In This Article Noam Chomsky

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Work
  • Formal Grammars
  • Introductions and Biographies
  • Interviews
  • Assessments
  • Textbooks
  • Extended Standard Theory
  • Biolinguistics
  • Phonology
  • Controversies

Linguistics Noam Chomsky
by
Terje Lohndal, Howard Lasnik
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0142

Introduction

Avram Noam Chomsky was born in Philadelphia on 7 December 1928. His father, William Chomsky, was a noted Hebrew scholar. Chomsky came to the University of Pennsylvania to study, and there he met Zellig S. Harris through their common political interests. Chomsky’s first encounter with Harris’s work was when he proofread Harris’s book Methods in Structural Linguistics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951). The independent work that Chomsky then started to do resulted in serious revision of Harris’s approach, including the proposal that syntax, in part, is a matter of abstract representation. This led to a number of highly influential papers and books, which together have defined modern linguistics. After Chomsky spent 1951–1955 as a junior fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, he joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, under the sponsorship of Morris Halle. Chomsky was promoted to full professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Linguistics in 1961 and appointed the Ferrari P. Ward Professorship of Modern Languages and Linguistics in 1966 and Institute Professor in 1976. In 1967 both the University of Chicago and the University of London awarded him honorary degrees, and since then he has been the recipient of scores of honors and awards. In 1988 he was awarded the Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences, created in 1984 (along with prizes in two other categories) to recognize work in areas not included among the Nobel Prizes. These honors are all a testament to Chomsky’s influence and impact on linguistics, and cognitive science more generally, since the mid-20th century. He has continually revised and updated his technical analyses, from phrase structure grammars to, in the 1960s, the standard theory to in the 1970s, the extended standard theory and X-bar theory to the principles and parameters theory and its variant, the minimalist program. Over the years the technical details have changed, sometimes dramatically, but many of the core assumptions, as laid out in his foundational work, have remained essentially the same. His work has been both applauded and criticized but remains central to investigations of language.

Foundational Work

As Zellig S. Harris’s student, Chomsky was deeply immersed in structural linguistics, and his first works were attempts to extend the method in Harris’s book Methods in Structural Linguistics, published in 1951, as in Chomsky 1951. Harris had one sentence transform into another, and Chomsky soon discovered data that could not be captured using such a method, as discussed in Chomsky 1957 and Chomsky 1962. Instead, Chomsky had to appeal to abstract structures, and this is what he did in two of his most famous, and groundbreaking, works: The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (LSLT) (Chomsky 1975) and Syntactic Structures (Chomsky 1957). Chomsky 1975 was written while Chomsky was a junior fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University and completed in 1955. It was published only in 1975, with a comprehensive introduction that outlines the development of the manuscript. Whereas both of these texts are concerned with formal details, Chomsky 1959, a review of B. F. Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior, focused on questions of language use and creativity. This review quickly gained fame for demonstrating the fundamental problems of behaviorism. Chomsky 1965 outlines a theory of language embedded in the human mind (see also Chomsky 1964). The first chapter of this book is essential reading for anyone who wants to attain a basic understanding of Chomsky’s ideas. In this chapter, he attempts to define a distinct, scientific project for linguistics: “scientific” because it aims to explain what underlies individual linguistic abilities, and “distinct” because the properties of human language appear to be special. Chomsky 1957, Chomsky 1959, and Chomsky 1965 are quite accessible and still relevant to contemporary debates.

  • Chomsky, Noam. 1951. Morphophonemics of modern Hebrew. MA thesis, Univ. of Pennsylvania.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this thesis, Chomsky discusses certain morphophonemic alternations in modern Hebrew. He is particularly concerned with the simplicity of this grammar and how to design other such grammars.

  • Chomsky, Noam. 1955. Transformational analysis. PhD diss., Univ. of Pennsylvania.

    E-mail Citation »

    This doctoral dissertation was based on one chapter from Chomsky 1975.

  • Chomsky, Noam. 1957. Syntactic structures. Janua Linguarum 4. The Hague: Mouton.

    E-mail Citation »

    Chomsky’s first published book, introducing transformational syntax. This book also contains the important discoveries and insights regarding the English auxiliary system that were used to motivate abstract structures.

  • Chomsky, Noam. 1959. Verbal behavior. Edited by B. F. Skinner. Language 35.1: 26–58.

    DOI: 10.2307/411334E-mail Citation »

    This famous review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior gave behaviorism the silver bullet and laid the ground for modern cognitive science. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Chomsky, Noam. 1962. A transformational approach to syntax. In Proceedings of the Third Texas Conference on Problems of Linguistic Analysis in English, May 9–12, 1958. Edited by Archibald A. Hill, 124–148. Austin: Univ. of Texas Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    An outline of a transformational approach to syntax, including a comparison with the work of Zellig S. Harris.

  • Chomsky, Noam. 1964. Current issues in linguistic theory. Papers presented at the Ninth International Congress of Linguists, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1962. Janua Linguarum 38. The Hague: Mouton.

    E-mail Citation »

    This short book details the goals of linguistic theory and the nature of structural descriptions for both syntax and phonology.

  • Chomsky, Noam. 1965. Aspects of the theory of syntax. MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics Special Technical Report 11. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

    E-mail Citation »

    One of Chomsky’s most important publications. The first chapter (pp. 3–62) defines his way of approaching the study of language as a component of the human mind and emphasizes the goal that theory should account for how a child can acquire a language. The theory described here is known as the standard theory.

  • Chomsky, Noam. 1975. The logical structure of linguistic theory. New York: Plenum.

    E-mail Citation »

    Chomsky’s monumental work, completed in 1955 and published in 1975. Lays out the formal basis for a complete theory of linguistic structure. The concepts and technical notions (level of representation and syntactic transformation, among many others) that became central to linguistic theorizing were introduced in this text.

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