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A Special Supplement: Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics

A brief bibliography of works relevant to the issues discussed in this article:

  1. Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures (Humanities Press, 1957). Chomsky’s first book, now out of date, but still required reading as the classic statement of the attack on structuralism.

  2. Noam Chomsky, Language and Mind (Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968, 1972). A series of three lectures Chomsky gave in Berkeley in 1967. This is the clearest statement by Chomsky of the relations between his theory of language and his theory of human nature. Start reading Chomsky’s work with this book. It is now available in an enlarged edition containing three extra articles.

  3. Noam Chomsky, Cartesian Linguistics (Harper & Row, 1966). An attempt to trace the ancestry of Chomsky’s theory of language from the rationalist philosophers of the seventeenth century.

  4. Noam Chomsky, Topics in the Theory of Generative Grammar (Humanities Press, 1966). I believe this to be the simplest and easiest to understand statement by Chomsky of his fundamental linguistic notions, though developments since it was published make some parts of it out of date.

  5. Noam Chomsky, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (MIT Press, 1965). The classic statement of Chomsky’s mature theory as described in Section II of this article. Most current controversies, over e.g., generative semantics, take this book as their starting point. It is hard to follow, unless you have read, say, numbers 2, 4, and 6 of this bibliography first.

  6. John Lyons, Noam Chomsky (Viking Press, Modern Masters, 1970). The simplest and clearest introduction to Chomsky’s work and to the basic notions of generative grammar. It is rather uncritical, especially about the alleged connection between Chomsky’s linguistics and his politics, but it is the best book with which to begin the study of generative grammar. Read it first, then read Chomsky.

  7. D. Steinberg and L. Jacobovitz, Semantics, An Interdisciplinary Reader in Philosophy, Linguistics and Psychology (Cambridge University Press, 1971). An absurdly expensive ($16.50) but useful collection of essays. Several attack the adequacy of the account of language given in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax.

  8. J. R. Searle, ed., The Philosophy of Language (Oxford University Press, 1971). A paperback collection of essays covering both the speech act analysis of language and generative grammar.

  9. J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Harvard University Press, 1962). Austin’s William James Lectures given at Harvard in 1955. It contains the classic exposition of the theory of speech acts.

  10. J. R. Searle, Speech Acts, An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge University Press, 1969). Contains the theory of speech acts that underlies the remarks in Section V of this article.

  11. D. A. Reibel and S. A. Schane, eds., Modern Studies in English, Readings in Transformational Grammar (Prentice-Hall, 1969). Generative grammar has spawned a sizable anthology industry. Of the collections devoted exclusively to syntax, this and the next seem to me the most useful, though both contain some fairly technical articles.

  12. R. A. Jacobs and P. S. Rosenbaum, eds., Readings in English Transformational Grammar (Ginn & Company, 1970). All the articles in this volume are concerned with the notion of deep structure. The book is built around the theme of assessing, criticizing, and eventually revising the conception of syntax in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax.


Throughout the history of the study of man there has been a fundamental opposition between those who believe that progress is to be made by a rigorous observation of man’s actual behavior and those who believe that such observations are interesting only in so far as they reveal to us hidden and possibly fairly mysterious underlying laws that only partially and in distorted form reveal themselves to us in behavior. Freud, for example, is in the latter class, most of American social science in the former.

Noam Chomsky is unashamedly with the searchers after hidden laws. Actual speech behavior, speech performance, for him is only the top of a large iceberg of linguistic competence distorted in its shape by many factors irrelevant to linguistics. Indeed he once remarked that the very expression “behavioral sciences” suggests a fundamental confusion between evidence and subject matter. Psychology, for example, he claims is the science of mind; to call psychology a behavioral science is like calling physics a science of meter readings. One uses human behavior as evidence for the laws of the operation of the mind, but to suppose that the laws must be laws of behavior is to suppose that the evidence must be the subject matter.

In this opposition between the methodology of confining research to observable facts and that of using the observable facts as clues to hidden and underlying laws, Chomsky’s revolution is doubly interesting: first, within the field of linguistics, it has precipitated a conflict which is an example of the wider conflict; and secondly, Chomsky has used his results about language to try to develop general anti-behaviorist and anti-empiricist conclusions about the nature of the human mind that go beyond the scope of linguistics.

