Up@dawn 2.0

Monday, April 27, 2015

Noam Chomsky- Noah Delk H-01 (Part Two: Linguistics)

Linguistics (\liŋ-ˈgwis-tiks\) is “the study of human speech, including the units, nature, structure, and modification of language,” according to Merriam-Webster. This is the field that I have found the most academic interest in, and hope to study in this area in the future.  However, one cannot study Linguistics without studying Noam Chomsky, who has been one of the most important linguistic thinkers over the past century and is widely considered the father of modern linguistics. His ideas have caused a shockwave throughout the field, and has changed the way many within linguistics view how language works, and how humans acquire language. Some of his most important and lasting theories and systems have come in the forms of Generative Grammar (also known as the Chomskyan approach to syntax), the Chomsky Hierarchy, and also his ideas on how humans acquire languages, and whether or not the knowledge of language acquisition is an innate trait of humans.  In the next few hundred words, I hope to briefly explicate these, along with their utter significance in Linguistics.
To begin, Generative Grammar (or the Chomskyan approach to syntax) is the attempt to define the rules that apply to all natural languages. This term originated in the late 1950’s in order to describe Chomsky’s theories, and those scholars who followed them were labeled generativists. As more versions of “Generative Grammar” have been produced, Chomsky’s can also be referred to as “Transitive Grammar”. The main subdivisions of study underneath this umbrella of Generative Grammar are as follows: Phonology ( looking at sounds and patterns within language), Morphology ( working with structure and the meanings of words), Syntax ( the ways sentences are structured), and finally Semantics ( studying linguistic meaning).
Although the original theory was published as the “Standard Theory” in 1957, Chomsky has continued to work with it and has altered it over the years. The most recent alteration/ addition to his theory came in 1993, and is known as the minimalist program, and continues to be a point of research now (and is presented as a program, not a theory). To fully explain this would require another paper all together, so I’ll now attempt to give the basics of Chomsky’s version of Generative Grammar.
In Chomsky’s version of Generative Grammar, all of the above mentioned factors point to a “Universal Grammar”, which is innately built into the human mind, instead of picked up through experience. This was a major point of Chomsky’s theory which caused a major upheaval of past believes. Before this point, linguists typically held the ideas of John Locke, and believed that the mind was a blank slate which was written on by experience. Therefore, language and grammar were picked up by one’s surroundings as they grew, much as one picks up their native language. However, Chomsky’s ideas were that there was a universal grammar that all humans are born with, which gives us our abilities to utilize language for communication, and also sets us apart from other animals. His revolutionary idea rocked the field, and the repercussions continue to be felt into the 21st century. Many variations of the theory have branched off from the original since it’s conception, however the basic ideas from the original have held as the foundation for all of these. Chomsky named this innate structure within the human mind designed for language learning the Language Acquisition Device, or L.A.D. To better explain this, BBC 4 has produced a video on the matter as part of a very interesting series of short videos, and can be seen below:

In order to better explain and demonstrate his ideas, Chomsky created the Chomsky Hierarchy in 1956, which is another one of his major and lasting contributions to the field of linguistics. It consists of a containment hierarchy, which shows classes of formal grammars (or “a finite set of production rules”) consisting of four levels. The levels are (in its most base form) as follows: Recursively Enumerable, Context- Sensitive, Context-Free, and Regular. To show a visual representation:
Although its intended purpose was to help demonstrate Generative Grammar, its uses have become broader and more specific through the years. Computer programmers probably recognize this chart, or would recognize a more complex version of it. Although Chomsky most likely did not imagine that his linguistic ideas would move into the world of computers, his hierarchy has been adopted into the field of computer programming. With it, a programmer is easily able to enter meaningful linguistic strands of code easily, and gives a model for logical command sequences.
Chomsky’s work and theories have become a staple of the study of linguistics. One cannot study linguistics without studying Chomsky. Syntactic Structures, along with the vast majority of Chomsky’s linguistic publications, is essential reading. As the field evolves, Chomsky continues to be one of its most important scholars, as is shown by his continuing position at M.I.T.. Additionally, his work has expanded into other fields beyond simply linguistics, including speech pathology, speech development studies, and computer science. His work is very relevant, and continues to hold its place as one of the leading theories and theories today. Does his theory have competition? Of course! But that’s why it’s a theory, and that’s how science progresses. Next time: What Chomsky is known for to the general public- his very interesting political views! (Buckle up, we’re hitting socialism and anarchism)

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if linguists who don't share Chomsky's political views have rejected his linguistic theories for invidious reasons. We're all only human, after all, and it's hard to compartmentalize one's attitudes. For instance, ever since learning of Heidegger's involvement with the Nazis I find it very difficult to give "Being and Time" an unbiased reading.

    In any event, I wish more academics were as eager to stir things up as Chomsky has been. Provocation is good, it makes people think.

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