Chomsky and Transformational-generative Grammar
Noam Chomsky and transformational-generative theory
In the quest for the development of a way of studying the nature of language in a scientific manner, linguists have proposed a number of different models. Zelig Harris proposed the concept of a process called transformation where the order of the constituents of a sentence could be changed, deleted, substituted or added in order to account for the way a language was constructed, rather than the inadequate earlier methods of syntactic analysis of the descriptive linguists.
Noam Chomsky was a student of Harris, and, drawing on his knowledge of logic and mathematics, in 1957 he postulated the transformational-generative theory in order to construct models that would represent the psychological process of language.
Like the descriptivists, Chomsky held that the proper object of linguistic study is the native speaker's oral language, which he extended to include grammatical intuition and knowledge. He referred to this as "competence," which involves the ability to perceive the structure of sentences, to recognize paraphrases, and to detect ambiguity. He held that this ability is what enables people to produce and understand an infinite number of sentences in that language; he called this "performance."
Chomsky was interested in constructing a grammar that would generate the structures that constitute the individual's linguistic competence, the native speaker's reliance on linguistic intuition and creativity, and then be able to test the results against actual samples of the language.
Transformationalists and Descriptivists
Transformationalists differ from descriptivists in several ways.
- They first study the underlying language system, defining competence in terms of the rules a mature speaker follows in producing and understanding sentences.
- They also differ in that transformational analysis assumes that all languages are basically similar in the deep, underlying structure, and aims to discover linguistic universals among the sentences of all languages.
- They state that there are two levels for each sentence: a deep structure which represents the meaning, and a surface structure which represents the sound.
- One of their main contributions was to show formally the relationship of sentences which were alike, for example, active and passive forms which are related in that both are derived from the same deep structure.
The Advantages of Transformational Grammar
Transformationalists hold that rules should generate structural descriptions for all the grammatical sentences of a language, and for no ungrammatical ones. Their work has also helped to overcome the lengthy rules of the descriptivists including their determination to concentrate on the gathering of vast quantities of the data of a target language.
Although there have been substantial changes in Chomsky's system for a transformational-generative grammar over the years since it was first proposed, his contribution is seen as important in the discipline of linguistics and Chomsky himself is seen as an important system-builder. In the light of what had gone before over many centuries, he constructed a more complete picture of the nature of language and of the language-user.
- The History of Grammar
A brief look at language study and grammar, including traditional types of grammars and universal grammar as seen by grammarians and linguists.
- Descriptive Grammar
Discusses the limitations of a prescriptive grammar and the development of a more liberal approach that resulted in a variety of descriptive grammars as linguistics developed into a separate discipline.
- Grammar and Structural Analysis
Structuralists and Descriptivists had different approaches to the study of grammar and this can be especially seen in the work of Bloomfield and Chomsky.
- Descriptive Versus Prescriptive Grammars
This is the final article on linguistics and the changes that have come about between descriptive and prescriptive ways of looking at grammar.