stated above, generates expressions
with sound and meaning, would be prima facie incompatible with a theoretical notion of
reference that places even part of linguistic meaning external to it. Ludlow diagnoses Chomsky's
problem with referential semantics as a problem with what he calls language-world
isomorphism, LWI (2003, 145). The problem is such that commiting to a theory of reference that
employs LWI would also commit us to “the kind of ontology [that] does not appear to track our
intuitions about the kinds of things we are really talking about” (Ludlow 2003, 146). Chomsky
has pointed this out in various forms, stating that assuming LWI “is completely inappropriate, as
we see by inspecting... the basic mechanisms of intended referential dependence” (Chomsky
2003, 292). These objections are of three kinds, named by Ludlow as the argument from
implausible commitments, the type mismatch argument, and the misbehaving object argument.
The implausible commitments argument is about implausible existence claims. Ludlow
quotes Chomsky as stating that phrases such as the flaw in the argument is obvious he is not
“committed to the absurd view that among things in the world are flaws”, yet, as an NP, it
behaves “in all relevant respects” like the coat in the closet (2003, 147). The concern in this case
is that LWI entails believing in things that do not physically exist, but Ludlow points out that
LWI “does not hold that there is an isomorphism between surface linguistic form and the world,
but rather between some ultimate logical form and the world”, bringing up Higginbotham's
suggestion that flaw in the argument might have a similar logical form as bad singer in that flaw
may be modifying the argument in the same way that bad modifies singer (Ludlow 2003, 147).
However, even if a significant number of cases could be treated like this “there remain
recalcitrant cases (not least Chomsky’s ‘Joe Sixpack’ example)” (Ludlow 2011, 135).
The type mismatch argument refers to the “apparent mismatch between the type
individuation that objects and substances intuitively have” in contrast to what a referential
semantics would suggest (Ludlow 2003, 149). Hilary Putnam's Twin-Earth thought experiment
is important in this objection:
One of the peculiarities of Twin Earth is that the liquid called ' water' is not H2O but a
different liquid whose chemical formula is very long and complicated. 1 shall abbreviate
this chemical formula simply as XYZ. I shall suppose that XYZ is indistinguishable from
water at normal temperatures and pressures. In particular, it tastes like water and it
quenches thirst like water. Also, I shall suppose that the oceans and lakes and seas of
Twin Earth contain XYZ and not water, that it rains XYZ on Twin Earth and not water, etc.
The contradictory intuitions are immediately apparent. If water is synonymous with H2O,
then we are talking about nothing on Twin-Earth when we use the word 'water'. But we do not
need to visit other planets to make this point. Ludlow actually provides a very detailed example
of how our intuitions would change even if the referent has not:
Consider the fact that what we find in the Chicago River is called ‘water’ though it could
hardly be considered H2O (it actually caught on fire during the great Chicago fire). Also
problematic is the fact that there are substances like ice tea which chemically
approximate H2O much more closely than Chicago River water, yet we don’t call them
‘water’. According to Chomsky, the situation is even more problematic than this. If
someone at the water company poured tea leaves into the system so that what came out
of the tap was chemically identical to Lipton Ice Tea, we would still call it ‘water’—
although we might complain about its impurity. (Ludlow 2011, 132)
Ludlow suggests trying to get around this referential mismatch problem by appealing to
“social theories of external (referential) content”, but there are still examples of these socially
individuated substances that “would not track our intuitions about the extension of terms”
(Ludlow 2003, 150). Furthermore, it is doubtful that socially individuated substances would
behave equally across different societies, which is actually an example of the misbehaving object
The misbehaving object argument is related to the type mismatch argument in that not
only do our intuitions not track with physical substances, but sometimes our intuitions will
change. As the ice tea example above suggests, “something may cease to be water even if no
internal physical changes have taken place. For example, the same chemical compound is water
when it comes from the tap, but ceases to be water when it is served at a restaurant” (Ludlow
2003, 150). Ludlow also points out Chomsky's example of a picket fence and leaves on a tree,
showing that this misbehavior also represents itself when talking about single objects or
collections (2011, 133).
Another type of misbehavior is of the abstract/concrete contrast. As Chomsky points out,
“I doubt that people think that among the constituents of the world are entities that are
simultaneously abstract and concrete (like books and banks)” (2003, 290). That said, a quick
look at language use shows that “we can attend to both material and abstract factors
simultaneously, as when we say that 'the book that he is planning will weigh at least five pounds
if he ever writes it', or 'his book is in every store in the country'” (Chomsky 2000, 16). Our
common sense would say that nothing can exist as a physical and abstract object at the same
time, yet natural language deals with objects like these all the time.
