in Linguistic Theories

Noam Chomsky and Generative Grammar

You can read about Noam Chomsky and Generative Grammar on Wikipedia or in  linguistics textbooks but I want to explain why I’m studying Chomsky and why his Generative Grammar is important for my project.

In the late 1950s, Noam Chomsky revolutionized linguistics by applying formal languages, as defined in mathematics, to the study of natural languages. Chomsky’s initial theory, Transformational Grammar, posited two representations for sentences in a language: a deep structure and a surface structure. The deep structure corresponds to the semantic meaning of a sentence, the representation we use for reasoning. The surface structure corresponds to the phonological language that we actually speak or hear. The grammar defines a set of transformational rules that map sentences between these two forms. So theories of grammar are central to the understanding of how natural languages work.

In the 1960s and 1970s Chomsky’s approach was questioned by many of his students and colleagues leading to what has been called “The Linguistics Wars”. A number of alternative theories of grammar branched off including Lexical Functional Grammar (LFG) and Head Driven Phrase Structure Grammar (HPSG). Chomsky refined his theory since then. His current approach is called The Minimalist Program or Minimalist Syntax. Chomsky’s theories came to be called Mainstream Generative Grammar. At this point I don’t know enough about Mainstream Generative Grammar to have an opinion about its validity. So my starting point has to be the study of Chomsky’s Mainstream Generative Grammar.

One alternative theory I find intriguing is The Parallel Architecture proposed by Ray Jackendoff. Jackendoff asserts that the Parallel Architecture preserves several important aspects of Chomsky’s Mainstream Generative Grammar but aligns better with recent discoveries in cognitive science. Jackendoff also rejects the complexity of Chomsky’s latest approach, Minimalist Syntax. The book Simpler Syntax, by Peter Culicover and Ray Jackendoff, examines the Parallel Architecture in detail. But Simpler Syntax contrasts The Parallel Architecture with Mainstream Generative Grammar so an understanding of Chomsky’s approach is still required.

I am starting my studies with the book, Syntax, A Generative Introduction by Andrew Carnie.  The book is an introductory textbook on syntactic theory aimed at upper division undergraduates and it is based primarily on Principles and Parameters, the predecessor to Chomsky’s Minimalist Program.  Carnie also provides introductory chapters on Lexical Functional Grammar and Head Driven Phrase Structure Grammar on his book’s website. In the preface, Carnie admits glossing over thornier issues of linguistic theory so I will need to follow Carnie’s Syntax with a second book. Originally, I started reading Minimalist Syntax, Exploring the Structure of English by Andrew Radford but found this book a bit too dense for a first book on Generative Grammar. Carnie actually recommends Radford’s book for further study and I plan to return to it after completing Carnie’s Syntax.

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