Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky (nōm chŏm´skē), 1928–, educator and linguist, b. Philadelphia. Chomsky, who has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1955, developed a theory of transformational (sometimes called generative or transformational-generative) grammar that revolutionized the scientific study of language. He first set out his abstract analysis of language in his doctoral dissertation (1955) and Syntactic Structures (1957). Instead of starting with minimal sounds, as the structural linguists had done, Chomsky began with the rudimentary or primitive sentence; from this base he developed his argument that innumerable syntactic combinations can be generated by means of a complex series of rules.

According to transformational grammar, every intelligible sentence conforms not only to grammatical rules peculiar to its particular language, but also to "deep structures," a universal grammar underlying all languages and corresponding to an innate capacity of the human brain. Chomsky and other linguists who built on his work formulated transformational rules, which transform a sentence with a given grammatical structure (e.g., "John saw Mary" ) into a sentence with a different grammatical structure but the same essential meaning ( "Mary was seen by John" ). Transformational linguistics has been influential in psycholinguistics, particularly in the study of language acquisition by children. In the 1990s Chomsky formulated a "Minimalist Program" in an attempt to simplify the symbolic representations of the language facility. Chomsky is a prolific author whose principal linguistic works after Syntactic Structures include Current Issues in Linguistic Theory (1964), The Sound Pattern of English (with Morris Halle, 1968), Language and Mind (1972), Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar (1972), Knowledge of Language (1986), Language and Thought (1993), and Architecture of Language (2000).

Chomsky also has wide-ranging political interests. An early and outspoken critic of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and a vociferous opponent of the Iraq war, he has written extensively on many political issues from a generally left-wing point of view. Among his political writings are American Power and the New Mandarins (1969), Peace in the Middle East? (1974), Manufacturing Consent (with E. S. Herman, 1988), Profit over People (1998), Rogue States (2000), Hegemony or Survival (2003), and Failed States (2006). Chomsky's controversial best seller 9-11 (2002) is an analysis of the World Trade Center attack that, while denouncing the atrocity of the event, traces its origins to the actions and power of the United States.

See interviews with D. Barsamian (1992, 1994, 1996, and 2001); biography by R. F. Barsky (1997); studies by F. D'Agostino (1985), C. P. Otero (1988 and 1998), R. Salkie (1990), M. Achbar, ed. (1994), M. Rai (1995), V. J. Cook (1996), P. Wilkin (1997), J. McGilvray (1999), N. V. Smith (1999), A. Edgley (2000), H. Lasnik (2000), and J. Bricmont and J. Franck, ed. (2009); Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (film by P. Wintonick and M. Achbar, 1992) and Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times (film by J. Junkerman, 2002).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Social and Political Thought of Noam Chomsky
Alison Edgley.
Routledge, 2000
Chomsky's Minimalism
Pieter A. M. Seuren.
Oxford University Press, 2004
Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use
Noam Chomsky.
Praeger, 1986
Rules and Representations
Noam Chomsky.
Columbia University Press, 2005
Toward a History of American Linguistics
E. F.K. Koerner.
Routledge, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Noam Chomsky's Readings of Saussure after 1961;" Chap. 8 "The 'Chomskyan Revolution' and its Historiography"
Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies
Noam Chomsky.
South End Press, 1989
Year 501: The Conquest Continues
Noam Chomsky.
South End Press, 1993
September 11
Noam Chomsky.
Allen & Unwin, 2001
Rogue States: The Rule of Force in World Affairs
Noam Chomsky.
South End Press, 2000
The Culture of Terrorism
Noam Chomsky.
South End Press, 1988
Powers and Prospects: Reflections on Human Nature and the Social Order
Noam Chomsky.
South End Press, 1996
What's Within?: Nativism Reconsidered
Fiona Cowie.
Oxford University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: "Chomskyan Nativism: The Core Claims" begins on p. 151
Talking about a Revolution: Interviews with Michael Albert, Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Bell Hooks, Peter Kwong, Winona LaDuke, Manning Marable, Urvashi Vaid, and Howard Zinn
South End Press Collective.
South End Press, 1998
Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers: From Structuralism to Postmodernity
John Lechte.
Routledge, 1994
Librarian’s tip: "Noam Chomsky" begins on p. 49
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