Noam Chomsky (born December 7, 1928) is a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He created the Chomsky hierarchy, a classification of formal languages important in the theory of computation. He is also well-known for his radical political activism: socialism and anarchism. He is one of the most often cited authors in the humanities.
In 1957 he wrote the book Syntactic Structures, an elaboration on his doctoral thesis from 1955, in which he introduces transformational grammars. He considers utterances (words and sentences) to represent the surface structure of deeply rooted concepts inside the brain (surface structure versus deep structure, a distinction he doesn't use anymore). Transformation rules govern the process of creating utterances. The capability to carry out these processes is genetic and innate. They happen subconsciously. With a limited set of grammar rules and a finite set of terms man is able to produce an infinite number of sentences. This includes sentences nobody has ever said before. Other people will readily understand them because of their innate language understanding capability. When a child learns to speak the mother's language, Chomsky claims, then this language generating/analysing system (a universal grammar) is set to a specific set of rules the child gets from the language community. Any child can learn any language as the first language. He notes that a child learns the language at an astonishing pace and his theory sets out why this is the case. Later on, when the rule set becomes stabilized, language learning becomes much harder.
The ideas of a built-in language mechanism have been taken up by Steven Pinker, who explained them in his book The Language Instinct.
Chomsky studied types of formal grammars as a way to represent a grammar system. He came up with a number of types he orders according to increasing complexity. This is now called the Chomsky hierarchy and is now used extensively in computer science. The grammar of regular languages for example encompasses all the rules needed for doing morphology.
Chomsky's theories went through many changes. The most recent account was published under the title The minimalist program in 1995. The first chapter deals with the theory of principles and paramaters which is in part speculation, the second emphasizes the role of economy in language. The third states a minimalist program for linguistic theory while the fourth categories and transformations gives an elaboration while at the same time changing some things layed out previously.
Chomsky's research interest is in the human language faculty that he calls I-language in his recent writings. He focuses on questions that consider the internal functioning of the brain. And there he looks at the language generating process rather than at the generated objects.
One of his better-known political texts is Manufacturing Consent -- The Political Economy of the Mass Media, which he co-authored with Edward S. Herman and which was intended to show how financial interests in the United States' media influence the news.
He was an outspoken critic of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and is in general critical of all American covert and overt operations in foreign countries. His political position is normally classified as "social anarchism": he is suspicious of and fights against concentrated power both in government and corporations.
It is worth noting that almost everything about Noam Chomsky's ideas are controversial, both in linguistics and politics. He has a great many detractors both in academia and the general public for his political writings; those same writings have earned him a great number of supporters among radicals and anarchists.
External links and further reading
- Noam Chomsky's own MIT homepage: http://web.mit.edu/linguistics/www/chomsky.home.html
- Noam Chomsky: Syntactic Structures, The Hague, Mouton, 1965.
- Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle: The Sound Pattern of English, Harper & Row, New York 1968
- Steven Pinker: The Language Instinct, W. Morrow & Co., New York 1994
- Noam Chomsky: The Minimalist Program, MIT press, 1995
- The Chomskybot - a demonstration of a peculiarly primitive variety of computational linguistics: http://rubberducky.org/cgi-bin/chomsky.pl
- Noam Chomsky: What Uncle Sam really wants, Odonian Press, Berkeley 1992.
- Noam Chomsky: The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many, Odonian Press, Berkeley 1993
- Chomsky and socialism: http://mediafilter.org/caq/CAQ54chmky.html
- Chomsky and anarchism: http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/rbr/noamrbr2.html
- More on Chomsky and anarchism: http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/interviews/9612-anarchism.html
- The Noam Chomsky Archive: http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/