Today: June 14, 2024
June 2, 2014

Noam Chomsky looks at language

Noted scholar received a gold medal from the Academy of Science

It is hard to categorize Noam Chomsky. Judged by his writings he would seem to be several people: a political philosopher, a computer scientist and a language theorist. It was this third person who gave a talk at the Academy of Sciences in Prague.

The event was promoted over Facebook, where some 1,700 people said they wanted to go and another 1,000 were on the fence about it. The room where he spoke held about 100 people and an overflow room with a video screen perhaps 200 more. The organizers realized the discrepancy and at the last minute set up a pre-registration, to the disappointment of many who applied too late.

He will also be at a debate June 3 at the Municipal Library in Prague, moderated by Jaroslav Fiala of the Institute of Political Science of Charles University.

Those who managed to get inside the Academy of Sciences saw Chomsky first receive a gold medal and a diploma from the institution for his contributions to science. The medal was the he De scientia et humanitate optime meritis medal, the highest one the academy offers.

The talk was titled “What We Can Understand,” and he maintained that human capability for understanding is quite limited. He went through much of the history of thought about language and the capacity for thought going back to ancient Greek philosophers and up through Newton and Darwin.

He returned to a metaphor several times pointing out that rats can never be taught to navigate a maze built on the concept of prime numbers. No amount of training will teach them the concept of prime numbers. Likewise, human understanding is limited in certain ways by its very nature.

He also drew a distinction between the ways animals and humans communicate, saying that there was a big shift in humans some 100,000 years ago. So apes or monkeys can never be taught language in the same way humans use it.

He was also critical of research claiming that Neanderthal man had complex language skills becasue the evidence used is too meager.

He said that he was happy to lecture in Prague because he had been heavily influenced by Czechoslovak intellectuals from between the wars.

During his visit to the Czech Republic, Chomsky will take part in a linguistic conference in Olomouc organized byPalacký University from June 57.

Chomsky one of the most cited authors and is considered the father of modern linguistics. He is a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Aside from linguustics he has been a left-wing political activist. He was written extensively on critical U.S. foreign policy, capitalism and globalization.

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