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Noam Chomsky  

Howard Lasnik and Terje Lohndal

Noam Avram Chomsky is one of the central figures of modern linguistics. He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 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’s work was when he proof-read Harris’s book Methods in Structural Linguistics, published in 1951 but completed already in 1947. Chomsky grew dissatisfied with Structuralism and started to develop his own major idea that syntax and phonology are in part matters 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, retiring in 2002. 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 60 years. His contributions have of course also been heavily criticized, but nevertheless remain crucial to investigations of language. Chomsky’s work has always centered around 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 occurred at the end of the 1970s, when the Principles and Parameters Theory emerged. This theory provides a new understanding of the human language faculty, 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.


Innateness of Language  

Yarden Kedar

A fundamental question in epistemological philosophy is whether reason may be based on a priori knowledge—that is, knowledge that precedes and which is independent of experience. In modern science, the concept of innateness has been associated with particular behaviors and types of knowledge, which supposedly have been present in the organism since birth (in fact, since fertilization)—prior to any sensory experience with the environment. This line of investigation has been traditionally linked to two general types of qualities: the first consists of instinctive and inflexible reflexes, traits, and behaviors, which are apparent in survival, mating, and rearing activities. The other relates to language and cognition, with certain concepts, ideas, propositions, and particular ways of mental computation suggested to be part of one’s biological make-up. While both these types of innatism have a long history (e.g., debate by Plato and Descartes), some bias appears to exist in favor of claims for inherent behavioral traits, which are typically accepted when satisfactory empirical evidence is provided. One famous example is Lorenz’s demonstration of imprinting, a natural phenomenon that obeys a predetermined mechanism and schedule (incubator-hatched goslings imprinted on Lorenz’s boots, the first moving object they encountered). Likewise, there seems to be little controversy in regard to predetermined ways of organizing sensory information, as is the case with the detection and classification of shapes and colors by the mind. In contrast, the idea that certain types of abstract knowledge may be part of an organism’s biological endowment (i.e., not learned) is typically met with a greater sense of skepticism. The most influential and controversial claim for such innate knowledge in modern science is Chomsky’s nativist theory of Universal Grammar in language, which aims to define the extent to which human languages can vary; and the famous Argument from the Poverty of the Stimulus. The main Chomskyan hypothesis is that all human beings share a preprogrammed linguistic infrastructure consisting of a finite set of general principles, which can generate (through combination or transformation) an infinite number of (only) grammatical sentences. Thus, the innate grammatical system constrains and structures the acquisition and use of all natural languages.