A Companion to Chomsky
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A Companion to Chomsky

Nicholas Allott, Terje Lohndal, Georges Rey, Nicholas Allott, Terje Lohndal, Georges Rey

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eBook - ePub

A Companion to Chomsky

Nicholas Allott, Terje Lohndal, Georges Rey, Nicholas Allott, Terje Lohndal, Georges Rey

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Widely considered to be one of the most important public intellectuals of our time, Noam Chomsky has revolutionized modern linguistics. His thought has had a profound impact upon the philosophy of language, mind, and science, as well as the interdisciplinary field of cognitive science which his work helped to establish. Now, in this new Companion dedicated to his substantial body of work and the range of its influence, an international assembly of prominent linguists, philosophers, and cognitive scientists reflect upon the interdisciplinary reach of Chomsky's intellectual contributions.

Balancing theoretical rigor with accessibility to the non-specialist, the Companion is organized into eight sections—including the historical development of Chomsky's theories and the current state of the art, comparison with rival usage-based approaches, and the relation of his generative approach to work on linguistic processing, acquisition, semantics, pragmatics, and philosophy of language. Later chapters address Chomsky's rationalist critique of behaviorism and related empiricist approaches to psychology, as well as his insistence upon a "Galilean" methodology in cognitive science. Following a brief discussion of the relation of his work in linguistics to his work on political issues, the book concludes with an essay written by Chomsky himself, reflecting on the history and character of his work in his own words.

A significant contribution to the study of Chomsky's thought, A Companion to Chomsky is an indispensable resource for philosophers, linguists, psychologists, advanced undergraduate and graduate students, and general readers with interest in Noam Chomsky's intellectual legacy as one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century.

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Synoptic Introduction

1NTNU Norwegian University of Science and Technology
2UiT The Arctic University of Norway
3University of Maryland
4University of Oslo

1.1 Introduction

Noam Chomsky is justly famous for his revolutionary contributions to linguistics, psychology and philosophy. He is in his 93rd year, and we thought it high time to provide an overview of the major achievements of his now more than 60‐year‐old research program and its prospects for the future. This is particularly pressing in the light of persistent rumors, encouraged by a number of authors1, that his program has proven bankrupt, “completely wrong,” and has been replaced by various sorts of proposals in general statistical learning and “functionalist/constructionist” linguistic theories (to which we return below).
We think these rumors are seriously mistaken. To be sure, the theory has evolved, displaying the kinds of complexities, revisions and increasing depth typical of any ongoing science. However, Chomsky's ideas and those of others working in his “generativist” framework are at the center of much of the most successful current work on the grammar of human language, and his work has been influential across many other areas of linguistics, including research on processing, language acquisition, language diversity and semantics. His program is one of the most important in the history of linguistics, and it has profound and enduring significance for psychology and philosophy, and indeed for our understanding of human nature generally.
This volume brings together views of Chomsky's legacy from the perspectives of many of his program's foremost practitioners, as well as some of his critics, in the many specific areas his work has influenced, including syntax, semantics, pragmatics, psycholinguistics and language acquisition, as well as philosophy of language, mind and science. It is divided into sections that address the main aspects of his work, each of which we will briefly summarize in this introduction.
Chomsky is, of course, also famous for his political writings. It is important to stress that these bear no direct connection to his linguistics, and lack of space here ruled out an entire section that would begin to do them justice. But we have at the end included one excellent and unusual discussion by Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers of some of the enlightenment ideas that seem to inform both the politics and the linguistics.
All the chapters here are intended to be accessible to people not expert in the topics of the papers. All should be readable by linguists, philosophers, psychologists, and the general public interested in the present status of Chomsky's work in the many areas we have mentioned. Therefore, they do not presuppose extensive technical knowledge of linguistics, although since the papers are short, some do get more technical toward the end.

