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Mara Agustina Aquino Garca

Luciana Carolina Guillem

Teacher: Lic. Lilian von Specht

Language as a Formal System - Licenciatura en Lengua Inglesa Unam4

7 March 2015

Chomskys Generative Grammar:

An insight into the Chomskyan legacy to linguistics

By the end of the 1950s, in a scenario where work on cognition was starting to grow in
importance, Noam Chomsky, an MIT linguist, came up with a theory firmly opposed to
behaviouristic views of language acquisition and structural studies of language. Strongly
influenced by Platonic and Cartesian ideals about human knowledge, Chomskys view of
language acquisition confronted the traditional empirist view proposed by Skinner and
Bloomfield, which dominated the field of psychology and linguistics during the previous
three decades.

Structuralist linguists and behaviourist psychologists regarded language as a learnable

conduct, comparable to any other associative process (association of a stimulus and a
response), in which external stimuli, conditioning and reinforcing play a central role in the
acquisition of language. According to Gardner, B. F. Skinner was [a]t the time the most
respected environmental psychologist in the world and the leader of the behaviourist
movement (cogweb.ucla.edu).

In 1959, Noam Chomsky, still an unknown scholar, published an extensive review of

Skinners book Verbal Behavior in Language, an influential journal of linguistics. In this
review Chomsky subjected to exhaustive criticism almost every part of Skinners work and
stated that the findings, emerged from animal studies, simply did not apply to language.
Chomsky sustained a mentalist position towards language knowledge. He considered
language as a faculty genetically wired in the human mind. He believed that observing and
theorizing just about the overt manifestation of speech (as empirists did) left many
questions unanswered, especially about the internal processes involved in the acquisition
and production of language. How can children develop language in such a short term and
with such little input? How can children growing up in different environments, with
varying degrees of linguistic experience, use language with a similar proficiency at around
the same age? How is knowledge of language represented in the mind? Is there a specific
part of the human brain which is innately preprogrammed to produce language?

The theory of Generative Grammar, led by Chomsky from the early 60s, seeks to answer
these questions and give a scientific explanation to the processes related to the knowledge
of language, something structuralists and behaviourists failed to do. The present work aims
at reviewing Chomskys theory of Generative Grammar from its beginnings until present
day and exploring the main arguments and concepts related to it.

In Meno, one of his Socratic Dialogues, Plato presents an exchange between Socrates and
Menos slave, an uneducated servant. Though the slave never received explicit instruction
in mathematics and geometry, Socrates noticed that the man possessed the capacity to
differentiate geometric figures. Plato maintained that human beings were born with a priori
knowledge, maybe from previous lives, which did not need to be taught or, in consequence,
learnt. Chomsky uses the term Platos problem to refer to this question, which relates to
his Poverty of Stimulus argument. Chomsky posits that from the earliest stages, the child
knows vastly more than experience has provided (6). He claims that children have no
substantial data or explicit teaching of some complex grammatical structures of their
mother tongues, but this does not prevent them from producing them. The absence of
knowledge of the underlying rules or the lack of erroneous examples reinforces an idea
which is central to Chomskys innatist view of language knowledge: there must be
something in the human mind which enables children to generate language effectively
despite this poverty of stimulus, a genetic endowment for language, or, in Chomskys
terms, a language organ:
The faculty of language can reasonably be regarded as a language organ in the
sense in which scientists speak of the visual system, or immune system, or circulatory
system, as organs of the body.

()The language organ is like others in that its basic character is an expression of the
genes. () [W]e can investigate the genetically determined initial state of the
language faculty.() We can think of the initial state as a language acquisition
device that takes experience as input and gives the language as an output () (4).

According to Chomsky, that initial state is common to all human beings. To support this
idea, he mentions the fact that a child raised in Japan would speak Japanese, but if he was
raised in an English speaking country, he would speak English. It is this initial state which
will enable the child to generate the expressions of his language. The theory of this
language is therefore called a generative grammar(5).

