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Noam Chomsky

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Noam Chomsky

Post by offline on Tue Jan 11 2011, 09:46

Avram Noam Chomsky (b. December 7, 1928) is the Institute Professor Emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chomsky is credited with the creation of the theory of generative grammar, often considered to be the most significant contribution to the field of theoretical linguistics in the 20th century. He also helped spark the cognitive revolution in psychology through his review of B.F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior, in which he challenged the behaviorist approach to the study of mind and language dominant in the 1950s. His naturalistic approach to the study of language has also affected the philosophy of language and mind (see Harman, Fodor). He is also credited with the establishment of the so-called Chomsky hierarchy, a classification of formal languages in terms of their generative power.
Outside of academia, Chomsky is far more widely known for his political activism, and for his criticismof the foreign policy of the United States and other governments. Chomsky describes himself as a libertarian socialistand a sympathizer of anarcho-syndicalism (he is a member of the IWW). He is generally considered to be a key intellectual figure within the left wing of the United States politics. According to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, between 1980 and 1992 Chomsky was cited as a source more often than any other living scholar, and the eighth most cited scholar overall.
Biography

Chomsky was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Hebrew scholar and IWW member William Chomsky, who was from a town in Ukraine. His mother, Elsie Chomsky (née Simonofsky), came from what is now Belarus, but unlike her husband she grew up in the United States and spoke "ordinary New York English". Their first language was Yiddish, but Chomsky says it was "taboo" in his family to speak it. He describes his family as living in a sort of "Jewish ghetto”, split into a "Yiddish side" and "Hebrew side", with his family aligning with the latter and bringing him up "immersed in Hebrew culture and literature". Chomsky also describes tensions he personally experienced with Irish Catholics and anti-semitism in the mid 1930s stating "I don't like to say it but I grew up with a kind of visceral fear of Catholics, I knew it was irrational and got over it but it was just the street experience"
Chomsky remembers the first article he wrote was at the age of ten about the threat of the spread of fascism, following the fall of Barcelona. From the age of twelve or thirteen, he identified more fully with anarchist politics
A graduate of Central High School of Philadelphia (184th Class), in 1945 Chomsky began studying philosophy and linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, learning from philosophers C. West Churchman and Nelson Goodman and linguist Zellig Harris. Harris's teaching included his discovery of transformations as a mathematical analysis of language structure (mappings from one subset to another in the set of sentences). Chomsky subsequently reinterpreted these as operations on the productions of a context-free grammar (derived from Post production systems). Harris's political views were instrumental in shaping those of Chomsky.
In 1949, Chomsky married linguist Carol Schatz. They have two daughters, Aviva (1957) and Diane (1960) and a son, Harry (1967).
Chomsky received his Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955. He conducted much of his doctoral research during four years at Harvard University as a Harvard Junior Fellow. In his doctoral thesis, he began to develop some of his linguistic ideas, elaborating on them in his 1957 book Syntactic Structures, perhaps his best-known work in the field of linguistics.

Chomsky joined the staff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955 and in 1961 was appointed full professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics (now the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy). From 1966 to 1976 he held the Ferrari P. Ward Professorship of Modern Languages and Linguistics. In 1976 he was appointed Institute Professor. Chomsky has been teaching at MIT continuously for the last 50 years.
It was during this time that Chomsky became more publicly engaged in politics: he became one of the leading opponents of the Vietnam War with the publication of his essay "The Responsibility of Intellectuals" in The New York Review of Books in 1967. Since that time, Chomsky has become well known for his political views, speaking on politics all over the world, and writing numerous books. His far-reaching criticism of US foreign policy and the legitimacy of US power has made him a controversial figure. He has a devoted following among the left, but he has also come under increasing criticism from liberals as well as from the right, particularly because of his response to the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Chomsky has in the past been given various death threats because of his criticisms of U.S foreign policy. He was on a list created by Theodore Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, of planned targets and during the period that Kaczynski was at large Chomsky had all of his mail checked for explosives. Chomsky also states that he frequently receives undercover police protection, in particular whilst on the MIT campus, though Chomsky himself states that he does not agree to the police protection
Despite his criticisms, Chomsky has stated that he continues to reside in the United States because he believes it remains the greatest country in the world .

