Noam Chomsky's Contribution to Linguistics

Noam Chomsky was born in Philadelphia in 1928. Noam Chomsky would have to be seen as one of the most significant and influential linguists of the twentieth century. Chomsky received his linguistic training under Leonard Bloomfield, whose behaviorist empiricism dominated American linguistics during the 1930s and 1940s, and from Zellig Harris, whose political stances during the 1950s pleased Chomsky more than his version of linguistic structuralism. In contrast to Saussure and Firth, many linguists writing in the later part of the twentieth century have been avowedly ‘mentalist’ or ‘cognitivist’. The most famous of these is Noam Chomsky.

As with Saussure and Firth, it will be impossible to do full justice to an influential and widely discussed scholar. (A brief but useful evaluation of the earlier years of Chomsky’s contribution to linguistics, psychology and philosophy can be found in Lyons 1970; and Chomsky’s more recent views can be found in Chomsky 2000).

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Even at the early stage, Chomsky was producing highly original work, which diverged fundamentally Harris’s. In his B.A. thesis he was doing things that were, in his own words, ” radically at odds with everything in structural linguistics… which is why [it and Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory] were published only 30 years later.” The thesis was “as different from structural linguistics as anything could be,” which was why “Harris never looked at it and no one in the field reacted to it.” In fact, Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew remains “the only text in existence, that seeks to apply and evaluation measure in anything remotely like the detail”.

Noam Chomsky’s contribution to Linguistics

The programme of cognitive linguistics initiated by Chomsky and his colleagues in the 1950s and 1960s proposed a distinction between ‘deep’ and ‘surface’ structure in language. At least in the early stages of this programme, deep structure was assumed to have a mental reality closely related to meaning: ‘ It is the deep structure underlying the actual utterance, a structure that is purely mental, that conveys the semantic content of the sentence’. It was also suggested that this deep structure might be universal: ‘The deep structure that expresses the meaning is common to all languages, so it is claimed, being a simple reflection of the forms of thought’ (Chomsky 1966, p.35). Those who followed Descartes ‘ characteristically assumed that mental processes are common to all normal humans and that languages may therefore differ in the manner of expression but not in the thoughts expressed’ (Chomsky 1966, p.6). This universalism is itself tied to mentalism: ‘The discovery of universal principles would provide a partial explanation for the facts of particular languages, in so far as these could be shown to be simply specific instances of the general features of language structure…… Beyond this, the universal features themselves might be explained on the basis of general assumptions about human mental processes or the contingencies of the language use…..'(Chomsky 1966, p.54).

Chomsky’s contribution to linguistics, and thence to modern thought, has been broadly threefold. In the first place, he moved the emphasis of linguistics form the strictly descriptive and inductive level (the level of the endless cataloguing of utterances from which conclusions about grammar could then be drawn) to the ideal level of competence and ‘deep stricture’, the level which opens up a creative aspect in language. In short, Chomsky showed, within his technical expertise in linguistics, that language was more than its material execution. Second, he brought about a reconsideration of language learning by arguing that language competence is not acquired inductively through a behaviorist stimulus-response conditioning, but is the consequence of an innate cognitive capacity possessed by human. In other words, linguistic freedom and creativity is not acquired, but always already exists as a governing a priori. Third, the distinction between ‘competence’ and ‘performance’—even when it was poorly understood—has served as a metaphor for structural studies in other disciplines such as philosophy and sociology (cf., Habermas’s notion of ‘communicative competence’, and Bourdieu’s notion of ‘habitus’ – notions which echo Chomsky’s conception of agency).

Noam Chomsky’s, Remarks on Nominalization (1970), Influence on the development of generative word-formation appeared to be crucial. In Mohanan’s view, with this seminal paper the traditional notion of ‘word’ was reintroduced into generative linguistics. Chomsky captured certain lexical regularities in terms of ‘lexical rules’; these rules differ in their nature from the transformational rules of sentence generation. Lexical rules are, in Chomsky’s view, redundancy rules, that is to say, the rules which capture regularities in the lexical entries.

Chomsky distinguishes two possible ways of treating derived nominal (and the issues of deriving new word in general); one either extends base rules to accommodate the derived nominals directly (all complex words will be listed in the lexicon), thus simplifying the transformational component—the lexicalist position; or, it is the base structures which may be simplified, and the derivation of nominalizations (and, by implication, all other complex words) would be the matter of transformational rules (without listing any complex word in the lexicon)—the transformational position.

In 1965 Chomsky dropped the ‘kernel sentence’ notion in a major reworking of his model, which introduced a revolutionary new concept to the theory of syntax: a distinction between underlying (‘deep’) structure and ‘surface structure’, the two inter-related by transformations, allowing active and passive sentences, for example, to have the same deep structure but two different transformational histories producing two different surface structures, published as Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, this became known as the ‘standard theory’. In practice, however, the model soon showed itself to be cumbersome and insufficiently sensitive to the needs of languages other than English. Chomsky and his colleagues made substantial revisions during the 1970s to create the ‘extended standard theory’. The old phrase-structure rules were largely replaced by a more flexible syntactic process known as ‘X-bar theory’. The deep/surface distinction was preserved along with transformations, but in a heavily modified form, and there were also new features, all tending towards greater simplicity. The revised model (called Government and Binding (GB), later Principles and Parameters (P;P)) appeared in 1981 and gave the whole ‘generativist enterprise’ a new lease of life. Since then there have been further simplifying changes resulting in ‘The Minimalist Program’ of the 1990s.

Syntactic Structures

Chomsky’s first book Syntactic Structures (1957) gave its name to the first wave of thinking, which was chiefly concerned with grammatical description. Its contribution was to show that mentalistic grammar could be made scientific by the use of explicit and rigorous forms of statement, known as Generative Grammar. Hierarchical phrase structure was described through ‘rewrite rules’ of the S—NP VP type that expand one element into others, yielding eventually ‘kernel sentences’ of the language. But such rules were incapable of describing the whole of human language and needed to be amplified by ‘transformations’ that could modify the structure of the kernel sentence into passives, questions, etc. A key example sentence as Colorless green ideas sleep furiously, held to show the difference between grammaticality and meaningfulness.


Chomsky’s work has always been motivated by a single goal: to explain human language acquisition. Many of the changes mentioned above were expressly designed to help account for the acquisition process by offering simpler procedures in tune with in the innate capacities of the acquirer.  The reintroduction of ‘innate ideas’ has been Chomsky’s most far-reaching and controversial Proposition.

For a recent statement of the role semantics in linguistics, see Noam Chomsky, ‘Topics in the theory of Generative Grammar’. In this article, Chomsky (1) emphasizes the central importance of semantics in linguistic theory, (2) argues for the superiority of transformational grammars  over phrase-structure grammars largely on the grounds that, although phrase-structure grammars  may be adequate to define sentencehood for (at least) some natural languages, they are inadequate as a foundation for semantics, and (3) comments repeatedly on the ‘rather primitive state’ of the concepts of semantics and remarks that the notion of semantic interpretation ‘still resists any deep analysis’.