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Michel DeGraff

Noam Chomsky, Universal Grammar, and universal liberation through linguistics and education

Published onApr 19, 2019
Michel DeGraff

Noam Chomsky, Universal Grammar, and universal liberation through linguistics and education

In my MIT undergraduate class on “Creole languages and Caribbean identities,” as part of the theoretical background for analyzing various hypotheses about Creole formation and for understanding their impact on Caribbean societies, I compare Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar (UG) with the neo-grammarian foundations of historical linguistics. I start with drawings of August Schleicher’s language family trees. On the next slide are quotes illustrating Schleicher’s belief that linguistics is the best scientific tool to “classify humanity” because it offers grammatical features as “characteristic traits of various grades of man.” (Of course, Schleicher, in perfect 19th-century colonial mode, considered Europeans as the highest “grade of man,” with European languages like Greek and Latin as the pinnacles of linguistic evolution.) After introducing Schleicher, we jump some 100 years to basic concepts in Chomsky’s Generative Grammar framework. Then I ask students to consider whether Schleicher’s and Chomsky’s views of language are commensurate, whether they are incompatible, what they might reveal about each author’s views regarding hypothetical “grades” of human nature, and how they might relate to linguists’ hypotheses about Creole formation.

Recently, one student wondered whether Chomsky’s UG could, in principle, offer a theoretical underpinning to Schleicher’s Eurocentric linguistics. In this student’s question, Chomsky’s UG would provide a genetically determined structural “baseline” for establishing a hierarchy of languages—from lesser to “more highly organized languages” in Schleicher’s framework (i.e., from less to more evolved, in a way akin to Darwin’s hierarchy of less to more “evolved” human groupings). In asking this question, this student, unknowingly, recapitulated one popular colonial tenet in certain quarters of linguistics whereby Creoles are taken as the quintessentially primitive expression of our genetic endowment for language—as languages removed of all sophistication, as “the only languages that have started again” (as the New York Times once put it), languages whose history of formation resembles the very birth of human language in Homo Sapiens. In such colonial worldview, UG would offer a “baseline” from which different languages reach different signposts on the road to accumulating grammatical sophistication. That is, linguistic complexity would accrue over long periods of time. In this view, the grammars of Creole languages would provide us with a most pristine window on UG if one assumes, like some Creolists do, that Creole languages are the youngest and least complex languages in the world.

Well, the beauty of Noam’s UG is that, once it’s adequately understood, it leaves no room for interpreting typological variation on a biased, hierarchized scale. The “Universal” in UG, unlike the racist pseudo-universalism of the Enlightenment, encompasses all of humanity without postulating, or searching for, “grades of man”: UG is a theory to account for the fact that all healthy children, no matter accidents of history and geography, are capable of learning the language of their environment and attaining a structurally complex and perfectly expressive sophisticated idiolect. Whatever default or unmarked grammatical traits might be hypothesized by UG, these will be found among diverse groupings of languages—on all continents and across young and old languages, Creoles and non-Creole languages, colonial and non-colonial languages, etc.

Such a view of UG is consistent with Noam’s egalitarian view of humanity. This is the view that got him arrested while protesting against the Vietnam war. And this is also the view that got him labeled as a “neurotic self-hating Jew.” He even got denied entry into Israel because of his dogged belief that Palestinians’ lives do matter, and they matter as much as Jewish lives, Black lives, Women’s lives, Gay lives, and all other lives.

Noam’s uniformitarian and egalitarian approach to language and humanity has contributed to my own approach to Creole languages, turning me into a “heretic” on a par with colleagues such as Salikoko Mufwene and Enoch Aboh. With Enoch, I recently co-authored a paper titled “A null theory of Creole formation based on Universal Grammar” where we argue that there’s no need for an exceptional theory of Creole formation. In our analysis, the same principles that explain language change in non-Creole settings will also account for the emergence of Creole languages. In our UG-inspired uniformitarian approach, which we hope will become “normal science” in Creole studies, most of the traditional views about Creole languages (views inherited from the 19th century) are tainted by the same racism that characterizes Schleicher’s view about less vs. more evolved languages and that has excluded Creole languages from language family trees.

My “heresies” have gotten me a few enemies in Creole studies and beyond. Yet, they have helped me reconcile myself with a bitter autobiography where my own parents and teachers in 20th-century Haiti, like Schleicher in 19th-century Europe, believed in a ranking of languages from inferior to superior. In Haiti, it’s our national language, Kreyòl (Haitian Creole), that is ranked among the lesser languages, as an allegedly “broken” variety of French, whereas the language imposed as superior is the French spoken by a small, but powerful, élite.

Thanks in great part to Noam’s writings and to the study of Kreyòl by Haitian linguists such as late Yves Dejean (see photo below), I’ve managed to convince many of my Haitian compatriots, including some of my own relatives (I think), to give up the belief that “the white people at MIT are crazy enough to hire me to work on Kreyòl instead of “real” languages like French!” Now, some of my compatriots even agree with me that what is “crazy,” instead, is for Haitians to continue to look down upon Kreyòl as a lesser French rather than as a language in its own right.

From left to right: Yves Dejean, Noam Chomsky & Michel DeGraff in 2003

Now, my work in linguistics has birthed the MIT-Haiti Initiative where a stellar team of colleagues (in STEM fields and in education), with the leadership of Dr. M.S. Vijay Kumar in Open Learning, Prof. Haynes Miller in Mathematics, and myself in Linguistics, are bringing Kreyòl, alongside active learning and educational technology, in Haitian schools and universities. And I thank Noam for having encouraged our efforts from the get go (see photo and videos below to sample Noam’s support of our efforts to improve access to quality education in Haiti and beyond).

The eventual goal of the MIT-Haiti Initiative is to usher a paradigm shift whereby Haitian students will, one day, be able to happily engage in all disciplines, from Kindergarten to University, in the one language that they can truly call their own—namely, Kreyòl. This use of Haiti’s national language is one essential step toward freeing Haiti from the shackles of neo-colonialism, and strengthening the country’s sovereignty. Kreyòl is also indispensable for fostering equal opportunity for Haitians and for ending élite closure. And such use of Kreyòl to open up access to education and development can serve as an example for the billions of other students worldwide whose languages are still being excluded from formal education.

Yes, Universal Grammar can help usher universal liberation through linguistics and education. So, the Haitian people, the MIT-Haiti Initiative team, UG-inspired “heretics” in Creole studies, and speakers of (formerly) “lesser” languages, including myself, owe an eternal debt to you, Noam!

Pwòf Noam: Mèsi anpil!

Noam Chomsky with some members of the MIT-Haiti Initiative team (kneeling, from left to right: Sonide Alcin and Adler Thomas; standing, from left to right: Guerda Jean-Guillaume, Paul Belony, Olivier Midy, Jean Genis Dorvilien, Lourdes Alemán, Kirky DeLong, Noam Chomsky, Haynes Miller, Étrenne François, Glenda Stump, Michel DeGraff)

Chomsky on language & education in Haiti / Chomsky sou lang & edikasyon

Noam Chomsky, in his office at MIT, speaking on language and education in Haiti. Video dated August 5, 2017 (also available via YouTube at:

Conversation at MIT on May 5, 2017, between Frances Esparza (Assistant Superintendent, Boston Public Schools), Noam Chomsky and Michel DeGraff (also available at

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