Noam Chomsky (1928–)

Although by some estimates Noam Chomsky is one of the most quoted people in the world (some calculations put him in the top 10 or as high as the top 2 or 3), his name is probably not as well known as his influence would suggest. A professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his entire academic career, and the author of numerous technical books and papers on language, Chomsky has never written a book on language for the general reader and he seldom appears on television, at least in the United States. His ideas about language, however, have transformed understanding of the nature of language and how it works in a way that many equate with Darwin’s theory in biology and Freud’s theory in psychology. And like these latter, Chomsky’s theory is the subject of widespread approbation as well as dissent. Chomsky also, since the late 1960s, has been a leading political essayist and debater, and his critical stance against the trends of U.S. foreign policy has equally been widely hailed and just as widely condemned.

In 1957, an unpretentious looking, slim volume bound in blue cardboard with the simple title Syntactic Structures was published by a small academic press located in the Netherlands. Its author, Noam Chomsky, not yet 30 years old, was a native of Philadelphia, the son of a professor of Hebrew, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, and a recent Junior Fellow at Harvard. The volume, based on material from Chomsky’s doctoral dissertation submitted to Penn, was dense with diagrams of sentences that a casual reader might have found unintelligible with their cryptic, mathematics-like symbols of S, NP, VP, AUX. The accompanying prose paragraphs were also not easy to comprehend for the uninitiated. Few casual readers, if any had chanced on the book, would imagine this volume would be the opening of a revolution in the way language was conceived and taught.

Linguistic science was nothing new in the late 1950s. The origins of the discipline can be found in the ancient grammarians of Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin, and the systematic study of language dates from at least the 18th century if not earlier. In the 20th century, the prevailing paradigm was the structuralist model, founded on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913), a Swiss professor at the University of Geneva, whose lectures were published posthumously by his students under the title of Course in General Linguistics in 1916. Saussure emphasized the conventionality of language (the sign is arbitrarily related to its referent) and its systematic nature (the basic relation among units in language is binary). He also emphasized studying language synchronically (at the moment) rather than diachronically (historically). In the hands of Saussure’s followers, and with contributions from anthropologists, structural linguistics provided a wealth of data on the patterns of many of the 5,000 or so languages spoken in the world, many of which had no writing systems and were unknown beyond their native speakers. Structural linguistics was strong in analyzing the sound patterns of languages (phonology) and the structural properties of words (morphology), but foundered in attempting to provide an account of syntax—how words make up sentences. Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures ostensibly was making a contribution to this dimension of language analysis.

Noam Chomsky is a professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who transformed understanding of language and how it works with his book Syntactic Structures.

Noam Chomsky is a professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who transformed understanding of language and how it works with his book Syntactic Structures. (AP Photo)

But Chomsky’s contribution, beginning with the 1957 volume and stretching down to his 1995 volume The Minimalist Program, was no mere technical proposal (on the same level as the sentence diagramming system developed by Alonso Reed and Brainerd Kellogg that plagued generations of schoolchildren in the early 20th century); rather, Chomsky was proposing a new conceptual framework for understanding the nature of language and was arguing for a fundamental reconception of the nature of the human mind. This aspect of Chomsky’s work became clearer in his next major publication, a review of a book on verbal behavior by B. F. Skinner, the doyen of behaviorist psychology, which amounted to a 60-page detailed dismantling of the work. Chomsky argued, with a rhetorical brilliance that would define his later writings in both linguistics and politics, that Skinner’s attempt to study language through his theory of operant conditioning was totally at odds with the facts of language. Language, Chomsky argued, is not something learned through stimulus and reinforcement; in fact, most of how we learn language is not taught at all. As children acquire language skill, they seem to follow a universal pattern that is independent of the individual language they grow up speaking. They acquire the phonology of the mother tongue, and by the time they are barely out of diapers, they are mastering the complex syntax of their language without direct teaching from their parents (perhaps parents prompt a bit if children make a “mistake” such as in English forming the past tense of go as goed but otherwise they contribute little directly—and children generally ignore the corrections; in multilingual environments, children learn multiple languages without the assistance of their parents). This ability of children to create sentences ad infinitum based on the limited range of direct knowledge they possess suggested to Chomsky that the language ability was something innate—a component of the brain or mind. Although we do not know what this mechanism consists of physiologically, it is the job of linguistic theory to account for this ability and to specify the conditions that allow us to generate any and all sentences in our given language and to recognize when a sentence is an acceptable one in our language.

Central to Chomsky’s theory is the distinction between competence and performance. Competence in Chomsky’s formulation is the innate ability any normal human has to master his or her language; performance is the realm of actual language use, which may be subject to misstatements and errors. For Chomsky, the former is more important for study and analysis. (Saussure made a similar distinction between langue, the ideal form of a language, and parole, the level of everyday use.) But because this ability is beyond empirical observation, Chomsky proposed a theoretical model to approximate what may happen mentally. His model, which “generates” or describes all grammatical sentences in a language and blocks the construction of ill-formed ones, originally involved several components: a set of phrase structure rules that “generate” what Chomsky called the base component; a semantic component that assigns meanings to items in the base component; and a transformational component that converts the phrase structures into other structures—such as passive sentences, negatives, and questions (his system of analysis is referred to as generative-transformational grammar or sometimes simply transformational grammar). Chomsky’s famous sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” was meant to show that meaning is something more than the function of grammar. The details of Chomsky’s model have changed over the 50 years since Syntactic Structures was published as he and his followers have developed more complex analyses (pace his labeling his more recent theory “minimalism”) and have incorporated other elements into the model (such as the role of semantics and phonology—the sound patterns of a language). In the process, many of the original concepts have been modified or dropped and new ones have been added (for example, X-Bar theory). In more recent years, Chomsky’s primary focus has been on defining the nature of Universal Grammar, the principles that underlie all languages, despite the dizzying array of surface differences. Here Chomsky proposed a limited set of “principles” that all languages share and specific “parameters” that determine patterns in individual languages; for example, whether direct objects follow or precede verbs is a parameter setting that distinguishes English from Japanese.

