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A Special Supplement: Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics

Chomsky’s picture, on the other hand, seems to be something like this: except for having such general purposes as the expression of human thoughts, language doesn’t have any essential purpose, or if it does there is no interesting connection between its purpose and its structure. The syntactical structures of human languages are the products of innate features of the human mind, and they have no significant connection with communication, though, of course, people do use them for, among other purposes, communication. The essential thing about languages, their defining trait, is their structure. The so-called “bee language,” for example, is not a language at all because it doesn’t have the right structure, and the fact that bees apparently use it to communicate is irrelevant. If human beings evolved to the point where they used syntactical forms to communicate that are quite unlike the forms we have now and would be beyond our present comprehension, then human beings would no longer have language, but something else.

For Chomsky language is defined by syntactical structure (not by the use of the structure in communication) and syntactical structure is determined by innate properties of the human mind (not by the needs of communication). On this picture of language it is not surprising that Chomsky’s main contribution has been to syntax. The semantic results that he and his colleagues have achieved have so far been trivial.

Many of Chomsky’s best students find this picture of language implausible and the linguistic theory that emerges from it unnecessarily cumbersome. They argue that one of the crucial factors shaping syntactic structure is semantics. Even such notions as “a grammatically correct sentence” or a “well-formed” sentence, they claim, require the introduction of semantic concepts. For example, the sentence “John called Mary a Republican and then SHE insulted HIM” 5 is a wellformed sentence only on the assumption that the participants regard it as insulting to be called a Republican.

Much as Chomsky once argued that structuralists could not comfortably accommodate the syntactical facts of language, so the generative semanticists now argue that his system cannot comfortably account for the facts of the interpenetration of semantics and syntax. There is no unanimity among Chomsky’s critics—Ross, Postal, Lakoff, McCawley, Fillmore (some of these are among his best students)—but they generally agree that syntax and semantics cannot be sharply separated, and hence there is no need to postulate the existence of purely syntactical deep structures.

Those who call themselves generative semanticists believe that the generative component of a linguistic theory is not the syntax, as in the above diagrams, but the semantics, that the grammar starts with a description of the meaning of a sentence and then generates the syntactical structures through the introduction of syntactical rules and lexical rules. The syntax then becomes just a collection of rules for expressing meaning.

It is too early to assess the conflict between Chomsky’s generative syntax and the new theory of generative semantics, partly because at present the arguments are so confused. Chomsky himself thinks that there is no substance to the issues because his critics have only rephrased his theory in a new terminology.6

But it is clear that a great deal of Chomsky’s over-all vision of language hangs on the issue of whether there is such a thing as syntactical deep structure. Chomsky argues that if there were no deep structure, linguistics as a study would be much less interesting because one could not then argue from syntax to the structure of the human mind, which for Chomsky is the chief interest of linguistics. I believe on the contrary that if the generative semanticists are right (and it is by no means clear that they are) that there is no boundary between syntax and semantics and hence no syntactical deep structures, linguistics if anything would be even more interesting because we could then begin the systematic investigation of the way form and function interact, how use and structure influence each other, instead of arbitrarily assuming that they do not, as Chomsky has so often tended to assume.

It is one of the ironies of the Chomsky revolution that the author of the revolution now occupies a minority position in the movement he created. Most of the active people in generative grammar regard Chomsky’s position as having been rendered obsolete by the various arguments concerning the inter-action between syntax and semantics. The old time structuralists whom Chomsky originally attacked look on with delight at this revolution within the revolution, rubbing their hands in glee at the sight of their adversaries fighting each other. “Those TG [transformational grammar] people are in deep trouble,” one warhorse of the old school told me. But the traditionalists are mistaken to regard the fight as support for their position. The conflict is being carried on entirely within a conceptual system that Chomsky created. Whoever wins, the old structuralism will be the loser.


The most spectacular conclusion about the nature of the human mind that Chomsky derives from his work in linguistics is that his results vindicate the claims of the seventeenth-century rationalist philosophers, Descartes, Leibniz, and others, that there are innate ideas in the mind. The rationalists claim that human beings have knowledge that is not derived from experience but is prior to all experience and determines the form of the knowledge that can be gained from experience. The empiricist tradition by contrast, from Locke down to contemporary behaviorist learning theorists, has tended to treat the mind as a tabula rasa, containing no knowledge prior to experience and placing no constraints on the forms of possible knowledge, except that they must be derived from experience by such mechanisms as the association of ideas or the habitual connection of stimulus and response. For empiricists all knowledge comes from experience, for rationalists some knowledge is implanted innately and prior to experience. In his bluntest moods, Chomsky claims to have refuted the empiricists and vindicated the rationalists.

