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date: 28 March 2017

Noam Chomsky

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

Noam Avram Chomsky is one of the central figures of modern linguistics. He was born in Philadelphia on December 7, 1928. In 1945, Chomsky enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania, where he met Zellig Harris (1909–1992), a leading Structuralist, through their shared political interests. His first encounter with Harris’ work was when he proof-read Harris’ book Methods in Structural Linguistics, published in 1951 but already completed in 1947. Chomsky grew dissatisfied with Structuralism and started to develop his own major idea that syntax in part is a matter of abstract representations. This was soon combined with a psychobiological view of language as a unique part of the mind/brain.

Chomsky spent 1951–1955 as a Junior Fellow of the Harvard Society of Fellows, after which he joined the faculty at MIT, under the sponsorship of Morris Halle. He was promoted to full professor of Foreign Languages and Linguistics in 1961, appointed Ferrari Ward Professor of Linguistics in 1966, and Institute Professor in 1976. As of 2016, Chomsky is still remarkably active, publishing, teaching, and lecturing across the world.

In 1967, both the University of Chicago and the University of London awarded him honorary degrees, and since then he has been the recipient of scores of honors and awards. In 1988, he was awarded the Kyoto Prize in basic science, created in 1984 in order to recognize work in areas not included among the Nobel Prizes. These honors are all a testimony to Chomsky’s influence and impact in linguistics and cognitive science more generally over the past sixty years. His contributions have, of course, been heavily criticized, but nevertheless remain crucial to investigations of language.

Chomsky’s work has always centered on the same basic questions and assumptions, especially that human language is an inherent property of the human mind. The technical part of his research has continuously been revised and updated. In the 1960s phrase structure, grammars were developed into what is known as the Standard Theory, which transformed into the Extended Standard Theory and X-bar theory in the 1970s. A major transition happened at the end of the 1970s, when the Principles and Parameters Theory emerged. This theory provides a new understanding of the grammar, focusing on the invariant principles common to all human languages, and the points of variation known as parameters. Its recent variant, the Minimalist Program, pushes the approach even further in asking why grammars are structured the way they are.