Noam Chomsky

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Chomsky, Noam

Chomsky, Noam (nōm chŏmˈskē), 1928–, educator and linguist, b. Philadelphia. Chomsky, who has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1955, developed a theory of transformational (sometimes called generative or transformational-generative) grammar that revolutionized the scientific study of language. He first set out his abstract analysis of language in his doctoral dissertation (1955) and Syntactic Structures (1957). Instead of starting with minimal sounds, as the structural linguists had done, Chomsky began with the rudimentary or primitive sentence; from this base he developed his argument that innumerable syntactic combinations can be generated by means of a complex series of rules.

According to transformational grammar, every intelligible sentence conforms not only to grammatical rules peculiar to its particular language, but also to “deep structures,” a universal grammar underlying all languages and corresponding to an innate capacity of the human brain. Chomsky and other linguists who built on his work formulated transformational rules, which transform a sentence with a given grammatical structure (e.g., “John saw Mary”) into a sentence with a different grammatical structure but the same essential meaning (“Mary was seen by John”). Transformational linguistics has been influential in psycholinguistics, particularly in the study of language acquisition by children. In the 1990s Chomsky formulated a “Minimalist Program” in an attempt to simplify the symbolic representations of the language facility. Chomsky is a prolific author whose principal linguistic works after Syntactic Structures include Current Issues in Linguistic Theory (1964), The Sound Pattern of English (with Morris Halle, 1968), Language and Mind (1972), Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar (1972), Knowledge of Language (1986), Language and Thought (1993), and Architecture of Language (2000).

Chomsky also has wide-ranging political interests. An early and outspoken critic of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and a vociferous opponent of the Iraq war, he has written extensively on many political issues from a generally left-wing point of view. Among his political writings are American Power and the New Mandarins (1969), Peace in the Middle East? (1974), Manufacturing Consent (with E. S. Herman, 1988), Profit over People (1998), Rogue States (2000), Hegemony or Survival (2003), and Failed States (2006). Chomsky's controversial best seller 9-11 (2002) is an analysis of the World Trade Center attack that, while denouncing the atrocity of the event, traces its origins to the actions and power of the United States.


See interviews with D. Barsamian (1992, 1994, 1996, and 2001); biography by R. F. Barsky (1997); studies by F. D'Agostino (1985), C. P. Otero (1988 and 1998), R. Salkie (1990), M. Achbar, ed. (1994), M. Rai (1995), V. J. Cook (1996), P. Wilkin (1997), J. McGilvray (1999), N. V. Smith (1999), A. Edgley (2000), H. Lasnik (2000), and J. Bricmont and J. Franck, ed. (2009); Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (film by P. Wintonick and M. Achbar, 1992) and Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times (film by J. Junkerman, 2002).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Chomsky, Noam


Born Dec. 7, 1928, in Philadelphia. American linguist.

Chomsky studied at the University of Pennsylvania and at Harvard University. He is now a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In “Transformational Analysis” (1955) and Syntactic Structures (1957), Chomsky laid the foundations of the theory of generative grammar and of the theory of formal languages as a branch of mathematical logic. Some of Chomsky’s ideas have met with criticism from other linguists. One of his controversial ideas is the notion that the formal apparatus of generative grammars is sufficient for an adequate description of the syntax and of several aspects of the semantics of a natural language. Guided by the belief that the basic, or deep, structures of language are similar in all languages of the world, Chomsky proposed the use of linguistics as a means of studying the mind (Language and Mind, 1968).

Chomsky spoke out against the war in Vietnam in American Power and the New Mandarins (1969) and At War With Asia (1972).


Karrer, W., and E. Palasak. “A Chomsky Bibliography.” Language Sciences, 1976, no. 40, April.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Chomsky, (Avril) Noam

(1928–  ) linguist, social/political theorist; born in Philadelphia. Son of a distinguished Hebrew scholar, he was educated at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was especially influenced by Zellig Harris; after taking his M.A. there in 1951, he spent four years as a junior fellow at Harvard (1951–55), then was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania (1955). In 1955 he began what would be his long teaching career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He became known as one of the principal founders of transformational-generative grammar, a system of linguistic analysis that challenges much traditional linguistics and has much to do with philosophy, logic, and psycholinguistics; his book Syntactic Structures (1957) was credited with revolutionizing the discipline of linguistics. Chomsky's theory suggests that every human utterance has two structures: surface structure, the superficial combining of words, and "deep structure," which are universal rules and mechanisms. In more practical terms, the theory argues that the means for acquiring a language is innate in all humans and is triggered as soon as an infant begins to learn the basics of a language. Outside this highly rarefied sphere, Chomsky early on began to promote his radical critique of American political, social, and economic policies, particularly of American foreign policy as effected by the Establishment and presented by the media; he was outspoken in his opposition to the Vietnam War and later to the Persian Gulf War. His extensive writings in this area include American Power and the New Mandarins (1969) and Human Rights and American Foreign Policy (1978).
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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