Who Is Noam Chomsky, and What Is His Contribution to Linguistics?

December 2, 2010 / by Lilia Mouma


As a language-learning company, we must confess that we're more than a little in love with American linguist and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky. December 7th is Noam Chomsky’s birthday, so we'd like to share with you his contributions to the scientific field of linguistics.


Who is Noam Chomsky?

Noam Chomsky is known as the father of modern linguistics. Back in 1957, Chomsky with his revolutionary book Syntactic Structures laid the foundation of his non-empiricist theory of language. Two years later, with his review of B. F. Skinner’ Verbal Behavior, he showed that Behaviorism, the dominant approach to language at the time, was no longer to be the way of studying language.


What is linguistics?

Chomsky’s major contribution to studying language was that he made it scientific. He demonstrated that despite the observable variety of the world’s languages, there is in reality only one language. All other languages — dead, still spoken, or even future ones — are variations of a single theme. After Chomsky, linguistics is defined as 'the scientific study of language,' 'language' in the singular.


Why does linguistics matter?

Linguistics, much like the other sciences, has the following three characteristics:

1. It provides a general theory that explains why languages are the way they are: there is a universal basis, or faculty, in the mind, innate in every human and dedicated to language, that incorporates the basic principles, and what all of us do while learning our mother tongue at a tender age is setting values to these principles based on the data we get by exposure to an unorganized and random set of utterances via interaction with other people. 

2. The theory then generates testable hypotheses, rules, and falsifiable predictions about what occurs in a language and hence in all human languages. The data used to test these hypotheses are native speakers’ intuitions on the grammaticality and ungrammaticality of the sentences of their language: what we study is what people tacitly know about their language. We do not study if sentences abide by the rules of grammar, but whether sentences can be explained with the hypotheses we make.

To give an example, we do not study why 'He love mangoes' is incorrect; rather, we investigate why 'John eats occasionally mangos' is not a well-formed sentence in English while it is perfectly grammatical in Greek. What prevents the adverb 'occasionally' from being placed between the verb 'eats' and the noun 'mangos' in English but not in Greek? By examining the native speakers’ tacit knowledge we get a better understanding of how the mind works: 'language is a window into the mind.' 

3. These hypotheses change, get refined or are even abandoned when they cannot accommodate the data, and that’s the way we move on in our search for the truth in language learning.


In linguistics, as in the other sciences, we aim at explaining some data and not everything, making small steps at a time. Many steps have been made since 1957, but we still have a long way to go. However, we have a solid path to follow thanks to Chomsky. 

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Topics: Language Learning and Culture

Lilia Mouma

Written by Lilia Mouma

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