Chomsky sets out to answer three questions in Knowledge of Language. First, what constitutes knowledge of language? Second, how is knowledge of language acquired? Finally, how is knowledge of language put to use? In order to answer these questions, Chomsky first lists six sentences to demonstrate the inadequacy of the traditional ideas that language is a relationship between a string of words and meanings and that people learn language by example and analogy:
1. I wonder who the men expected to see them.2. The men expected to see them.3. John ate an apple.4. John ate.5. John is too stubborn to talk to Bill.6. John is too stubborn to talk to.
Example and analogy fail to explain how people know that “the men expected to see them” has two different meanings in the first two sentences. The sentences are almost identical in words and structure, but in the first an unknown person is expected to see the men, while in the second the men expect to see unknown persons. In the fourth sentence, if “apple” is omitted, the meaning that John ate something is still implied, but in the sixth sentence, the omission of “Bill” does not imply that Bill is too stubborn to talk to someone. Therefore, the omission in the sixth sentence cannot be understood by analogy with the omission in the fourth sentence. Chomsky points out that at an early age children understand sentences like these. Furthermore, although almost no one could explain these structures to foreign students of English, they can learn them.
Chomsky notes that similar problems of structure and comprehension exist in other languages. Therefore, there must be innate brain functions that allow people to produce and understand such sentences. Also, Chomsky makes the point that knowledge of a language and use of a language are not synonymous. People with similar knowledge differ in their ability to use it, and impairment in ability to use it does not necessarily mean impairment in knowledge. To answer his first and second principal questions, Chomsky limits himself to the nature of the brain functions, which he calls universal grammar, and to a person’s internal knowledge of a language, which is what he means by the word “language.” He does not attempt to answer the third question (except indirectly, inasmuch as internal language can be studied only as it is expressed in use) until the final chapter on “Orwell’s problem.” By limiting the definition of language to these mental concepts, Chomsky can define knowledge of language as states of mind, which can be studied as parts of psychology and, ultimately, biology. The purpose of Knowledge of Language is to identify these brain functions, or capacities, and their parameters in order to develop the production and comprehension of various languages. He calls the pre-language state “SO” and the language-knowing state “SL.”
The main problem of identifying the universal grammar capacities of the mind is that the principles of the SO state must be general, or inclusive, enough to account for the variety of languages but restricted enough to account for the fact that a specific language can be learned. What Chomsky calls the SO capacities are...
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Following Syntactic Structures, Chomsky’s next books, Current Issues in Linguistic Theory (1964) and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), continued to develop and refine his theories of transformational syntax. With Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought (1966), he began to explore more fully the psychological implications of his work, emphasizing the “mentalist,” or antiempirical, nature of language. Language and Mind (1968), often called his most comprehensible book for beginning students of his work, summarizes the preceding publications and suggests the need for additional study of semantics. Also in that work—specifically, in the chapter “Linguistics Contributions: Future”—he predicts the direction of forthcoming research along the lines of abstract mathematical processes, analogies with mental processes involved in space perception, the search for a universal grammar, and psychological and biological studies of the brain’s functions. His work was expanding the implications of linguistics into areas of philosophy, psychology, and the sciences. Subsequent books—including Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar (1972), The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (1975), Rules and Representations (1980), and Lectures on Government and Binding (1981)—addressed mathematical processes and the search for a universal grammar. It is primarily the theses work of these works and the critical responses to them which Chomsky recapitulates in the four chapters on “Plato’s problem” in Knowledge of Language.
In following the lines of semantic research, Chomsky became increasingly interested in the pragmatic use of semantics in politics and government. This interest led to several books in the 1970’s on political and military semantics and finally to participation in the anti-Vietnam War movement and critiques of political policy. Chomsky’s interest in political semantics is only mentioned in Knowledge of Language, in his treatment of “Orwell’s problem” in chapter 5.
By the time of writing Knowledge of Language, Chomsky’s adoption of semantic research by fellow linguists and his progress in semantics in his own theories had answered the early criticisms that his work was too limited to syntactic considerations. It was his mentalist philosophy that continued to provoke the criticism that he addresses in Knowledge of Language. This book’s importance rests on Chomsky’s summary of his later theories about semantics and universal grammar and on his rationale for the mentalistic interpretation of knowledge.