Archive for the ‘Linguistics’ Category

On Chomsky’s Linguistics

It must hve been around the end of Summer that a friend of mine lent me a copy of John Lyons’ Noam Chomsky, part of a(n old) series from Penguin press called “the Modern Masters”. Well, it’s now Spring break and seizing the oportuninty, I’ve just begun to dig in. I’ve always been fascinated with Chomsky, and of course, like the rest of us, I was first introduced to him as a political dissident. Lyons’ book, however, is an exhaustive introduction to Chomsky’s contibutions to linguistics (though he does note the likely connection between chomsky’s work in linguistics and his political views). This is a side of Chomsky’s work that I’ve always wanted to get into, but have, for whatever reason, consistently failed to do.

The book is intended to be a kind of primer, to give the reader a basic enough background that she can go on afterward to Chomsky’s works themselves. Lyons begins by spending the first chapter briefly introducing the field of linguistics (the book was published in 1970, and revised in ’77 – bear that in mind). Here, he details a number of principles important to the study of linguistics:

  • Modern linguistics is a science : That is, it employs a method that can be classified as having the traits typically associated with the various sciences. WIth explicit intention to refine the use of this term in later chapters, Lyons tentatively explains that “a scientific description is one that is carried out systematically on the basis of objectively verifiable observations and within the framework of some general theory appropriate to the data.” This later point, about a general theory, seems to me to be a crucial one. Traditional grammarians were never concerned with offering an explanatory theory of language (in either it’s use, or in it’s acquisition).
  • Linguistics is autonomous from other disciplines : Though there is much connection and interrelatedness between linguistics and other studies such as psychology, philosophy, literary theory etc., nevertheless linguistics, as a science in it’s own right, performs it’s own unique tasks and asks unique questions about language.
  • Linguists maintain that spoken language is “primary” : Most linguists (at least at the time of the book’s publication) regard the range of sounds that can be produced by the “speech-organs”, is the medium in which language is embodied, and that written languages are constructed (if at all) by transfering speech to a secondary visual medium.
  • Syntax, semantics, and phonology are necessary features of the grammar of any language.
  • A linguistic theory should account for the “creativity” of human language : By “creativity” (or alternately “open-endedness”) Lyons means “the capacity that all speakers of a lnaguage have to produce and understand an indefinitely large number of sentences that they have never heard before and that may indeed have never been uttered before by anyone.”

The following chapter sketches a concise layout of the development of linguistics, up to Chomsky. Lyons offers an account of the various strands and scools within linguistics that have had important influence on Chomsky’s own revolutionary theories. In particular, he discusses the work of Franz Boas, and especially of Leonard Bloomfield, who’s thought (via Zellig Harris) was the tradition in which Chomsky was trained, but which he later came to reject.

To be continued…