Chomsky, Noam

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Chomsky, Noam

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).

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