Linguistics Generative Syntax
by
Knut Tarald Taraldsen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0045

Introduction

Generative syntax is a major subfield of generative grammar, an outgrowth of American structuralism in its insistence on rigorous formal modeling of linguistic patterns. Generative syntax breaks with the structuralist tradition by attaching no significance to discovery procedures and by not seeing accurate description of individual languages as the ultimate goal of linguistics. Rather, the goal is to extract cross-linguistic commonalities in order to characterize a core system of grammar shared by all natural languages. This core system, called Universal Grammar, is seen as a system of primitives and principles that determine how these primitives can be put together to form complex linguistic structures by recursive structure-building operations that will construct an infinite set of sentences and characterize the relations between them. The most interesting and controversial feature of generative grammar lies on the conceptual side. By seeing Universal Grammar as rooted in an innate language faculty specific to humans, generative grammar places the study of language within the cognitive sciences. Since its inception in the 1950s, the generative theory of syntax has spawned a number of approaches that differ from one another with respect to many theoretical assumptions but still seem to agree that natural language syntax is rooted in a species-specific cognitive capacity dedicated to language. These various theoretical developments can be grouped into two major categories for expository purposes. On the one hand, lexical-functional grammar (LFG) and head-driven phrase structure grammar (HPSG) develop architectures sufficiently different from that of Chomskyan generative syntax to be regarded as distinct branches of the generative enterprise. On the other hand, five different stages can be identified within the line of development that has continued to be informed by Noam Chomsky’s own work: early generative syntax, 1957–1965; the aspects theory (also known as the standard theory), 1965–1973; the (revised) extended standard theory, roughly 1973–1981; government and binding theory, 1981–1993; and minimalism, 1993 onward, which must in the early 21st century be regarded as the mainstream paradigm. The research questions that arise concern both the internal organization of the syntactic component (levels of representation) and the interaction between syntax and other components of grammar, such as morphology, phonology, and semantics. These questions are intimately linked to the effort to isolate the essential properties of syntactic structures and of the syntactic operations and the general principles that govern their application.

Introductory Works

The works cited in this section provide fairly nontechnical assessments of the central concepts of generative syntax, their role in the development of modern linguistics, and their impact on neighboring fields. Newmeyer 1986 and Newmeyer 1996 together cover the development of generative syntax over most of its life span. Searle 1972 is a newspaper article for a general readership about the impact of generative grammar on linguistics, psychology, and philosophy.

  • Newmeyer, Frederick. 1986. Linguistic theory in America: The first quarter century of transformational generative grammar. New York: Academic Press.

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    A standard work providing interesting information on the birth and adolescence of generative syntax. Originally published in 1980.

  • Newmeyer, Frederick. 1996. Generative linguistics: A historical perspective. London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203218679E-mail Citation »

    A standard work by Newmeyer, disentangling the intellectual strains running through the development of generative grammar.

  • Searle, John R. 1972. Chomsky’s revolution in linguistics. New York Review of Books, 29 June.

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    A famous assessment of Noam Chomsky’s impact on linguistics and the emerging generative theory’s place in the intellectual landscape.

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