Brief reading notes on Chomsky (1965)

Noam Chomsky’s (1965) Aspect of the theory of syntax presents a revised version of generative grammar that constrains the power of its syntactic transformations in order to maintain the predictive goals of generative grammar: produce all the grammatical sentences and only the grammatical sentences. In other ways, Aspects also functions as an apologetic to his detractors who have not jumped on the band wagon with him. And to that end, Chomsky presents a defense of his overall paradigm. What is striking in his preface is that in order to challenge those to continue to hold to the behaviorist perspective on language as well as his critics, Chomsky appeals back to some of earliest work modern linguistics: Wilhelm von Humboldt. In fact, Chomsky goes as far as to claim that the concept of a generative grammar should be considered even as ancient of Panini.

Still, it is likely, however, that his critics would view both of Chomsky’s claims, or at least the claim for Panini, as anachronistic. Nevertheless, it was surprising to me that a statement that many, many people unconsciously associate first and foremost with Chomsky should actually go back nearly 200 years to von Humboldt: “that a language ‘makes infinite use of finite means” (Chomsky v). It is Chomsky claim that what had prevented linguists such as von Humboldt from pursuing such a goal was the development of specific mathematic resources.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Chomsky’s preface to Aspects, as well as the following first section of chapter 1 is the tentativeness of the whole enterprise. All of Chomsky’s language is couched in epistemic modalities (such as “possible,” “perhaps,” “seems”). Statements such as the following are rather common: “In chapter 3, I shall sketch briefly what seems to me in light of this discussion, the most promising direction for the theory of generative grammar to take. But I should like to reiterate that this can be only a highly tentative proposal” (vi). All of this is rather incredibly considering that so many of his critics tend to talk as if Chomsky views his claims as a sort of last work on the subject of grammar and syntax. This surely cannot be the case in light of his words here, not to mention his later writings.[1]

The focus of the first section of chapter one, “Generative Grammars as Theories of Linguistic Competence,” is the goals of linguistic theory, which Chomsky claims should be “concerned primarily with an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogeneous speech community, who knows its language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions … in applying his knowledge of the language in actual performance” (3)[2]

What follow from this is an effort to distinguish competence from performance. The latter can only be viewed as a direct representation of the former under the circumstances describe above of the ideal speaker-listener. Practically, speaking this is impossible though. And this reality is reflected in the traditional and structuralist grammars, which provide lists of irregularities, but failure to capture the regular and universal features of language. Here again, Chomsky goes back a couple centuries to past linguistic research which distinguished universal grammar from particular grammar. He goes as far as to suggest that modern linguistic study, as of the 1960s), had failed to deal with the question of universal grammar by showing no interest in the creative aspects of language. And it is exactly this possibility that creative language use that drives Chomsky’s work.


1. For example, the concept of the “autonomy of syntax” continues to be a sticking point for functionalist linguists even today. And yet, according to Newmeyer (2005), Chomsky hasn’t made such a claim about syntax since 1975, but has instead revised his own claims about the nature of language.

2. It should, perhaps, be questions whether this is a valid goal. Specifically, it is not clear why a homogenous community should be ideal when the vast majority of language use in the world is not homogenous. By itself the statement appears somewhat ethnocentric and Chomsky provides no explanation as to why the homogenous situation of English should be treated as preferable to that of multi-lingual communities. Surely a multilingual community would provide just as much information and about universal grammar than any other community.

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