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In 1957, Noam Chomsky’s first book, Syntactic Structures, created something close to a revolution in the study of linguistics. The field had been dominated by scholars who analyzed examples to determine how sounds (phonetics) and words (syntax) were put together to create sentences that were considered grammatical by the speakers and writers of a language. In his book, Chomsky called attention to the fact that analysis of structurally similar sentences such as “John is eager to please” and “John is easy to please” does not explain the difference in meaning. In the first sentence, John pleases someone, but in the second, someone pleases John. At the same time, structurally dissimilar sentences such as “Ann gave Sue a gift,” “Sue was given a gift by Ann,” and “A gift was given Sue by Ann” have the same meaning.

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Chomsky proposed that such sentences must be comprehended by psychological study, not by structural analysis. He proposed that they have underlying mental structures, or “deep structures,” of subject-predicate relationships. These deep structures can be transformed by regular, known rules (transformational rules) into the variety of sentences cited, their “surface structures.” It is through subconscious knowledge of the transformational rules and deep structures that speakers and writers, listeners and readers, can understand one another. Syntactic Structures established a new method of grammatical analysis, transformational grammar, which has influenced all studies of linguistics since. Like all new theories, however, it was challenged on a number of points, primarily on its emphasis on syntax without much consideration of the meaning of the words themselves (semantics).

Since 1957, Chomsky has amended and expanded his ideas in a series of books, giving increasing attention to the characteristics of the brain that allow people to learn a language and its rules. This area of linguistic study is known as psycholinguistics. Chomsky proposed that certain aspects of knowledge of language are innate to the human brain and that linguistics studies can provide insights into brain functions, a controversial concept to linguists and psychologists who believe language to be empirically learned through example and deductive analogy.

In Knowledge of Language, Chomsky answers many of the critics who have responded to his work since Syntactic Structures. The book consists of a preface and five chapters, the first four of which are closely related as a summary and defense of his psycholinguistic theories. They consider what he calls “Plato’s problem”: How do people know as much as they do about language when the evidence on which the knowledge is based is so limited? Chapter 5 considers the paradoxical correlate, “Orwell’s problem”: How can people know so little about language when they have so much evidence? Chapter 5 is not closely related to the others, as Chomsky admits in his preface. It is a brief statement about the use and misuse of language in politics, a subject of major interest in his publications since 1968.

Of the four chapters on “Plato’s problem,” chapters 1 and 2 give a brief history of ideas about language. Chapter 3, comprising 170 pages of the total 296, presents highly technical evidence to support his contention that the brain has innate principles and parameters. It also presents his theories about what some of these principles and parameters are. Chapter 4 answers criticisms of his use of the terms “rules” and “know” by defining them and defending the use of deductive logic in linguistic studies. The technical nature of chapter 3 in effect limits the book’s readers to linguistics scholars, although a reader with a fairly minimal knowledge of linguistics can follow the gist of the argument in the other chapters.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 104

Gellner, Ernest. “Sentiments and Sentences,” in The New Republic. CXCVI (March 23, 1987), pp. 34-38.

Gelman, David. “The Mouths of Babes: New Research into the Mysteries of How Infants Learn to Talk,” in Newsweek. CVIII (December 15, 1986), pp. 84-86.

Harman, Gilbert, ed. On Noam Chomsky: Critical Essays, 1974.

Kuester, Harold H. “Chomsky on Grammar and Mind: A Critique,” in International Philosophy Quarterly. XXV (June, 1985), pp. 157-172.

Leiber, Justin. Noam Chomsky: A Philosophic Overview, 1975.

Lyons, John. Noam Chomsky, 1970.

Newmeyer, Frederick J. “Has There Been a Chomskyan Revolution in Linguistics?” in Language. LXII (March, 1986), pp. 1-18.

Peck, Jim. “Noam Chomsky: An American Dissident,” in The Progressive. LI (July, 1987), pp. 22-25.

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