Why Chomsky was Wrong About Corpus Linguistics


When the entire premise of your methodology is publicly challenged by one of the most pre-eminent figures in an overarching discipline, it seems wise to have a defence. Noam Chomsky’s famous objection to corpus linguistics therefore needs a serious response.

“One of the big insights of the scientific revolution, of modern science, at least since the seventeenth century… is that arrangement of data isn’t going to get you anywhere. You have to ask probing questions of nature. That’s what is called experimentation, and then you may get some answers that mean something. Otherwise you just get junk.” (Noam Chomsky, quoted in Aarts 2001).

Chomsky has consistently argued that the systematic ex post facto analysis of natural language sentence data is incapable of taking theoretical linguistics forward. In other words, corpus linguistics is a waste of time, because it is capable of focusing only on external phenomena of language – what Chomsky has at various times described as ‘e-language’.

Instead we should concentrate our efforts on developing new theoretical explanations for the internal language within the mind (‘i-language’). Over the years the terminology varied, but the argument has remained the same: real linguistics is the study of i-language, not e-language. Corpus linguistics studies e-language. Ergo, it is a waste of time.

Argument 1: in science, data requires theory

Chomsky refers to what he calls ‘the Galilean Style’ to make his case. This is the argument that it is necessary to engage in theoretical abstractions in order to analyse complex data. “[P]hysicists ‘give a higher degree of reality’ to the mathematical models of the universe that they construct than to ‘the ordinary world of sensation’” (Chomsky, 2002: 98). We need a theory in order to make sense of data, as so-called ‘unfiltered’ data is open to an infinite number of possible interpretations.

In the Aristotelian model of the universe the sun orbited the earth. The same data, reframed by the Copernican model, was explained by the rotation of the earth. However, the Copernican model of the universe was not arrived at by theoretical generalisation alone, but by a combination of theory and observation.

Chomsky’s first argument contains a kernel of truth. The following statement is taken for granted across all scientific disciplines: you need theory to analyse data. To put it another way, there is no such thing as an ‘assumption free’ science. But the second part of this argument, that the necessity of theory permits scientists to dispense with engagement with data (or even allows them to dismiss data wholesale), is not a characterisation of the scientific method that modern scientists would recognise. Indeed, Beheme (2016) argues that this method is also a mischaracterisation of Galileo’s method. Galileo’s particular fame, and his persecution, came from one source: the observations he made through his telescope. Continue reading