Chomsky, Noam (1928–)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-U053-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved August 05, 2021, from

4. I-language versus E-language

Given the aims of Chomskian linguistic theory, the proper objects of study are the I-languages internalized by native speakers, rather than public E(xternal)-languages used by populations. Chomsky denies that public E-languages are interesting objects of scientific study. Indeed he denies that E-languages can be coherently specified as they simply do not exist. The proper objects of inquiry are I-languages; ‘I’ standing for intensional, internal and individual. An I-language is individual in that each speaker has one. This focus turns the common wisdom on its head. E-languages like English, Swahili and so forth are (at best) radical idealizations for Chomsky, or (at worst) incoherent pseudo-objects. At best, E-languages are the intersection of the common properties of various I-languages. Thus, for example, it is not that speakers communicate because they have a language in common; rather wherever I-languages overlap communication is possible.

An I-language is internal in the sense of being part of a speaker’s individual mental make-up. It is neither a Platonic object nor a social construct. Also, an I-language is intensional, not extensional. Comprised as it is of an unbounded number of sentences, a language cannot be ‘given’ except via a specification of the function that generates them, that is a grammar for that language. Thus, it is languages in intension, languages dressed in all of their grammatical robes, not simple concatenations of words, that are the proper objects of scientific interest. One consequence of this is that weak generative capacity (that is, the extensional equivalence of languages generated by different grammars) is of dubious interest. In short, the shift from E-language to I-language turns many long-standing questions around, raising some to prominence that were considered secondary and relegating many that previously were considered crucial to the status of pseudo-questions.

Many philosophers have found Chomsky’s focus on I-language problematic. To illustrate, we will consider an important philosophical critique and Chomsky’s reply.

Dummett (1986) argues against internalist approaches to language that they fail to provide an account of notions like ‘language of a community’ or ‘community norms’ in the sense presupposed by virtually all work in the philosophy of language and philosophical semantics. These notions, Dummett claims, are required to provide a notion of a common public language which ‘exists independently of any particular speakers’ and of which native speakers have a ‘partial, and partially erroneous, grasp’ (see Language, social nature of §2).

The naturalistic study of language, Chomsky counters, has no place for a Platonistic notion of language, a notion of language outside the mind/brain that is common to various speakers and to which each speaker stands in some cognitive relation. The reason is that this Platonistic reification rests on notions like ‘language’ and ‘community’ that are hopelessly under-specified. Asking if two people speak the same language is, in Chomsky’s opinion, to ask a highly context-dependent question – much like asking whether Boston is near New York. What counts as a community depends on shifting expectations of individuals and groups. Human society is not neatly divided into communities with languages and their norms. Thus, what counts as a community is too under-specified to be useful for theoretical purposes. Therefore, it is not a defect of linguistic theory that these notions play no role within it.

From Chomsky’s perspective E-languages are epiphenomenal objects, if coherent at all. I-language in its universal aspects is part of the human genotype and specifies one aspect of the human mind/brain. Under the triggering effects of experience a particular grammar arises in the mind/brain of an individual. From this perspective, universal grammar and the steady-state grammars that arise from them are real objects. They will be physically realized in the genetic code and the adult brain. E-language, in contrast, has a murky ontological status. Chomsky (1980) argues that the priority of I-language cannot be reasonably doubted once we observe that languages involve an infinite pairing of sounds and meanings. Given that language is infinite, it cannot be specified except in so far as some finite characterization – a function in intension – is provided. It might be possible to give some characterization to the notion ‘a language used by a population’ but only indirectly via a grammatical specification of the language. But this concedes the priority of I-language as the claim unpacks into something like: each person in the relevant population has a grammar in their mind/brain that determines the E-language. Thus, at best, an E-language is that object which the I-language specifies. However, even this might be giving too much reality to E-languages, for there is nothing in the notion I-language that requires that what they specify corresponds to languages as commonly construed, that is, things like French, English and so on. It is consistent with Chomsky’s viewpoint that I-language never specifies any object that we might pre-theoretically call a language. Whether this is indeed the case, the key point is to realize that the move from grammar to language is a step away from real mechanisms to objects of a higher degree of abstraction. I-language is epistemologically and ontologically hardier than E-language, much philosophical opinion to the contrary.

Citing this article:
Hornstein, Norbert. I-language versus E-language. Chomsky, Noam (1928–), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-U053-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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