Few probably anticipated that the boy who was born on 7 December, 1928, would become one of the founding fathers of modern linguistics and one of the world’s foremost intellectuals. Avram Noam Chomsky’s foundational work has influenced, inspired, and divided scholars working on language for more than sixty years.
A biological capacity for language
Perhaps Chomsky’s most seminal contribution is the idea that there is a biological blueprint for language. This blueprint, shared by all humans, leaves room for individual variation within limits. But given ordinary exposure to speech, it is impossible for an ordinary child to not acquire at least one language. Similarly, a dry sponge spontaneously soaks up water. However, unlike a sponge, humans also come with restrictions on what a possible human language can be. Words are not just beads on a string, rather, they are hierarchically ordered. Hierarchy explains why standard English has The story about elephants is funny and not The story about elephants are funny, even though the plural elephants is closer to the verb than the singular story. The hypothesis is that we will not find a language where all grammatical rules are defined based on linearity, and so far, such a language has not been found. As usual, there are individual cases that merit further discussions, but no single language as a whole has rules that are purely linearly defined.
Growing a part of human psychology
Chomsky views language as a mental phenomenon, which is to say that it is part of our cognition. A core question has been what the initial conditions are when a human begins to acquire language. Hierarchy may be one such prior condition, meaning that a child will expect that all grammatical rules are hierarchically defined. This is not to say that this is something that is conscious to us, rather, we do it automatically and we don’t even know it until we take a class in linguistics! But Chomsky holds that there is a finite space of possible human grammars and that a core task is to delineate this space. That will explain how language acquisition is possible once all the intricate facts about human languages are taken into account.
The meaning of words
Chomsky’s approach to linguistics is very technical as it was inspired by formal mathematical approaches to language. It is generally called ‘generative grammar’ to illustrate that the goal is to determine characterizations of how sentences are generated. In addition, Chomsky has also battled with the nature of meaning from a more philosophical point of view. He has engaged in intense discussions with the leading analytic philosophers of our time, such as Hilary Putnam and Willard van Orman Quine. In all his work, Chomsky has never hesitated to challenge orthodoxy, which is also true of his contributions to the field of philosophy of language: Chomsky has championed an approach which relies on our internal mental structures, arguing that meaning is in the head, not simply out there in the world by way of a word referring to some entity (say, the word car referring to what is depicted in Figure 1).
Status quo and impact
Chomsky’s approach to language has met with both praise and fierce opposition. Many scholars argue that language is simply acquired by virtue of generalizations over input by way of analogy making and distributional analyses. A good illustration of the debate is this piece by Paul Ibbotson and Michael Tomasello, which is to be contrasted by this reply by Jeff Lidz. The present author is clearly partial to the view espoused by Lidz, but the debate is nevertheless illustrative of the kind of engagement Chomsky’s work has generated and keeps generating.
Even though Chomsky’s approach to language is contested, it has been remarkably influential. Virtually all approaches to language relate their approach to Chomsky in some way or other. Chomsky’s approach has been the natural defining point for decades, which is a significant hallmark of its impact. To this day, Chomsky remains active as a linguist, writing and lecturing across the world. However, his main focus is today on a rather different part that has followed him throughout his life, namely his work as a political dissident. As such, Chomsky personifies what many think of as a true intellectual: An expert on his particular field, but also someone with a social and societal engagement. In his 88th year, there is nothing that suggests that he won’t still be going strong for many years to come.
Featured image credit: Noam Chomsky speaking at Harvard in 2012. Picture by Kelly Maeshiro, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.