Contributions to linguistics
Syntactic Structures was a distillation of his book Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (1955, 75) in which he introduces transformational grammars. The theory takes utterances (sequences of words) to have a syntax which can be (largely) characterised by a formal grammar; in particular, a Context-free grammar extended with transformational rules. Children are hypothesised to have an innate knowledge of the basic grammatical structure common to all human languages (i.e. they assume that any language which they encounter is of a certain restricted kind). This innate knowledge is often referred to as universal grammar. It is argued that modelling knowledge of language using a formal grammar accounts for the "productivity" of language: with a limited set of grammar rules and a finite set of terms, humans are able to produce an infinite number of sentences, including sentences no one has previously said.
The Principles and Parameters approach (P&P) — developed in his Pisa 1979 Lectures, later published as Lectures on Government and Binding (LGB) — make strong claims regarding universal grammar: that the grammatical principles underlying languages are innate and fixed, and the differences among the world's languages can be characterized in terms of parameter settings in the brain (such as the pro-drop parameter, which indicates whether an explicit subject is always required, as in English, or can be optionally dropped, as in Spanish), which are often likened to switches. (Hence the term principles and parameters, often given to this approach.) In this view, a child learning a language need only acquire the necessary lexical items (words, grammatical morphemes, and idioms), and determine the appropriate parameter settings, which can be done based on a few key examples.
Proponents of this view argue that the pace at which children learn languages is inexplicably rapid, unless children have an innate ability to learn languages. The similar steps followed by children all across the world when learning languages, and the fact that children make certain characteristic errors as they learn their first language, whereas other seemingly logical kinds of errors never occur (and, according to Chomsky, should be attested if a purely general, rather than language-specific, learning mechanism were being employed), are also pointed to as motivation for innateness.
More recently, in his Minimalist Program(1995), while retaining the core concept of "principles and parameters", Chomsky attempts a major overhaul of the linguistic machinery involved in the LGB model, stripping from it all but the barest necessary elements, while advocating a general approach to the architecture of the human language faculty that emphasises principles of economy and optimal design , reverting to a derivational approach to generation, in contrast with the largely representational approach of classic P&P.
Chomsky's ideas have had a strong influence on researchers investigating the acquisition of language in children, though some researchers who work in this area today do not support Chomsky's theories, often advocating emergentist or connectionist theories reducing language to an instance of general processing mechanisms in the brain.


Generative grammar
The Chomskyan approach towards syntax, often termed generative grammar, though quite popular, has been challenged by many, especially those working outside the United States. Chomskyan syntactic analyses are often highly abstract, and are based heavily on careful investigation of the border between grammatical and ungrammatical constructs in a language. Such grammaticality judgments can only be made accurately by a native speaker, however, and thus for pragmatic reasons such linguists often focus on their own native languages or languages in which they are fluent, usually Spanish, English, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Japanese or one of the Chinese languages. However, as Chomsky has said:
The first application of the approach was to Modern Hebrew, a fairly detailed effort in 1949–50. The second was to the native American language Hidatsa (the first full-scale generative grammar), mid-50s. The third was to Turkish, our first Ph.D. dissertation, early 60s. After that research on a wide variety of languages took off. MIT in fact became the international center of work on Australian Aboriginal languages within a generative framework thanks to the work of Ken Hale, who also initiated some of the most far-reaching work on Native American languages, also within our program; in fact the first program that brought native speakers to the university to become trained professional linguists, so that they could do work on their own languages, in far greater depth than had ever been done before. That has continued. Since that time, particularly since the 1980s, it constitutes the vast bulk of work on the widest typological variety of languages.
Sometimes generative grammar analyses break down when applied to languages which have not previously been studied, and many changes in generative grammar have occurred due to an increase in the number of languages analyzed. It is claimed that linguistic universals in semantics have become stronger rather than weaker over time. Linguistic universal in syntax, which is the core of Chomsky's claim is still highly disputed. Still, Richard Kayne's suggested in the 1990s that all languages have an underlying Subject-Verb-Object word order. One of the prime motivations behind an alternative approach, the functional-typological approach or linguistic typology (often associated with Joseph Greenberg), is to base hypotheses of linguistic universals on the study of as wide a variety of the world's languages as possible, to classify the variation seen, and to form theories based on the results of this classification. The Chomskyan approach is too in-depth and reliant on native speaker knowledge to follow this method, though it has over time been applied to a broad range of languages.

Chomsky hierarchy
Chomsky is famous for investigating various kinds of formal languages and whether or not they might be capable of capturing key properties of human language. His Chomsky hierarchy partitions formal grammars into classes, or groups, with increasing expressive power, i.e., each successive class can generate a broader set of formal languages than the one before. Interestingly, Chomsky argues that modelling some aspects of human language requires a more complex formal grammar (as measured by the Chomsky hierarchy) than modeling others. For example, while a regular language is powerful enough to model English morphology, it is not powerful enough to model English syntax. In addition to being relevant in linguistics, the Chomsky hierarchy has also become important in computer science (especially in compiler construction and automata theory).
His best-known work in phonology is The Sound Pattern of English, written with Morris Halle. This work is considered outdated (though it has recently been reprinted), and Chomsky does not publish on phonology anymore.

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