Avram Noam Chomsky

views updated

Avram Noam Chomsky


American Linguist and Philosopher

Noam Chomsky has had a profound and lasting effect on the study of linguistics and language acquisition in this century. Prior to his work, the focus in linguistics (the study of human speech patterns) was based on classification, rather than on exploration for the universal and biological basis of language.

Chomsky was born December 7, 1928, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father fled from Russia in 1913 to avoid being drafted into the Czarist army. In America the elder Chomsky supported himself by working in sweatshops, eventually he graduating from John Hopkins University. He wrote many books on the Hebrew language and was an influential teacher, administrator, and champion of the establishment of a Jewish state.

Chomsky's parents had an enormous impact on their son. From an early age Noam and his brother were immersed in the revival of the Jewish culture and the Hebrew language. Young Noam studied Hebrew literature with his father. He spent time in Hebrew school and later became a Hebrew teacher himself.

Chomsky was introduced to linguistics by his father. He studied under the linguist Zellig Harris at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his bachelor's (1949), master's, and Ph.D. degrees there. He taught modern languages and linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1955 at the age of 33.

As professor of linguistics, Chomsky pioneered new theories of language acquisition and how speakers of specific languages recognize and utilize grammar and words in order to be understood. Since the beginning of the 1960s, research on language acquisition has been influenced by Chomsky's innovative ideas. Although his work is controversial, it spawned many exciting theories and ideas about how we acquire speech and language.

All normal children everywhere learn language. This ability is not dependent on race, social class, geography, or intelligence. Before the 1960s, scientists thought that language was acquired by structured learning: training, and repetition of words, sentence structure, and grammatical guidelines.

Chomsky rejected that view, proposing instead that human beings have an innate ability to understand their particular language and do not need to be taught the underlying grammatic structure. This innate capacity explains how children are able to understand and construct complex sounds, words, and sentences that they may have never heard before.

Chomsky pioneered the idea that the logical structure of language may be universal, reflecting an unconscious structure of the mind. He described this as transformational-generative grammar, a system of language analysis that recognizes the relationships among the various elements of a sentence.

People recognize the grammatical sentences of their language and know how various words must be arranged to make sense to the listener or reader. Everyone is capable of producing and understanding an unlimited number of new sentences never before spoken or heard. In analyzing this innate ability to construct generative grammars, Chomsky distinguished between two levels of structure in sentences: surface structures, which are the actual words and structures used, and deep structures, which carry a sentence's underlying meaning.

Listeners or readers are able to create and interpret sentences by generating the words of surface structures from deep structures according to a specific protocol Chomsky called transformational rules. He argued that these are universal in all languages and correspond to innate, genetically inherited patterns in the human brain.

Chomsky has published more than 70 books and more than 1,000 articles covering a broad range of topics including linguistics, philosophy, politics, and psychology. In 1988 he was awarded the Kyoto Prize, the Japanese equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Chomsky is also well respected as a social activist and critic. He spoke out publicly against the Vietnam War. He continues to teach and write on the interface of human beings, science, and technology.