Noam Chomsky’s Approach to Linguistics

p1781n464flfk1v72o391s101lh40_16128.jpgAmerican linguist, whose work was fundamental to the development of modern approaches to the study of language. In addition to his research in linguistics he has a sustained role in political activism and reflection, and has written copiously from an anarcho-socialist perspective on American and global issues, particularly focusing on the oppressive nature of capitalist governments and businesses (Chomsky 1969, 1973,1983,1989,1991).

At the core of Chomsky‘s approach to linguistics is the thesis that certain aspects of language use and acquisition must be innate to the human mind, and not the product of individual learning. Chomsky reacted against the empiricist approaches that were dominant in linguistics in the 1950s. Behaviourists argued that stimulus—response models could explain how language was acquired. Chomsky (1964a) replies by observing that such accounts of language learning cannot take account of the potentially infinite number of utterances that the language user will create and encounter (so that competent language users must be able to understand sentences that they have never before encountered). Further, empirical accounts of language acquisition do not adequately account for the uniformity of individuals’ knowledge and use of language. Structuralists, such as Chomsky‘s teacher Zellig Harris, treated any given language as the collection of utterances made by speakers. Linguists sought to explicate the grammar of such languages, with ‘grammar’ being understood as the set of mathematical formulae that structure the collection of utterances. While Chomsky holds to the mathematical notion of grammar generating language (akin to mathematical equations generating infinite sets of values), he goes beyond Harris’s structuralism by abandoning an empirical concern with diverse natural languages, each with a distinct grammar, to focus instead upon a core grammar that is common to all languages (Chomsky 1964b). This core grammar is the essence of language; competence in the core grammar provides the conditions for the  possibility of language, and it is this core grammar that is innate to the human mind. Humans, from the Chomskian perspective, come pre-programmed, as it were, to acquire language — they always already know how language works. It may be noted that Chomsky does not require competent language users to be consciously aware of their competence, thus allowing the general point that much that contributes to human competence is in some sense unconscious.

Chomsky’s linguistics abstracts from the content of language, including its meaning or semantics, in order to access a formal ‘deep structure’. Hence, he famously observes that the sentence, ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ is grammatically correct, albeit that it is as meaningless as its reverse, ‘Furiously sleep ideas green colourless’ (Chomsky 1957). It is this grammatical correctness that interests Chomsky. His research programme (a so-called ‘generative grammar’) may be characterised in terms of four steps. First, the linguist identifies the ‘transformational grammar‘ of a particular language (where transformational grammar encapsulates the smallest number of basic rules that an ideal native speaker would require to generate all and only the grammatical utterances of that language). Prior to Chomsky‘s (1957) Syntactic Structures, linguistics had concentrated only on what he calls ‘finite state’ grammar (governing the choices that are made within a sentence as the uttered proceed) and ‘phrase structure’ grammar (that governed the separation of multiple meanings in a phrase). Second, those rules that could have not been learnt are identified within the transformational grammar. Third, this allows the construction of a Universal Grammar (or Language Acquisition Device), which is to say, the linguistic competence that is given in the human mind. Finally, this model of Universal Grammar can be tested against other natural languages.

Chomsky‘s general approach, in defending rationalism against empiricism, explicitly echoes Descartes‘s (1999) philosophy. The grounding of linguistic competence in the human mind commits Chomsky, not merely to a form of innatism, but to a universal and highly formalistic conception of reason (where reasoning is understood in terms of the manipulation of mental symbols, typified by logic and mathematics), and also to a doctrine of the universality of human nature (as opposed to seeing human nature as historically and culturally achieved). The universality of human nature grounds Chomsky‘s politics, in a demand for a recognition of the equal worth of all human beings.

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