Howard Gardner explains the main task of Chomskys approach to linguistics: The task of
the linguist should be to uncover the set of rules or principles that could account for all of
the permissible (or grammatical) sentences of the language and none of the impermissible
(ungrammatical) ones (cogweb.ucla.edu). In other words, Chomskys goal was to develop
a theory of Universal Grammar (UG) which could account for the rules governing the
faculty of language as a biological capacity common to all humans. In order to fulfill this
task, Chomskys theory needs to satisfy certain criteria of adequacy so as to stand as a solid
framework for the study of language. That is to say, a theory of UG, must provide an
exhaustive description of the grammar of any and every I-language (i.e. the mentally
represented linguistic knowledge that a native speaker of a particular language has, a
concept similar -though not identical- to that of competence). This descriptive adequacy is
the first requirement that this theory must meet in order to achieve universality. The second
condition UG theory must account for is explanatory adequacy. This means that it is
necessary to give explanations to justify each of the properties of human I-languages. As
regards the task of the Generative Grammar approach, Gardner posits:

(It) involve[s] the painstaking identification of the underlying syntactical

processes, the writing and rewriting of rules, the search for counter-examples-all in an
effort to delineate the nature of the formal system that underlay not only English but Commented [u1]: Dear teacher, we have a doubt as regards
this verb. We have checked in different dictionaries and this word
all other languages spoken by human beings (cogweb.ucla.edu). does not have an entrance. We believe it should say underlies,
but we have chosen to keep the spelling found in the source.

These conditions made achieving a formal theory of UG both an ambitious and complex
task, reasons why Chomskys program continues up to present day.

In brief, Chomsky seeks to explain the rapidity at which children acquire their native
language and the uniformity of performance they are able to attain, in spite of wide
variations not only in intelligence but also in the conditions under which language is
acquired (Radford 14). He proposed that this innate knowledge is materialized in a sort of
little black box in our minds, a language acquisition device (LAD). In later research,
Chomsky explains that the ability to learn grammar is hard-wired into the human brain, i.e.
that the foundations of language are rooted in human biology, that every person is born
with knowledge of a UG and that human brains count with a limited set of rules for
organizing language, thus expanding the LAD notion. Chomskys theory, which maintains
that language acquisition is guided by an innate language faculty, is popularly known as the
Innateness Hypothesis.

Large amounts of empirical data have been collected since the cognitive revolution of the
1960s that seem to support the Innateness Hypothesis. It was found that a childs
language, from the first moment, the two-word stage, is systematic (rule governed) and not
a series of random items. These early grammars of a childs are known as pivot grammars,
because they are constituted by a pivot word plus another free word. The Critical Period
Hypothesis, proposed by Lenneberg in 1967, suggests that there is a biologically
determined period of life when language can be acquired more easily and beyond which
time language is increasingly difficult to acquire (Brown 53). Although this hypothesis
has been challenged subsequently and softened through milder versions which suggest the
existence of more sensitive periods for the acquisition of languages, it contributes to the
idea of innate capacities presented in Chomskys arguments as regards language

Chomskys view of the acquisition of L1 also suggests that children undergo a process in
which language is developed from single words in their earliest stages, going through the
combination of individual lexical items, to more complex syntactic structures by the age of
five or six. Based on the poverty of stimulus argument, Language acquisition seems much
like the growth of organs generally; it is something that happens to a child, not that the
child does() (Chomsky 7). However, Chomsky does not discard the importance of
environment in the process of acquisition but, unlike Skinner who regarded it as the
ultimate source of stimuli, he attributes to the environment the function of providing the
child with evidence which will foster UG to acquire a linguistic variety. Linguistic
evidence can be positive or negative, as explained by Cook:

Positive evidence consists of actual sentences of a language. () Negative evidence falls

into two categories, direct and indirect. Direct negative evidence consists of corrections of
the childs mistakes by adults (). Indirect negative evidence is provided by the non-
occurrence of something in the language the child hears. (homepage.ntlworld.com)

For Chomsky, the main goal of the linguist is to define the internalized linguistic system
that allows native speakers to understand and produce language and to distinguish well-
formed from ill-sentences without major efforts and how this knowledge is represented in
the mind. Following Chomsky, we can say that native speakers have a tacit knowledge of
the rules of their language or native competence in their language. Competence is the
speaker-hearers knowledge of his language, while performance is the actual use of
language in concrete situations (Radford 11).

