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Noam Chomsky

American linguist whose theory of transformational or generative grammar has had a profound influence on the fields of both linguistics and psychology.

Noam Chomsky was born in Philadelphia and educated at the University of Pennsylvania, where he received his B.A. (1949), M.A. (1951), and Ph.D. (1955). In 1955, he was appointed to the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he has served as professor of foreign languages and linguistics. He has also taught courses and lectured at many universities throughout the world, including Oxford University. Besides his work in the field of psycholinguistics, Chomsky is also well-known as a leftist activist and social critic. He was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and has remained critical of media coverage of politics. Although Chomsky's work is primarily of interest to linguistics scholars, several of his theories have had popular applications in psychology.

Chomsky was a pioneer in the field of psycholinguistics, which, beginning in the 1950s, helped establish a

Noam Chomsky (UPI/Corbis-Bettmann. Reproduced with permission.)

new relationship between linguistics and psychology. While Chomsky argued that linguistics should be understood as a part of cognitive psychology, in his first book, Syntactic Structures (1957), he opposed the traditional learning theory basis of language acquisition. In doing so, his expressed a view that differed from the behaviorist view of the mind as a tabula rasa; his theories were also diametrically opposed to the verbal learning theory of B.F. Skinner, the foremost proponent of behaviorism. In Chomsky's view, certain aspects of linguistic knowledge and ability are the product of a universal innate ability, or "language acquisition device" (LAD), that enables each normal child to construct a systematic grammar and generate phrases. This theory claims to account for the fact that children acquire language skills more rapidly than other abilities, usually mastering most of the basic rules by the age of four. As evidence that an inherent ability exists to recognize underlying syntactical relationships within a sentence, Chomsky cites the fact that children readily understand transformations of a given sentence into different forms—such as declarative and interrogative—and can easily transform sentences of their own. Applying this principle to adult mastery of language, Chomsky has devised the now-famous nonsense sentence, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." Although the sentence has no coherent meaning, English speakers regard it as still more nonsensical if the syntax, as well as the meaning, is deprived of underlying logic, as in "Ideas furiously green colorless sleep." (The same idea underlies Lewis Carroll's well-known poem "Jabberwocky" from his Alice in Wonderland.) Chomsky's approach is also referred to as "generative" because of the idea that rules generate the seemingly infinite variety of orders and sentences existing in all languages. Chomsky argues that the underlying logic, or deep structure, of all languages is the same and that human mastery of it is genetically determined, not learned. Those aspects of language that humans have to study are termed surface structures.

Chomsky's work has been highly controversial, rekindling the age-old debate over whether language exists in the mind before experience. His theories also distinguish between language competence (knowledge of rules and structure) and performance (how an individual uses language in practice). Besides Syntactic Structures, Chomsky's books include Current Issues in Linguistics Theory (1964), Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), Topics in the Theory of Generative Grammar (1966), Cartesian Linguistics (1966), Language and Mind (1968), Reflections on Language (1975), Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (1975), and Knowledge of Language (1986).

Further Reading

D'Agostino, F. Chomsky's System of Ideas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists