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Language and Linguistics

The Transformational Generative Insurrection

Few would disagree that Noam Chomsky (b. 1928) was the dominant figure in linguistics from the late 1950s through the 1970s. Two early works, Syntactic Structures (1957) and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), laid the foundations and set the tone for Chomsky's linguistic project that has lasted (albeit in increasingly attenuated versions) into the twenty-first century. From the very beginning of his career, Chomsky adopted a highly combative stance against his intellectual and ideological opponents. Since Chomsky is a clever debater, he usually wins his arguments, and this has been one of the main factors in his meteoric rise. Chomsky's highly polemical orientation spills over into many nonlinguistic fields. Although he has been remarkably prolific writing about language-related matters, Chomsky's publications on a wide range of politically sensitive topics would appear to be still more numerous.

In general, Chomsky is favorably disposed to traditional grammar but is hostile to structural linguistics. His hostility to the structuralists seems to stem from their emphasis on anthropologically grounded fieldwork and formal description of numerous languages, which is in stark contrast to his own psycho-philosophical orientation and nearly exclusive attention to English. Chomsky is opposed to reliance on what he calls "discovery procedures" and "objective methods," opining that linguists are simply awash in the particularities of data unless they possess profound notions of linguistic theory to guide them. For Chomsky, theory is clearly more important than data, intuition more desirable than induction. Chomsky is an introspective mentalist who believes that the methodological purity and attention to minutiae of the structuralists and behaviorists prevents them from asking the big questions about language that really count.

Chomsky posits a perfectly competent, ideal speaker-hearer whose actual linguistic performance may display deviations from rules but who is capable of correctly analyzing the underlying processes of language. This accounts for his well-known concept of generative grammar, a synonym for transformational grammar, which is made up of formal operations that are said to mediate between the deep structure underlying linguistic utterances and the surface structure of the sentences that are actually produced by a speaker. Transformational-generative grammar (hereafter TGG) is asserted to be a universal grammar that is supposedly innate in all human beings.

As a complement (or rather supplement) parallel to the mastery of internalized generative grammar of the individual, Chomsky posits an externalized universal grammar that possesses profound regularities. Although he is strongly in favor of determining linguistic universals, Chomsky is vague about how this is to be accomplished. Chomskyan linguistics also touches upon other areas, such as Cartesian rationalism (to reinforce his faith in innateness), and has evolved into other forms, most notably government and binding theory, which focuses on modularity of syntax. Yet all of the elaborations and refinements of the 1970s and 1980s only serve to underscore the concerns that Chomsky had already embraced in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1990s, while still residually influential, Chomsky's linguistics program had essentially run its course and was badly fragmented in its second generation. A few younger disciples, such as Steven Pinker, however, still carry the torch.

The last main restatement of Chomsky's theories was his minimalist program that followed government-binding theory and principles and parameters theory. This final designation gives the distinct impression that the Chomskyan insurrection has at last imploded, ending with a whimper, not with a bang.

Chomsky claims that one of the chief inspirations for his generative grammar was the concept of language as "activity" (Greek energeia) rather than as a "(static) entity" (Greek ergon) waiting to be surveyed in its entirety. This view of the dynamic, "continuously self-generating" processes inherent in language is attributed to Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835) and has become a linchpin of what is now called ethnolinguistics.

Chomsky was a student of Zellig Harris (1909–1992) and borrowed extensively from the analytical procedures that the latter devised. To be sure, it was Harris who had developed the concept of linguistic transformation, which he borrowed from mathematics, and this was the crux of the entire Chomskyan enterprise. The distinction was that Harris worked within the structuralist paradigm, whereas Chomsky rejected it. Chomsky began by giving the impression that he was following Harris's still fundamentally Bloomfieldian approach, but soon made clear that it was his intention to extend it. Not long thereafter, he launched attacks against all of the main pillars of American structuralism: positivism, behaviorism, and descriptivism.

The most vulnerable was behaviorism, which maintains that psychology should be based solely on observable, measurable phenomena. Bloomfield applied these guidelines to linguistics, holding that language researchers should concentrate on observable, precisely describable verbal behavior and refrain from unnecessary theorizing. In 1957, the Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904–1990) published Verbal Behavior, which attempted to interpret language in strictly behaviorist terms. In that same year, Chomsky penned a harsh denunciation of Skinner's book, with the result that many young linguists were persuaded to embark upon theorizing as a safer path than that of mere observation, description, and measurement.

But all was not peace and calm within Chomsky's own camp, which we may refer to as transformational-generative linguistics (TGL). Disputes had begun to erupt within TGL already during the 1960s and 1970s, some of them quite nasty. There is no point in chronicling the vitriolic arguments that took place during this period. Suffice it to say that, at base, many of them had to do with how to handle linguistic structures that were larger and more complicated than the phrase.

The most productive departure from the TGL camp is that of George Lakoff, who, together with Mark Johnson and his collaborators, has led the development of conceptual metaphor and cognitive linguistics. Lakoff was one of the early generative semanticists who questioned the validity of syntactic deep structure. This led him to formulate metaphor as a schema in the Kantian sense. One of the most fascinating aspects of cognitive linguistics and conceptual metaphor theory is that it is data-driven, not theory-driven. That is to say, it has to be (empirically) responsible to meaning making as it occurs in human communication, which is why meaning exists in the first place. Consequently, grammar cannot be conceived of as an algorithmic process that proceeds regardless of the constituent meanings. Furthermore, if human meaning making uses the same elements and principles (namely, conceptual metaphor and blending), then all aspects of human creation—literature, religion, history, philosophy, art, music, science, even mathematics—are constituted by these elements and principles, and subject to analysis through them. Cognitive linguistics, conceptual metaphor, and conceptual blending have been adopted by a second generation of students who are every bit as enthusiastic about it as were the second generation of adherents to TGG back in the 1960s and 1970s. They believe that this new, interdisciplinary approach to language will revolutionize our understanding of ourselves and our world. The fact that their numbers are growing impressively indicates that, to a certain extent, they may well be right.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Kabbalah Mysticism - Types Of Kabbalah to LarynxLanguage and Linguistics - Philosophers, Grammarians, And Neogrammarians, The Structuralist Era, The Transformational Generative Insurrection, Other Voices