According to Brown, the dichotomy between competence and performance has existed for
centuries, and humans have used the competence-performance distinction in numerous
aspects of life. Competence refers to a persons inner knowledge of facts, systems and
abilities to perform something. On the other hand, performance is the observable
manifestation or realization of a competence. As regards language, competence is ones
underlying knowledge of the language system (the rules of its grammar, its vocabulary,
sound system, etc), while performance is the actual production in speech or writing, or
understanding in reading and listening comprehension of linguistic expressions.

In a Generative Model of grammar, the syntax - the syntactic/computational or phrase

structure component- interacts with the lexicon (a kind of mental dictionary containing
information about all the lexemes of a particular language, i.e the lexical and morphological
aspects of that language). Once relevant words have been taken out of the lexicon, the
syntactic component combines the words together according to a limited set of rules
according to which syntactic structures can be generated. This represents the deep structure
of language (i.e. that abstract rules underlying surface output). These structures become the
input of two other components of the grammar: the logical component and the phonetic
component. The logical component translates the structure into a semantic representation
(i.e the aspects of its meaning), while the phonetic component converts the structure into
phonetic form, telling us how it is pronounced. In turn, these representations interface or
interact with the systems of thought and the systems of speech, which are the ones
responsible for the actual realization of the structure as a sentence, the sentence overtly
manifest in speech or surface structure.

In 1981 Chomsky introduced the Principles and Parameters (P&P) approach (also known as
the Government and Binding Theory), which was a more rationalized grammar framework
of the ideas postulated two decades before, and the basis for the Minimalist Program of the
1990s. The basic idea in this approach is that all natural human languages are constituted
by a finite set of invariant, universal principles, and a finite set of cross linguistic variation,
the parameters, usually binary in nature, i.e. a language will be either turned on or off for a
given parameter. Parameter setting is compared by Chomsky to a set of switches in a switch

We can think of the initial state of the faculty of language as a fixed network
connected to a switch box; the network is constituted of the principles of language,
while the switches are the options to be determined by experience. When the switches
are set one way, we have Swahili; when they are set another way, we have Japanese.
Each possible human language is identified as a particular setting of the switches - a
setting of parameters, in technical terminology (Chomsky 8).

Both of them, the principles and the parameters, are believed to reflect the innate rules of
language, the universal grammar of the mind. The exposure of the child to language only
triggers the parameters to adopt the correct setting, while UG limits the range within which
human languages can vary.
The problem now is how to uncover these universal principles. The assumption is that
since the relevant principles are posited to be universal, it follows that they will affect
every grammatical operation in every language. Thus, detailed analysis of one grammatical
construction in one language could reveal evidence of the operation of principles of UG
(Radford 16). Through extensive and detailed comparative analysis of the English grammar
and the grammars of other highly codified languages, a group of principles and parameters
was identified, such as the locality principle which posits that grammatical operations are
local, or the null subject parameter or pro-drop parameter, which is concerned with the
relationship of government between Subjects and Verbs.

Noam Chomskys ambitious efforts to position Generative Transformational Grammar as a

formal framework of reference for linguistic sciences are reflected in The Minimalist
Program (MP). This, although far from constituting a fully developed theory, is considered
to be Chomskys masterwork in the field of linguistics. MP consists of four articles written
by Chomsky (with the exception of the first article of the collection which was written by
him in co-authorship with Howard Lasnik). The ultimate goal of this program is to provide
guidelines for investigation of UG theory. That is to say, MP is not a description of
linguistic phenomena, but a determined proposal of a new line of research aiming at a
detailed description of UG and its properties:

The Minimalist Program is a major contribution in that it lays the groundwork

for a new stage in syntactic theorizing, in combination with a detailed
presentation of the kind of questions that can be asked, and the kind of results
that may be obtained. (Zwart 226)