In light of these arguments, Ludlow concludes that “any referential semantics purporting
to respect the LWI hypothesis is going to misfire badly” given that individuating substances
externally, either physically (P-substances) or through social norms (S-substances), will not
“track the intuitive meanings of natural language expressions” (2003, 151). Ludlow suggests
setting P- and S-substances aside, which would make I-substances, substances individuated
internally, “entirely plausible candidates for the referents of a semantic theory”, making it “far
from clear that the LWI hypothesis must be surrendered” (Ludlow 2003, 153).
This claim is, at the very least, bizarre. This is not lost on Ludlow:
But perhaps the appeal to I-substances is a cheat. Or perhaps it is entirely parasitic on the
notion of I-language representations. What is an I-substance if not simply “whatever
corresponds to a particular I-language representation”? Seen in this light, isn’t the talk of
I-substance vacuous? Or at best, isn’t it a misleading way of talking about I-language
(Ludlow 2003, 153-154)
Ludlow states that “were it not for our I-language representations having certain
properties, we would find ourselves in a rather different world”, while at the same time “it is
entirely possible that if semantic theory requires that we quantify over flaws and average guys,
then that helps shed light on our imperfect intuitions about ontology” (Ludlow 2003, 155). He
hedges his comments, but in order to make sense of the compatibility of I-language and LWI, we
have to assume an intimate relationship between semantics and metaphysics such that I-
substances are really what there is.
Taking substances to be individuated internally doesn't just make the LWI thesis unlikely,
it also makes it irrelevant. Chomsky directly comments to this. Supposing that a person P has
“internal non-linguistic concepts that are one–one associated with nominal phrases of [P's] I-
language” therefore concluding these are elements of commonsense understanding of the world
means, metaphysical, the same as claiming P's I-language “has a phonological system that
enables him to distinguish /r/ from /l/” (Chomsky 2003, 289). There are languages that do not
distinguish between both sounds, and even languages in which, under the right conditions, the
former can turn into the latter (e.g. Caribbean Spanish). To say that this means /r/ and /l/,
assuming LWI, refer to external entities such that one entity exists, or two entities exist, or they
might shapeshift from one to the other, makes no sense unless these aspects are individual.
Taking LWI seriously would entail multiple worlds, one for each individual that experiences it.
We still deal with the intuition that we indeed refer to entities external to us. A clue to
figuring out this intuition is found in a transcribed conversation between Ludlow and Chomsky:
PL: Well, you see one thing that I’ve never quite understood is exactly what the problem
is with reference because I can say look, OK, now I’m referring to this coffee cup.
NC: No, that’s different. That’s quite different. You’re talking about an action of
referring. That’s a common sense notion. It’s part of English and every language I know
of. There’s some way to talk about such actions, but what philosophers have introduced is
a different notion, a notion that’s supposed to hold between a linguistic entity and
something in the world. Now, that’s not referring. Referring is an act that people do.
(Ludlow 2011, 177)
According to Chomsky, referring to things “depends on specific configurations of human
interests, intentions, goals, and actions; an observation that is, in one form, as old as Aristotle”
(2000, 137). Implicit in both of Chomsky's comments is a distinction between language and
what people do with language, which is often obscured by “innappropriate analogies from
informal usage” of the commonsense notion of a representation as being a representation of
something (Chomsky 2000, 160). Chomsky claims mental representations should be understood
in “the manner of a mental image of a rotating cube, whether it is the consequence of
tachistoscopic presentations or a real rotating cube, or stimulation of the retina in some other
way; or imagined, for that matter” (2000, 160). The commonsense notion of reference should
then be thought of as an action in which a person uses a mental representation within an I-
language as a tool to refer to an external entity.
Such a tool might be used in different ways. According to Chomsky, the commonsense
notion of references is a four-place relation such that a “person X refers to Y by expression E
under circumstances C”, in which “Y need not be a real object in the world or regarded that way
by X”; the components of E may not even have any “intrinsic semantic relation at all” to Y
(Chomsky 2000, 150). Heavily uses metaphors such as “the eagle has landed” seem to work this
In conclusion, a referential semantics defined as the idea that expressions are meaningful
by virtue of the relations they bear to external objects, physical or abstract, that they are
supposedly about, is not compatible with Chomsky's conception of an internalized language
faculty given the arguments about implausible commitments, type mismatch, and misbehaving
objects. Ludlow's argument for the intimate relation between semantics and metaphysics in the
way of I-language and LWI makes the LWI hypothesis doubtful by individuating substances
internally. Moreover, this argument is undermined by our use of language in that our action of
referring might involve an expression and an external object that have no prima facie semantic
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