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Chomsky, Chapter 1

1280px-pieter_bruegel_the_elder_-_the_tower_of_babel_vienna_-_google_art_project_-_editedThe humanities book club is currently reading Noam Chomsky’s Aspects of the Theory of Syntax first published in 1965. The following is a summary written by Mathias Cronjäger of the first chapter:

The first chapter of Chomsky’s book sets the stage for the subsequent discussion in the three later chapters of the book. Whereas he will later go into more technical detail Chomsy here paints with a rather broad brush. This frustrated some members of the group who expressed a desire to see concrete examples and exact statements. In the chapter, Chomsky outlines what he means by grammar (a model of how an idealised speaker-listener processes language), and introduces  a range of critical distinctions (such as linguistic performance versus linguistic competence). In terms of grammatical structures, he is keen to distinguish the surface structure of sentences (structural rules about how they are pronounced and expressed) from their deep structure (structural rules for how their semantic content is organized and how to interpret them). He gives a simple example of two English sentences (“I persuaded John to leave” and “I expected John to leave”) and proceeds to demonstrate that they have very different different deep structure in spite of their similar surface structure.

A further distinction made is between descriptive and explanatory theories of grammar. A descriptive account of language is just a set of rules for producing valid sentences in a language (a grammar), or a set of such, which reproduces the structure of a language in a manner that conforms to the linguistic intuitions of native speakers. An explanatory theory of language goes further by also assigning each grammar of a language a notion of “simplicity”, which accounts for what grammar gives the simplest account of a corpus of linguistic data. Such an explanatory theory is not just a theory of language structure, but also one of language acquisition. This is because such a theory can then explain why someone learning a language internalises one set of rules (the simpler ones) over another potential set of rules. The correct notion of “simplicity” in this context is therefore one that corresponds to how humans internally process language. After having introduced this notion of simplicity, Chomsky proceeds to spend a great deal of effort outlining why there is noting simple about determining which measure of simplicity actually accounts for how language acquisition works in humans.

This chapter also includes discussion of linguistic universals; a topic where Chomsky has strong opinions and with which he is often associated. He contrasts the empiricist position (that the only mental procedures universal to all language acquisition is our general capacity for inductive reasoning) with the rationalist position (that we are all born with some basic mental procedures specifically for acquiring and processing language). To put it mildly, Chomsky is not convinced by the arguments of the empiricists. The rationalist position holding true would imply the existence of universal properties that all languages posses: discovering and formalising these into a universal grammar is a project that motivates much of Chomsky’s theory-building. In particular, it is the reason why he is not content to just give an account of English or German language use: he wants to find structures that all languages share (being able to do so would also lend empirical support to the rationalist position).


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