MP aims at two conditions in the description of the language system: perfection and
economy. The first one has to do with the idea of an optimally designed computational
system for the faculty of language in human beings which governs the generative processes
at the mental level. This seemingly perfect system proposed by Chomsky is attained to
legibility conditions which enable the system to meet just the minimal conceptual and
phonological needs by connecting the logical and phonological interfaces to the inner
mechanism involved in the generation of linguistic expressions. However, the perfection of
the system is still questioned, even by Chomsky himself, who recognizes that there are
features, besides semantic and phonetic features, which are not interpreted at those
interfaces, namely uninterpretable features. In addition, the displacement property is an
aspect of language which is also considered an imperfection in the system. But Chomsky
supports that these two imperfections might be related: On the assumption of optimal
design, we would expect them to be related, and that seems to be the case: uninterpretable
features are the mechanism that implements the displacement property (12).

Economy, the second condition mentioned above, is related to the minimalist character of
this line of inquiry. In accordance with the simplicity and perfection of the computational
system engaged in language production, Chomsky aims at providing technical and
methodological description which proves efficient to the conditions of explanatory and
descriptive adequacy. This is one of the reasons why the theoretical elements supported in
the first article of the program, The Theory of Principles and Parameters, are discarded
later in the following sections in order not to shed excess baggage (11), in the words of
Chomsky. For example, notions like X-bar theory or Government (among others) are left
behind for their redundancy. As a solution, new simple operations are introduced in the
program in order to reduce the descriptive terminology. These are the operations Merge
and Move: The operation Merge takes two distinct objects X and Y and attaches Y to X.
The operation Move takes a single object X and an object Y that is part of X, and merges Y
to X. (Chomsky 13)

In spite of its theoretical inconclusiveness, the Minimalist Program provides an outline of

a genuine theory of language, really for the first time (Chomsky 8) and it reflects
Chomskys most impressive effort to position the study of language as a recognized formal

Although Generative Grammar has suffered many changes and criticisms along the years, it
is also true that this line of thought has influenced the field of linguistics in an
unprecedented way. As Mitra poses, [a]ll major theoretical issues in linguistics today are
debated in Chomskys terms and every school of linguistics tends to define its position in
relation to his (http://horizons-2000.org/). Nowadays, Chomskys ideas in linguistics are
extended to other technical and scientific fields, such as software design and artificial
intelligence. Furthermore, even among scholars who have not adhered to Chomskys
notions, his program has redefined the nature of the debate as regards the task of the
linguist and provided the linguistic community with a methodological toolkit which no
one working in this field can ignore.

However, one of his most ambitioned goals, to move the study of the mind towards
eventual integration with the biological sciences (Chomsky 6), has not been completely
achieved for the time being. Nevertheless, the mentalistic view of the study of language
together with the logical-mathematical stamp which characterizes the whole of Noam
Chomskys theorizing has gone a step forward in the treatment of language, changing his
object of study from the overt manifestation or a cultural product to the inner mechanism
underlying this human faculty. Time will tell if the unification of linguistics with the
natural sciences be possible:

[M]any mysteries still lie beyond the reach of the form of human inquiry we call
science, a conclusion that we should not find surprising if we consider humans to be
part of the organic world, and perhaps one we should not find distressing either
(Chomsky 18).
Works cited

Brown, Douglas. Principles of language learning and teaching. Harlow: Longman, 2000.

Chomsky, Noam. New Horizons in the study of language and mind. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2000. Print

Cook, Vivian. Chomsky's Universal Grammar and second language learning. Applied
Linguistics 6 (1985): 1-8. Web

Gardner, Howard. Green ideas sleeping furiously. The New York Review of Books 23
March 1985. Web

Mitra, Anil. Linguistic. Anil Mitra PHD, 2003. Web. 15 February 2015.

Radford, Andrew. Minimal Syntax Revisited. Essex: Essex University, 2006. Web

Zwart, Jan-Wouter. Rev. of The Minimalist Program, by Noam Chomsky. Linguistics 34

(1998): 213-226. Print