Avram Noam Chomsky is an American philosopher and linguist, born in 1928, and professor of Modern Language and Linguistics to MIT.
In learning a language we learn rules that tells us how to produce grammatical strings of words, and one task of linguistics is to set out these rules (the grammar) of a language. Chomsky’s studies of grammar have revolutionized the scientific study of language. In discussing grammar Chomsky stressed that language users have the creative ability to produce and understand indefinite numbers and new sentences.
Hence the grammar of a natural language must be generative, that is, must allow those who know its rules to generate and understand sentences never before encountered. In syntactic structures Chomsky discusses three possible grammars. Only one, transformational grammar, provides an adequate generative grammar for a natural language such as English (the grammar is called ‘transformational’ since it contains transformational rules, rules that tell us, for example, how to transform sentences from active to passive and how to derive idiomatic sentences from formal grammar)
Chomsky makes important applications of his work to psychology. He criticizes, behaviourist psychology, in particular its account of language learning (by that account we learn language by associating words with stimuli). Chomsky allows that this may explain how we form expectations and associations; what is does not explain is how, after hearing relatively few utterances, children gain the creative ability to understand and produce indefinitely many different grammatical sentences.
His work in linguistics also has a bearing on philosophy, notably on disputes between empiricists and rationalists. He argues that languages have underlying structural similarities and claims that we must be born with knowledge of this ‘universal grammar’. As children we use it in analyzing utterances, we are quickly able to produce and understand new ones. This need to posit innate capacities counts against empiricism (the view that our minds, wholly empty at birth, obtain all knowledge from post-natal experience), and for rationalism, with which the belief in innate ideas is typically associated.
Chomsky’s Main works
- Syntactic Structures (1957)
- Aspects of the theory of the syntax (1965)
- Cartesian Linguistics (1966)
- Language and Mind (1968)
- The logical structure of Linguistic theory (1975)
Some of them are available online.
Main Quotes from Noam Chomsky
- The whole story of control over the people comes down to this: isolating people from each other, because if you can keep them isolated long enough, you can make them believe anything.
- Propaganda is to democracies what violence is to dictatorships.
- If we don’t believe in free speech for those we despise, then we don’t believe in it at all.
- A language is not limited to words. It is a culture, a tradition, the unification of a community, an entire history that constitutes what a community is, all united in one language.
- If we had a real education system, we would teach intellectual self-defense