Noam Chomsky – Patron Saint of March, 2019

Happy March dear followers!
As per tradition, it is time to present this month’s Patron Saint: Professor Noam Chomsky.
Professor Chomsky, who celebrated his 90th birthday in December, is an American linguist who has become somewhat of a legend in our field – he is often referred to as the “father of modern linguistics”. Furthermore, he is usually that one linguist that non-linguists know about (apart from possibly Tolkien, but then people don’t usually know that Tolkien was a linguist).

Chomsky’s fame outside of linguistics is usually due to his political and philosophical writings. His political views, which align with libertarian socialism and anarcho-syndicalism, have often been a subject of controversy, especially in his home country. However, today we want to tell you about what made him famous as a linguist; Chomsky developed the theories of generative grammar, Universal Grammar, and the Chomsky hierarchy. A facebook post does not hold enough space for us to tell you all about these, but the most significant part of Chomsky’s theories is this:

In the 60s, Chomsky departed from the then commonly held view that the brain was a blank slate and language was wholly learned from the surroundings, and instead suggested that we are all born with an innate knowledge of language, that this knowledge is the same for all humans, that the innate grammar holds the same rules for all, and that children only need to learn the small differences in settings of the rules which are specific to the language in the input – thus the concept of Universal Grammar was born. Since the 90s, Chomsky has been developing his ‘Minimalist Program’, which aims to formalise grammar using as few rules as possible, with a greater focus on how the brain makes decisions about the grammar it is given from the input.

Chomsky’s framework is heavily based in biology and cognitive sciences, placing the field of linguistics within these sciences for the first time, which is one reason why his work is considered to have revolutionised the way we perform linguistic research to this day. Chomsky’s theories are still praised and scrutinised, followed and discarded. His frameworks still divide linguists into two camps; are you for or against generative grammar? Regardless of sides, no one can argue the impact of Chomsky’s theories on the field of linguistics, both for the subsequent work that aimed to prove his theories, and the work that aimed to disprove them.

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