Given the dense and often arcane nature of Chomsky’s language writings, it was startling to readers of intellectual journals such as the New York Review of Books in 1967 to confront Chomsky the political analyst. As the protest movement against the United States’ involvement in the war in Vietnam built momentum, Chomsky published a lengthy analysis of the administration’s justifications for the war and of the academic political theorists who provided its intellectual cover. In clear, crisp, and biting language, and in paragraphs studded with apt quotations and myriad footnotes, the essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” launched Chomsky into the forefront of the antiwar movement. The essay was later expanded into his first political book, American Power and the New Mandarins, 1969.

In retrospect, as his intellectual biographer has noted, Chomsky’s emergence as a political thinker was not surprising, given his background (his parents and other relatives had radical political connections, and Chomsky published an analysis of the Spanish Civil War when he was 10 years old!). Since the 1967 essay, Chomsky has published scores of books and hundreds of articles on American foreign policy (What Uncle Sam Really Wants, 1992), the Middle East conflict (The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians, 1982), the media as an arm of state policy (Manufacturing Consent, 1988), the United States’ response to terrorism (Pirates and Emperors, Old and New: International Terrorism in the Real World, 2002), and related topics.

Although he is a mild-mannered man in appearance, he is a formidable debater on paper and on the lecture platform. And he has needed his debating skill to deal with the torrent of criticism his political writings have evoked (they also evoke much praise from those who share his views). Chomsky has been relentless in seeing American foreign policy driven by “strategic and economic interests of dominant sectors of the domestic population, to the accompaniment of rhetorical flourishes about its dedication to the highest values” as he wrote in Failed States (The Essential Chomsky). Chomsky defines himself as offering a critique of the issues based on facts and logic and the application of “elementary moral principles.”

His opponents, on the other hand, see someone, in the words of one critic, who “betrays a persistent Manichaean worldview in which the United States is always the source of evil in the world,” and they criticize his falsifying facts and his rhetorical slights of hand. He has been particularly scorned by many for his views on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict (he is highly critical of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories post-1967 and he favors a unitary secular binational state, a position he traces to the classic Zionist tradition he was raised in) and for his recent writings on the United States’ war on terror in the aftermath of 9/11. In his “Reflections on 9–11,” he wrote: “The Bush administration perceives the new phase of the ‘war on terror’ ... as an opportunity to expand its already overwhelming military advantages over the rest of the world, and to move to other methods to ensure global dominance” (The Essential Chomsky).

While there seems to be a wide gap between the intensity of Chomsky’s political analysis and the almost hermetic nature of his language writings, many commentators (both supporters and detractors) see them as of a piece, rooted, as the editor of The Essential Chomsky puts it, in “the philosophical tradition that [Chomsky] has traced back from contemporary strains of anarchism through ‘classic liberalism’ to the Enlightenment and the early rationalists of the seventeenth century.” Some see a contradiction between Chomsky’s strong argument in favor of the innateness of the language faculty and his championing human creativity and freedom. In other words, in arguing for an innate language faculty, Chomsky would seem to be arguing for a conception of a fixed human nature and against the kind of freedom and creativity that those who deny a fixed human nature presumably value. On the other hand, as Steven Pinker has argued, the prevailing social science paradigm views humans as largely products of their environment and infinitely malleable, and postmodern theorists have proposed that language and thought are constrained by social structures and historical forces. In this regard, Chomsky stands for a more open conception of human mentality. “Creativity,” he commented to French linguist Mitsou Ronat, “is an aspect of ordinary and daily use of language and of human action in general” (Language and Responsibility).

The ultimate impact of Chomsky’s linguistic work is, of course, difficult to gauge. It has for the most part been a dominant paradigm for much of the last half-century defining research agendas both in support of it and against it. It has generated a good deal of supporting research in fields like language acquisition (some of the early work in this field was carried out by Chomsky’s wife Carol Schatz Chomsky, whom he married in 1949; she died in 2008) and stimulated work in psycholinguistics and linguistic philosophy. Its terminology has permeated other fields (analyses of the grammar of cinema, for example; concepts such as generative poetics). But it has its detractors and critics. The critiques range from those that offer respectful but philosophically opposite views that question the innateness hypothesis or that see a larger role for the social dimension of language to those that conflate Chomsky’s politics with his linguistics and see him as a baleful influence on contemporary society.

—Martin Green


Barsky, Robert F. Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997.

Chomsky, Noam. The Essential Chomsky. Ed. Anthony Arnove. New York and London: The New Press, 2008.

Chomsky, Noam. Language and Responsibility: Based on Conversations with Mitsou Ronat. Trans. John Viertel. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.

McGilvray, James, ed. Cambridge Companion to Chomsky. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: William Morrow, 1994.

Szabó, Zoltán Gendler. “Noam Chomsky.” In Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers, 1860–1960. Ed. John R. Shook et al. Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 2004.