His revolution followed fairly closely the general pattern described in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: the accepted model or “paradigm” of linguistics was confronted, largely by Chomsky’s work, with increasing numbers of nagging counterexamples and recalcitrant data which the paradigm could not deal with. Eventually the counter-examples led Chomsky to break the old model altogether and to create a completely new one. Prior to the publication of his Syntactic Structures in 1957, many, probably most, American linguists regarded the aim of their discipline as being the classification of the elements of human languages. Linguistics was to be a sort of verbal botany. As Hockett wrote in 1942, “Linguistics is a classificatory science.”1

Suppose, for example, that such a linguist is giving a description of a language, whether an exotic language like Cherokee or a familiar one like English. He proceeds by first collecting his “data,” he gathers a large number of utterances of the language, which he records on his tape recorder or in a phonetic script. This “corpus” of the language constitutes his subject matter. He then classifies the elements of the corpus at their different linguistic levels: first he classifies the smallest significant functioning units of sound, the phonemes, then at the next level the phonemes unite into the minimally significant bearers of meaning, the morphemes (in English, for example, the word “cat” is a single morpheme made up of three phonemes; the word “uninteresting” is made up of three morphemes: “un,” “interest,” and “ing”), at the next higher level the morphemes join together to form words and word classes such as noun phrases and verb phrases, and at the highest level of all come sequences of word classes, the possible sentences and sentence types.

The aim of linguistic theory was to provide the linguist with a set of rigorous methods, a set of discovery procedures which he would use to extract from the “corpus” the phonemes, the morphemes, and so on. The study of the meanings of sentences or of the uses to which speakers of the language put the sentences had little place in this enterprise. Meanings, scientifically construed, were thought to be patterns of behavior determined by stimulus and response; they were properly speaking the subject matter of psychologists. Alternatively they might be some mysterious mental entities altogether outside the scope of a sober science or, worse yet, they might involve the speaker’s whole knowledge of the world around him and thus fall beyond the scope of a study restricted only to linguistic facts.

Structural linguistics, with its insistence on objective methods of verification and precisely specified techniques of discovery, with its refusal to allow any talk of meanings or mental entities or unobservable features, derives from the “behavioral sciences” approach to the study of man, and is also largely a consequence of the philosophical assumptions of logical positivism. Chomsky was brought up in this tradition at the University of Pennsylvania as a student of both Zellig Harris, the linguist, and Nelson Goodman, the philosopher.

Chomsky’s work is interesting in large part because, while it is a major attack on the conception of man implicit in the behavioral sciences, the attack is made from within the very tradition of scientific rigor and precision that the behavioral sciences have been aspiring to. His attack on the view that human psychology can be described by correlating stimulus and response is not an a priori conceptual argument, much less is it the cry of an anguished humanist resentful at being treated as a machine or an animal. Rather it is a claim that a really rigorous analysis of language will show that such methods when applied to language produce nothing but false-hoods or trivialities, that their practitioners have simply imitated “the surface features of science” without having its “significant intellectual content.”

As a graduate student at Pennsylvania, Chomsky attempted to apply the conventional methods of structural linguistics to the study of syntax, but found that the methods that had apparently worked so well with phonemes and morphemes did not work very well with sentences. Each language has a finite number of phonemes and a finite though quite large number of morphemes. It is possible to get a list of each; but the number of sentences in any natural language like French or English is, strictly speaking, infinite. There is no limit to the number of new sentences that can be produced; and for each sentence, no matter how long, it is always possible to produce a longer one. Within structuralist assumptions it is not easy to account for the fact that languages have an infinite number of sentences.

Furthermore the structuralist methods of classification do not seem able to account for all of the internal relations within sentences, or the relations that different sentences have to each other. For example, to take a famous case, the two sentences “John is easy to please” and “John is eager to please” look as if they had exactly the same grammatical structure. Each is a sequence of noun-copula-adjective-infinitive verb. But in spite of this surface similarity the grammar of the two is quite different. In the first sentence, though it is not apparent from the surface word order, “John” functions as the direct object of the verb to please; the sentence means: it is easy for someone to please John. Whereas in the second “John” functions as the subject of the verb to please; the sentence means: John is eager that he please someone. That this is a difference in the syntax of the sentences comes out clearly in the fact that English allows us to form the noun phrase “John’s eagerness to please” out of the second, but not “John’s easiness to please” out of the first. There is no easy or natural way to account for these facts within structuralist assumptions.

Another set of syntactical facts that structuralist assumptions are inadequate to handle is the existence of certain types of ambiguous sentences where the ambiguity derives not from the words in the sentence but from the syntactical structure. Consider the sentence “The shooting of the hunters is terrible.” This can mean that it is terrible that the hunters are being shot or that the hunters are terrible at shooting or that the hunters are being shot in a terrible fashion. Another example is “I like her cooking.” In spite of the fact that it contains no ambiguous words (or morphemes) and has a very simple superficial grammatical structure of noun-verb-possessive pronoun-noun, this sentence is in fact remarkably ambiguous. It can mean, among other things, I like what she cooks, I like the way she cooks, I like the fact that she cooks, even, I like the fact that she is being cooked.

  1. 1

    Quoted in R. H. Robins, A Short History of Linguistics (Indiana University Press, 1967), p. 239.

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