The Chomsky Tax
In 1957 Noam Chomsky proposed the following sentence as an example of an English language usage that was grammatical, but senseless: Colourless green ideas sleep furiously. The point of the exercise was to challenge assumptions of grammatical logic as something that created and regulated sense and senselessness. As many people have pointed out, the stated senselessness of the sentence demands a certain inattention to the possibilities of poetic or figurative language. Poets, of course, are usually willing to believe anything if you say it with line breaks, but you don’t need to be a metaphor junky to see some wiggle room in Chomsky’s sentence. For example, “colourless” can mean bland or uninspired, “green” can mean immature, and “to sleep” can mean to act without intellectual curiosity. Whereas many “green” ideas are therefore “colourless”, and that those ideas are often the product of “sleepiness”, there are connections to be made in Chomsky’s famous unsentence.
Some people even proposed less philosophical solutions. A Chinese linguist wrote the following brilliant prose poem in response: It can only be the thought of verdure to come, which prompts us in the autumn to buy these dormant white lumps of vegetable matter covered by a brown papery skin, and lovingly to plant them and care for them. It is a marvel to me that under this cover they are labouring unseen at such a rate within to give us the sudden awesome beauty of spring flowering bulbs. While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously.
Maybe the greatest boon to Chomsky’s sentence’s Long Walk to Sense was the growth of the mainstream ecological consciousness in the late 20th century. Now we have a “green movement” that concerns itself with “green solutions” by generating of course, “green ideas”. Some of those ideas are imaginative, fresh, colourful. Others are blind, short-term, and, by extension, colourless.
I don’t consider myself knowledgeable enough about the taxation economics of Ontario’s new “Eco Fee” to be able to say if this is a green idea with colour or not, but I will say that Dalton McGuinty is a politician heavily reliant on the intellectual sloth of his constituents, the belief that they won’t stay mad about anything for very long, no matter how obscene or stoked with ridiculousness it may be. The Eco Fee, right or wrong, was suppose to “sleep” on the political landscape of the province, right alongside its citizens. I can’t believe that the move by McGuinty to this sleepy pseudo-tax was inspired by anything close to environmental fidelity.
I will also say that The Toronto Sun is a paper unworthy of the city that allows it its name, and its headlines tend toward the kind of grumpy, xenophobic, futurephobic dysphoria that people tend to try and dismiss as simple “populism”. It’s not populism to compare a female politician, even one who betrayed the public trust, to a dog. It’s just being a pompous, mysognistic bag of assholes. Calling this stuff populism is to insult anyone who might agree with you, though luckily most of them won’t notice. And I understand that rage, simplicity and (yes) furiousness all sell papers. But, if these were the only contributors to sales volume, surely the Sun wouldn’t languish around at half The Star’s usual circulation, would it?
All that being said, while looking at headlines like this one (imagine it in its original context, splashed across the display window of a T.O. newspaper box), could anyone imagine a less surprising caption than “Colourless Green Idea Sleeps Furiously”?
What if the great narrative of the English language is that, as it slowly takes over the world and assimilates more and more cultures, jargons, and technologies, every single senseless sentence finds a home on a printed page?