1.2 Part I: Historical Development of Linguistics

A key feature of Chomsky's work on grammar, present from the beginning, is its concern to explain how, on the basis of exposure to a finite set of utterances, we come to be able to produce and understand a potential infinity of sentences we've never encountered (Chomsky 1955, p. 61; 1957, p. 15). Note the obvious but (when you think about it) remarkable fact that most sentences anyone encounters they have never heard before, and that the potential infinity is systematic, allowing some clauses and other constituents to be nested indefinitely, as, for example, in This is the cat that chased the mouse that…. lived in the house that Jack built but not Cat Jack mouse the in is lived house chased.
In his (1955) and (1957), where he developed an explicit and rigorous framework for analyzing the syntactic structure of human languages generally, Chomsky proposed that the potential infinity of sentences should be accounted for by the system of rules being “recursive” i.e. they can take their own output as input, thus building up structures of arbitrary complexity. In this framework, sentences are not just words that are linearly ordered, but instead, have abstract hierarchical structure.2 He postulated two types of rules: “phrase structure” rules that construct (or “generate”) the underlying structures, and transformational rules that operate on the structures thus generated and (inter alia) explain relations between sentences with related meanings: e.g. between the declarative Eagles can fly and the related polar interrogative Can eagles fly?3
Chomsky (1957) illustrated the need to postulate hierarchical structure and transformations that operate on it with a ground‐breaking analysis of the English auxiliary system. Consider how English polar interrogatives are formed.4 The auxiliary can in Eagles can fly “moves” to the beginning of the sentence, yielding Can eagles fly? English is strict about polar interrogatives starting with an auxiliary. When the declarative doesn't have one – e.g. Eagles fly – the “dummy” auxiliary do is inserted to satisfy the rule, so the interrogative here is Do eagles fly?
But what about more complex sentences with embedded clauses, such as Eagles that fly swim, where Eagles that fly is the subject? The related interrogative is Do eagles that fly swim? And even if you've never read this sentence before, you know (after a moment's thought, perhaps) that it is a question about whether a certain type of eagle (the flying type) swims and it cannot be understood as a question about whether swimming eagles fly. That is, the question auxiliary, do, is somehow connected to the verb swim, not the verb fly. If a sentence is just a list of words, this is hard to explain. Why should do be connected to the verb swim, which is further away than fly?
If we see sentences as hierarchical structures, then the answer is obvious. The structure of Eagles that fly swim is:
(1) [[Eagles [that fly]] swim]
That is, the sentence is made up of a subject [Eagles that fly] combined with a verb [swim], and the subject also has internal structure: it is made up of the noun eagles followed by a relative clause [that fly]. And then the rule for making a polar interrogative is just that the auxiliary do can only question the main verb in the clause (here swim), not a verb embedded in the subject like fly. In somewhat intuitive terms, we can say that fly is too deeply embedded to be “visible” to the rule that forms the interrogative. Equally, we can say that despite the misleading appearance given by linear order, swim is actually “closer” to the auxiliary, because the kind of closeness that matters is closeness in the hierarchical structure, and swim is at the top level, easy to access for a rule that operates on the declarative as a whole structure.
Thus, an adequate theory of English polar interrogatives has to postulate that sentences have hierarchical structure and that syntactic rules are sensitive to this structure (i.e. they are “structure‐dependent”). There's nothing special about English or auxiliaries, though. In effect, all the work done by Chomsky and other generativists on syntax of many languages rests on these assumptions, and its continued, cumulative success has by now made it clear that all human languages have hierarchical structure and structure‐dependent grammatical rules.
Chomsky's interest in the formal aspects of grammars led him to organize formal grammars themselves into a hierarchy, today known as either the Chomsky hierarchy or the Chomsky‐Schützenberger hierarchy (Chomsky & Schützenberger 1963). Tim Hunter's chapter (Chapter 5) provides an extensive introduction to this hierarchy and also discusses its application to human languages, a central research objective in formal linguistics ever since Chomsky's fundamental work on this topic.
However, Chomsky himself quite quickly turned away from this purely formal interest, and from around 1960 began to pursue in print what he always regarded as the more fundamental questions concerning the ...

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