His argument centers around the way in which children learn language. Suppose we assume that the account of the structure of natural languages we gave in Section II is correct. Then the grammar of a natural language will consist of a set of phrase structure rules that generate underlying phrase markers, a set of transformational rules that map deep structures onto surface structures, a set of phonological rules that assign phonetic interpretations to surface structures, and so on. Now, asks Chomsky, if all of this is part of the child’s linguistic competence, how does he ever acquire it? That is, in learning how to talk, how does the child acquire that part of knowing how to talk which is described by the grammar and which constitutes his linguistic competence?

Notice, Chomsky says, several features of the learning situation: The information that the child is presented with—when other people address him or when he hears them talk to each other—is limited in amount, fragmentary, and imperfect. There seems to be no way the child could learn the language just by generalizing from his inadequate experiences, from the utterances he hears. Furthermore, the child acquires the language at a very early age, before his general intellectual faculties are developed.

Indeed, the ability to learn a language is only marginally dependent on intelligence and motivation—stupid children and intelligent children, motivated and unmotivated children, all learn to speak their native tongue. If a child does not acquire his first language by puberty, it is difficult, and perhaps impossible, for him to learn one after that time. Formal teaching of the first language is unnecessary: the child may have to go to school to learn to read and write but he does not have to go to school to learn how to talk.

Now, in spite of all these facts the child who learns his first language, claims Chomsky, performs a remarkable intellectual feat: in “internalizing” the grammar he does something akin to constructing a theory of the language. The only explanation for all these facts, says Chomsky, is that the mind is not a tabula rasa, but rather, the child has the form of the language already built into his mind before he ever learns to talk. The child has a universal grammar, so to speak, programmed into his brain as part of his genetic inheritance. In the most ambitious versions of this theory, Chomsky speaks of the child as being born “with a perfect knowledge of universal grammar, that is, with a fixed schematism that he uses,…in acquiring language.”7 A child can learn any human language on the basis of very imperfect information. That being the case, he must have the forms that are common to all human languages as part of his innate mental equipment.

As further evidence in support of a specifically human “faculté de langage” Chomsky points out that animal communication systems are radically unlike human languages. Animal systems have only a finite number of communicative devices, and they are usually controlled by certain stimuli. Human languages by contrast, all have an infinite generative capacity and the utterances of sentences are not predictable on the basis of external stimuli. This “creative aspect of language use” is peculiarly human.

One traditional argument against the existence of an innate language learning faculty is that human languages are so diverse. The differences between Chinese, Nootka, Hungarian, and English, for example, are so great as to destroy the possibility of any universal grammar, and hence languages could only be learned by a general intelligence, not by any innate language learning device. Chomsky has attempted to turn this argument on its head: In spite of surface differences, all human languages have very similar underlying structures; they all have phrase structure rules and transformational rules. They all contain sentences, and these sentences are composed of subject noun phrases and predicate verb phrases, etc.

Chomsky is really making two claims here. First, a historical claim that his views on language were prefigured by the seventeenth-century rationalists, especially Descartes. Second, a theoretical claim that empiricist learning theory cannot account for the acquisition of language. Both claims are more tenuous than he suggests. Descartes did indeed claim that we have innate ideas, such as the idea of a triangle or the idea of perfection or the idea of God. But I know of no passage in Descartes to suggest that he thought the syntax of natural languages was innate. Quite the contrary, Descartes appears to have thought that language was arbitrary; he thought that we arbitrarily attach words to our ideas. Concepts for Descartes are innate, whereas language is arbitrary and acquired. Furthermore Descartes does not allow for the possibility of unconscious knowledge, a notion that is crucial to Chomsky’s system. Chomsky cites correctly Descartes’s claim that the creative use of language distinguishes man from the lower animals. But that by itself does not support the thesis that Descartes is a precursor of Chomsky’s theory of innate ideas.

  1. 5

    As distinct from “John called Mary beautiful and then she INSULTED him.”

  2. 6

    Cf., e.g., Noam Chomsky, “Deep Structure, Surface Structure, and Semantic Interpretation,” in D. Steinberg and L. Jacobovitz, eds., Semantics (Cambridge University Press, 1971).

  3. 7

    Noam Chomsky, “Linguistics and Philosophy,” in S. Hook, ed., Language and Philosophy (NYU Press, 1969), p. 88.

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