Chomsky, Avron Noam

Chomsky, Avron Noam

(1928-) US theorist in LINGUISTICS whose major innovations in theories of LANGUAGE helped to move linguistics to a central place within the social sciences. Influenced by SAUSSURE and especially by JAKOBSON, and rejecting the BEHAVIOURISM of Bloomfield and Skinner, Chomsky's greatest achievement – in Syntactic Structures (1957) – was the development of a transformational grammar. In this, a set of ‘phrase structure rules’ provides ‘deep structural’ information about the sentences of a language, together with a set of transformational rules for generating ‘surface structures’. There are also phonological and semantic components to Chomsky's theory. A main assumption of Chomsky's is that human linguistic COMPETENCE is innate and that the universals of grammatical DEEP STRUCTURE reflect this. Apart from the effectiveness of his own ‘generative’models of grammar, further evidence for the innateness of fundamental grammatical structures is provided by the rapidity and accuracy with which children master the structures of language, suggesting that language is not simply learned and the rules of language picked-up ‘inductively’ as suggested by behaviourists (see also LANGUAGE ACQUISITION DEVICE). Thus, the capacity for language is similar to the acquisition and use of number; though a developmental account is appropriate, learning is triggered, rather than entirely formed, by ‘experience’. There exist individual differences in the use of language, and languages vary, but the generalities of language structure and acquisition are seen as universal. Philosophically, the suggestion of innate ideas or categories locates Chomsky within ‘rationalist’ and ‘idealist’ schools of thought (see IDEALISM). This contrasts with EMPIRICISM – in which the MIND is regarded as tabula rasa - as Chomsky makes explicit in his ‘debate’ with Skinnerian theories of language acquisition. Chomsky has also written extensively and in a highly engaged way on contemporary affairs, particularly in opposition to the Vietnam War. He sometimes denies that there exists any connection between such writing and his work in linguistics, though others have suggested that there is a connection between his egalitarian and syndicalist political viewpoint and his emphasis on universal linguistic capacity.

It is Chomsky's linguistic theories that have been of major importance, even if there remain many who question the extent of his emphasis on the universals of grammar, or that an emphasis primarily on syntax is sufficient to exhibit how diversity and process in human societies are also related to language. In recent years, in linguistics and in social science generally, a far greater emphasis has been placed on the systematic study of SEMANTICS and PRAGMATICS.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000