- Chomsky, Noam
▪ American linguistin full Avram Noam Chomskyborn Dec. 7, 1928, Philadelphia, Pa., U.S.American linguist and political activist who founded transformational-generative grammar (transformational grammar), an original and highly influential system of linguistic analysis.Chomsky was introduced to the study of linguistics by his father, a Hebrew scholar who worked within the framework of historical linguistics. He studied under the linguist Zellig S. Harris at the University of Pennsylvania and earned bachelor's (1949) and master's (1951) degrees there. The early stages of Chomsky's theories of language appear in his University of Pennsylvania Ph.D. dissertation, “Transformational Analysis” (1955). After receiving his degree, he began teaching modern languages and linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1955. He became a full professor there in 1961 and was appointed Ferrari P. Ward professor of foreign languages and linguistics in 1966.Chomsky set out his theory of transformational grammar in Syntactic Structures (1957), a book that revolutionized the development of theoretical linguistics. In this work he broke with the dominant structural school, which held that language is essentially a system of syntactical and grammatical habits established by means of training and experience. Chomsky, by contrast, argued that human beings have an innate facility for understanding the formal principles underlying the grammatical structures of language. It is this innate capacity that explains how young children, after hearing the speech of their elders, are able to infer the grammatical rules underlying ordinary sentences and then use those rules to generate an infinite number and variety of sentences that they had never heard before.In analyzing the innate ability to construct these “generative grammars,” Chomsky distinguished between two levels of structure in sentences: “surface structures,” which are the actual words and sounds used, and “deep structures,” which carry a sentence's underlying meaning. People are able to create and interpret sentences by generating the words of surface structures from deep structures according to a set of abstract rules that, though limited in number, allow for unlimited variation. Chomsky called these rules “grammatical transformations,” or “transformational rules.” He argued that these rules are basically the same in all languages and correspond to innate, genetically transmitted mental structures in human beings.Chomsky's work virtually defined the methods of linguistic analysis used in the second half of the 20th century. His assertions about humans' innate knowledge of language have not been widely accepted, however. Chomsky's other books on linguistics include Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), Cartesian Linguistics (1966), The Sound Pattern of English (with Morris Halle, 1968), Language and Mind (1968; enlarged ed., 1972), The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (1975), and Reflections on Language (1975). Language and Responsibility (1979) discusses the relation of language and politics and the ramifications of generative grammar. His later books, including Language and Problems of Knowledge (1988), further examine those subjects.Chomsky also became well known for his opposition to the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War during the late 1960s and early '70s. His books criticizing American foreign policy and the role played by giant corporations and the mass media include American Power and the New Mandarins (1969), Towards a New Cold War (1982), Pirates & Emperors (1986), On Power and Ideology (1987), Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (1989), and World Orders, Old and New (1994).
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