Definition and Discussion of Chomskyan Linguistics

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Noam Chomsky film
In 2013, French film director Michel Gondry released an animated documentary--Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?--based on a series of recent conversations with Noam Chomsky (b. 1928). © IFC Films

Chomskyan linguistics is a broad term for the principles of language and the methods of language study introduced and/or popularized by American linguist Noam Chomsky in such groundbreaking works as Syntactic Structures (1957) and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965). Also spelled Chomskian linguistics and sometimes treated as a synonym for formal linguistics.

In the article "Universalism and Human Difference in Chomskyan Linguistics" (Chomskyan [R]evolutions, 2010), Christopher Hutton observes that "Chomskyan linguistics is defined by a fundamental commitment to universalism and to the existence of a shared species-wide knowledge grounded in human biology."

See Examples and Observations, below. Also, see:

Examples and Observations

  • "The only place a language occupies in Chomskyan linguistics is non-geographical, in the speaker's mind."
    (Pius ten Hacken, "The Disappearance of the Geographical Dimension of Language in American Linguistics." The Space of English, ed. by David Spurr and Cornelia Tschichold. Gunter Narr Verlag, 2005)
  • "Roughly stated, Chomskyan linguistics claims to reveal something about the mind, but imperviously prefers a strictly autonomist methodology over the open dialogue with psychology that would seem to be implied by such a claim."
    (Dirk Geeraerts, "Prototype Theory." Cognitive Linguistics: Basic Readings, ed. by Dirk Geeraerts. Walter de Gruyter, 2006)
  • The Origin and Influence of Chomskyan Linguistics
    - "[I]n 1957, the young American linguist Noam Chomsky published Syntactic Structures, a brief and watered-down summary of several years of original research. In that book, and in his succeeding publications, Chomsky made a number of revolutionary proposals: he introduced the idea of a generative grammar, developed a particular kind of generative grammar called transformational grammar, rejected his predecessors' emphasis on the description of data--in favour of a highly theoretical approach based upon a search for universal principles of language (later called universal grammar)--proposed to turn linguistics firmly toward mentalism, and laid the foundation for integrating the field into the as yet unnamed new discipline of cognitive science.
    "Chomsky's ideas excited a whole generation of students . . .. Today Chomsky's influence is undimmed, and Chomskyan linguistics form a large and maximally prominent cohort among the community of linguists, to such an extent that outsiders often have the impression that linguistics is Chomskyan linguistics . . .. But this is seriously misleading.
    "In fact, the majority of the world's linguists would acknowledge no more than the vaguest debt to Chomsky, if even that."
    (Robert Lawrence Trask and Peter Stockwell, Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2007)
    - "In the latter half of the twentieth century, Chomskyan linguistics dominated most branches of the field apart from semantics, although many alternative approaches were proposed. All of these alternatives share the assumption that a satisfactory linguistic theory is in principle applicable to all languages. In that sense, universal grammar is as alive today as it was in antiquity."
    (Jaap Maat, "General or Universal Grammar From Plato to Chomsky." The Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics, ed. by Keith Allan. Oxford University Press, 2013)
  • From Behaviorism to Mentalism
    "The revolutionary nature of Chomskyan linguistics must be considered within the framework of another 'revolution,' in psychology, from behaviorism to cognitivism. George Miller dates this paradigm shift to a conference held at M.I.T. in 1956, in which Chomsky participated. . . . Chomsky evolves from behaviorism to mentalism between Syntactic Structures (1957) and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965). This led psycholinguists to consider the relationship between deep structure and surface structure in processing. However the results were not very promising, and Chomsky himself seemed to abandon psychological reality as a relevant consideration in linguistic analysis. His focus on intuition favored rationalism over empiricism, and innate structures over acquired behavior. This biological turn—the search for the language 'organ, the 'language acquisition device,' etc.—became the new foundation for a science of linguistics."
    (Malcolm D. Hyman, "Chomsky Between Revolutions." Chomskyan (R)evolutions, ed. by Douglas A. Kibbee. John Benjamins, 2010)
  • Characteristics of Chomskyan Linguistics
    "For the sake of simplicity, we list some of the characteristics of the Chomskyan approach:
    - Formalism. . . . Chomskyan linguistics sets out to define and specify the rules and principles which generate the grammatical or well-formed sentences of a language.
    - Modularity. The mental grammar is regarded as a special module of the mind which constitutes a separate cognitive faculty which has no connection with other mental capacities.
    - Sub-modularity. Mental grammar is thought to be divided into other sub-modules. Some of these sub-modules are the X-bar principle or the Theta principle. Each of them has a particular function. The interaction of these smaller components results in the complexities of syntactic structures.
    - Abstractness. With the passing of time, Chomskyan linguistics has become more and more abstract. By this we mean that entities and processes put forward do not overtly manifest themselves in linguistic expressions. By way of illustration, take the case of underlying structures which hardly resemble surface structures.
    - Search for high-level generalization. Those aspects of linguistic knowledge which are idiosyncratic and do not abide by general rules are disregarded from a theoretical point of view since they are regarded as uninteresting. The only aspects which deserve attention are those which are subject to general principles such as wh-movement or raising." (Ricardo Mairal Usón, et al., Current Trends in Linguistic Theory. UNED, 2006)
  • The Minimalist Program
    "[W]ith the passage of time, and in collaboration with a variety of colleagues . . ., Chomsky himself has significantly modified his views, both about those features that are unique to language—and that thus have to be accounted for in any theory of its origin—and about its underlying mechanism. Since the 1990s, Chomsky and his collaborators have developed what has come to be known as the 'Minimalist Program,' which seeks to reduce the language faculty to the simplest possible mechanism. Doing this has involved ditching niceties like the distinction between deep and surface structures, and concentrating instead on how the brain itself creates the rules that govern language production."
    (Ian Tattersall, "At the Birth of Language." The New York Review of Books, August 18, 2016)
  • Chomskyan Linguistics as a Research Program
    "Chomskyan linguistics is a research program in linguistics. As such, it should be distinguished from Chomsky's linguistic theory. While both were conceived by Noam Chomsky in the late 1950s, their aims and later development are strikingly different. Chomsky's linguistic theory went through a number of stages in its development . . .. Chomskyan linguistics, by contrast, remained stable during this period. It does not refer to tree structures but specifies what a linguistic theory should explain and how such a theory should be evaluated.
    "Chomskyan linguistics defines the object of study as the knowledge of language a speaker has. This knowledge is called the linguistic competence or internalized language (I-language). It is not open to conscious, direct introspection, but a wide range of its manifestations can be observed and used as data for the study of language."
    (Pius ten Hacken, "Formalism/Formalist Linguistics." Concise Encyclopedia of Philosophy of Language and Linguistics, ed. by Alex Barber and Robert J. Stainton. Elsevier, 2010)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Discussion of Chomskyan Linguistics." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Discussion of Chomskyan Linguistics. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Discussion of Chomskyan Linguistics." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).