End of the Revolution

Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky; drawing by David Levine


Almost three decades ago I reviewed in these pages a striking development in the study of language that I called “Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics.”1 After such a long time it would seem appropriate to assess the results of the revolution. This article is not by itself such an assessment, because to do an adequate job one would require more knowledge of what happened in linguistics in these years than I have, and certainly more than is exhibited by Chomsky’s new book. But this much at least we can say. Judged by the objectives stated in the original manifestoes, the revolution has not succeeded. Something else may have succeeded, or may eventually succeed, but the goals of the original revolution have been altered and in a sense abandoned. I think Chomsky would say that this shows not a failure of the original project but a redefinition of its goals in ways dictated by new discoveries, and that such redefinitions are typical of ongoing scientific research projects.

The research project of the revolution was to work out for each natural language a set of syntactical rules that could “generate” all the sentences of that language. The sense in which the rules could generate the infinite number of sentences of the language is that any speaker, or even a machine, that followed the rules would produce sentences of the language, and if the rules are complete, could produce the potentially infinite number of its sentences. The rules require no interpretation and they do more than just generate patterns. Applied mechanically, they are capable of generating the infinite number of sentences of the language.

Syntax was regarded as the heart of linguistics and the project was supposed to transform linguistics into a rigorous science. A “grammar,” in the technical sense used by linguists, is a theory of a language, and such theories were called “generative grammars.” Stated informally, some rules of English are that a sentence can be composed of a noun phrase plus a verb phrase, that a verb phrase can consist of a verb plus a noun phrase and that a noun phrase can be composed of a “determiner” plus a noun, that nouns can be “woman,” “man,” “ball,” “chair”…; verbs can be “see,” “hit,” “throw”…; determiners can be “the,” “a”…. Such rules can be represented formally in the theory as a set of instructions to rewrite a symbol on the left side as the symbols on the right side. Thus,

S → NP + VP

VP → V + NP

NP → Det + N

N → man, woman, ball…

V → hit, see, throw…

Det → a, the…

This small fragment of an English grammar would be able to generate, for example, the sentence

The man hit the ball.

Such rules are sometimes called “rewrite rules” or “phrase structure rules” because they…

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