Noam Chomsky

(1928–).
An American linguist and outspoken political activist, whose theory of transformational or generative grammar has had a profound influence on the fields of linguistics and psychology.

Noam Chomsky was born on December 7, 1928, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a B.A. in 1949, an M.A. in 1951, and a Ph.D. in 1955. Chomsky was appointed to the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1955 and became a full Professor of linguistics in 1961. Although he has had a career-long tenure at MIT, Chomsky has also taught courses and lectured at numerous universities and educational institutions throughout the world. In addition to his work in the field of psycholinguistics, Chomsky is well known as a political activist and social critic. He was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, as well as nearly all conflicts occurring in the Middle East, for at least three decades. He is a vocal critic of most of Israel's policies and politics and has taken a negative view of global media coverage of politics.




Noam Chomsky.





Noam Chomsky.
© Splash News/Corbis

Chomsky's tenets were in opposition to the verbal learning theory of B. F. Skinner, the prominent behaviorist. Chomsky hypothesized that certain aspects of linguistic knowledge and ability result from a universal innate ability, or language acquisition device (LAD), that enables neurotypical children to construct a systematic grammar rubric and to generate syntactically correct phrases. This theory purports to explain why children typically acquire language skills more rapidly than other abilities, generally mastering most of the basic rules by the time they attend primary school. As evidence that an inherent ability exists to recognize underlying syntactical relationships within a sentence, Chomsky cites the fact that children readily understand transformations of a specific sentence into different forms such as declarative and interrogative and are able to transform sentences of their own.

Applying this principle to adult mastery of language, Chomsky devised the now-famous nonsense sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Although the sentence has no inherent meaning, English speakers regard it as still more nonsensical if the syntax, as well as the meaning, is deprived of underlying logic, as in “Ideas furiously green colorless sleep.” Chomsky's approach to linguistics is often referred to as generative because rules generate the vast variety of orders and sentences existing in each language. Chomsky argues that the deep structure, or underlying logic, of all languages is the same and that human language mastery is genetically determined rather than learned. He refers to this as the universal grammar theory. Those aspects of language that humans have to study are termed surface structures.

Some aspects of Chomsky's work have been controversial, fueling the debate over whether language exists in the mind prior to experience. His theories also distinguish between language competence, the knowledge of rules and structure, and language performance, or how an individual uses language in practice. Chomsky is the author of more than 100 books and well over 200 scholarly and popular articles in the fields of linguistics and analytic philosophy.

See also Child development ; Cognitive development ; Language development ; Skinner, B. F.

Resources

BOOKS

Chomsky, Noam, and James McGilvray. The Science of Language: Interviews with James McGilvray. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Joseph, Brian D., and Richard D. Janda. The Handbook of Historical Linguistics. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2011.

Orelus, Pierre W., and Noam Chomsky. Rethinking Race, Class, Language, and Gender: A Dialogue with Noam Chomsky and Other Leading Scholars. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011.

Wise, Christopher. Chomsky and Deconstruction: The Politics of Unconscious Knowledge. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

WEBSITES

Chomsky.Info: Noam Chomsky Website. http://chomsky.info (accessed January 13, 2015).

Fish, Stanley. “Scholarship and Politics: The Case of Noam Chomsky.” New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/10/opinion/fish-scholarship-and-politics-thecase-of-noam-chomsky.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 (accessed September 16, 2015).

Muskingum University. “Noam Chomsky.” http://www.muskingum.edu/~psych/psycweb/history/chomsky.htm#Biographyandoutspokenpoliticalactivist (accessed September 16, 2015).