Chomsky, Noam

Chomsky, Noam

Bio: (1929- ) American linguist, philosopher, and activist. Noam Chomsky studied at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University and later became a professor at MIT in 1955, where he stayed for all of his career. Chomsky’s father was a notable linguist who published the book, Hebrew: The Eternal Language (1958), and that’s how Chomsky was introduced to historical linguistics.


                                    Generative Grammar

In his books Syntactic Structures (1957) and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965) Chomsky introduced a new approach to linguistics which he named „generative grammar” or „transformational grammar”. Generative grammar goes further than strictly descriptive linguistics and inductive level of analysis to the ideal level of linguistic competence and ‘deep structure’, the level which allows the speaker to be creative in his or her use of language.

Chomsky’s approach to linguistics was completely opposite to the behaviorist approach to linguistics. Behaviorists like B. F. Skinner saw knowledge of the language as consisting of associations between specific words or sound sequences. This type of grammar is called associative grammar and is based on the empiricist idea that humans learn language through sensory experience. Chomsky, on the other hand, claimed that there is massive evidence that people are constantly producing completely new sentences, that they have never heard before. For Chomsky, language is not acquired inductively via stimulus-response conditioning, as behaviorists thought, instead language is learned through an innate cognitive capacity, that all humans have.

Chomsky also introduced the distinction between ‘competence’ and ‘performance’ in language use. Competence is the ability to create correct sentences, while performance is actual sentences that have been produced by the language user. In that sense, generative grammar represents a set of transformational rules that somebody with the  ‘competence’ of the ideal language user can apply to generate grammatically correct sentences. A person with competence can potentially produce an infinite number of grammatically correct sentences. This approach is named, generative because competence allows users to produce or generate any meaningful sentence, even some that are completely new. For Chomsky, because transformational rules of grammar shape our mind, and are the product of innate cognitive psychology, linguistics should be considered a branch of psychology. Chomsky is considered one of the founders of the field of cognitive science.

Every language possesses these elements: 1) deep structure, 2) surface structure, 3) semantic interpretation of the deep structure, and 4) phonetic interpretation of the surface structure. Chomsky stated that all human languages possess many common principles, rules, and features, and those shared patterns represent the "deep structure" of language. That is why linguistics is simultaneously a study of a particular language and a study of universal human language patterns. These common language principles allow almost any child to learn any language, to which it is exposed, with ease. This innate cognitive ability present in children is what Chomsky called a “language acquisition device.”. The "surface structures" of language are specific rules of some particular language.

In the article „How could language have evolved“ (2014) written by Chomsky and his coauthors, they propose the “Strong Minimalist Thesis,” which states that the key distinguishing feature of language is hierarchical syntactic structure. They stated that the genetic innate ability to produce and learn this hierarchical syntactic structure likely evolved some 70,000–100,000 years ago and that since then it didn’t go through significant modification. This ability evolved only in homo sapiens species, and that means that other species of genus Homo that homo sapiens encountered in Europe and Asia some 30,000–70,000 years ago, like homo neanderthalensis, didn’t possess the ability to use language, or at least, language based on hierarchical syntactic structure.

                                      Political Writings 

Achievements in the field of linguistics made Noam Chomsky one of the most famous and cited modern authors, but he gathered almost the same level of fame for his views on political, economic, and social issues. Chomsky approaches those issues from the liberal left standpoint, as he describes himself as a proponent of anarcho-sydicalism or libertarian socialism. He advocates for a radical change of capitalist societies from within and is very critical of American foreign policy. In his books American Power and the New Mandarins (1969), For Reasons of State (1973), Counter-Revolutionary Violence: Bloodbaths in Fact & Propaganda (1973), and The Political Economy of Human Rights (1979) Chomsky focuses on the war in Vietnam and American foreign policy toward other countries in South East Asia. In American Power and the New Mandarins, he blames the American technical and intellectual class in the government and universities, which are designated as New Mandarins, for atrocities that were perpetrated in Vietnam by the US government.

Chomsky, in the books, Manufacturing Consent (1988), Necessary Illusions (1989), Deterring Democracy (1991), and Letters from Lexington (1993) critically examines the relationship between US foreign policy, media, and propaganda. In Manufacturing Consent, he analyzes how the mass media manipulates public opinion and perpetuates the interests of those in power. The book, written by Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, was first published in 1988 and has since become a classic in the field of media studies.

The book argues that the mass media in the United States and other Western countries operates as a "propaganda model," in which a small group of powerful corporations and individuals control the flow of information and shape public opinion to align with their own interests. This is achieved through a combination of censorship, self-censorship, and the creation of a "filter" that screens out information that is inconvenient or contradicts the dominant narrative. Chomsky highlights five of those types of filters: ownership, advertising, sourcing, "flak", and "anti-communism".     

One of the key components of the propaganda model is the "ownership" filter, which refers to the fact that a small number of large corporations control the majority of media outlets. These corporations have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and promoting policies that benefit their bottom line, and they use their control over the media to shape public opinion in their favor. Another important component of the propaganda model is the "advertising" filter, which refers to media outlets relying heavily on advertising revenue to survive. This leads to a bias in favor of content that is friendly to advertisers, and a reluctance to report on stories that might be seen as critical of their interests. The "flak" filter refers to how powerful individuals and groups can use their influence to shape the media narrative. This can include things like threats of legal action, pressure from advertisers, or even direct censorship. The "anti-communism" filter refers to how the media has been shaped by the Cold War, particularly in its focus on the threat of communism and its portrayal of the Soviet Union as an enemy of the United States.

In many other later books, like Profit over People (1999) and Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (2003) Chomsky continues to present one of the most detailed and vociferous critiques of American foreign politics and policy that includes political methods like propaganda, overthrows of foreign governments, direct military invasion, and economic methods like privatization, MMF and World Bank.

Main works

Books on grammar, language and Mind:

Syntactic Structures (1957);

Current Issues in Linguistics Theory (1964);

Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965);

Topics in the Theory of Generative Grammar (1966);

Cartesian Linguistics (1966);

Language and Mind (1968);

Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar (1972);

Reflections on Language (1975);

Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (1975);

Language and Responsibility (1979);

Rules and Representations (1980);

Lectures on Government and Binding (1981);

Knowledge of Language (1986);

Language and Problems of Knowledge (1988);

Language and Thought (1993);

The Minimalist Program (1995);

New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind (2000);

On Nature and Language (2002);

Books on politics:

American Power and the New Mandarins (1969);

For Reasons of State (1973);

Counter-Revolutionary Violence: Bloodbaths in Fact & Propaganda (1973);

The Political Economy of Human Rights (1979);

Towards a New Cold War (1982);

The Fateful Triangle (1983);

Pirates and Emperors (1986);

Manufacturing Consent (1988);

Necessary Illusions (1989);

Deterring Democracy (1991);

Letters from Lexington (1993);

The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many (1993);

World Orders Old and New (1994);

Media Control: the Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda (1997);

Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship (1997);

Profit over People (1999);

Rogue States: the Rule of Force in World Affairs 9-11 (2001);

Understanding Power (2002);

Middle East Illusions (2003);

Power and Terror: Post 9/11 (2003);

Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (2003);

Getting Haiti Right This Time (2004);

Imperial Ambitions (2005);

Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy (2006);

Interventions (2007);

Gaza in Crisis (2010);

Making the Future (2012);

Occupy (2012);

Requiem for the American Dream (2017).

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