chomskian linguisticsOverview

Chomsky's deep grammar and its various offspring are the best known of current linguistic theories. Developed to explain the ease with which children learn a language, and adults produce correct sentences, the theory envisages a common underlying structure to all languages, and a complex set of rules to generate individual utterances.

The school was never without its critics, however, and matters have lately become very complicated.


Noam Chomsky {1} claims not to be a Structuralist — is indeed sharply critical of all attempts to exclude the individual — but his deep grammar grew out of the argument between behaviourists like Bloomfield and structuralists like Zellig Harris (under whom he trained). Chomsky's linguistics is a "top down" approach, starting from syntax and competent speech rather than individual phonemes. Bloomfield (1887-1947) and his fellow behaviourists held that the sign (which for Saussureans was a concept) meant simply the non-verbal activity that it substituted for. We couldn't say more. The activities of the brain were inaccessible to us, and we shouldn't theorize about what we can't observe. Phonemes (the elemental, recognizable sound unit) were neither an acoustic entity nor a determinate of meaning, but simply how we divide up language.

Chomsky, in contrast, argued that our astonishing creativity with words, and the phenomenal ease with which children learn a language, meant that language users employed and intuitively recognized an underlying structure. Not a structure, moreover, resting on phonemes or individual words as Ramon Jakobson would have it, but a sort of fundamental, proto-syntax. Any well-formed sentence, for example, contains a noun-phrase (NP) and verb-phrase (VB). From this we could create all possible sentences: The old tutor well described the difficulties. Or: The difficulties were well described by the old tutor. By transformation rules the deep structure can be converted to surface sentences with the correct syntax. But what of: The old tutor elaborated the difficulties? The meaning is practically the same: we might chose either. But is this a different transformation or a different deep structure? And how do we make the choice or substitution? Critics say that Chomsky's grammar is simply formalizing what is still a mystery. {2}

Deep structure is the abstract underlying form, which determines the meaning of a sentence. Surface structure is what we write or speak. The two are connected by transformations like combination, addition and deletion. Or so Chomsky first argued. But in his Reflections on Language, Chomsky drew up something much more complicated. There were two structures or trees: one for deep and one for surface sentences. Transformation rules linked the two. Ambiguous sentences had two deep structures. Now the sequence was: The base tree was constructed with building rules and a lexicon. The transformation component mapped deep structures onto surface structures. A phonological component intervened to convert surface structures to surface sentences.


Thereafter matters grew more complicated still. Grammarians needed a further subsystem to convert deep structures via semantic component to semantic representation. Why? Because grammarians were concerned with problems of their own — synonymy, similarity of meaning, redundancy, ambiguity and entailment. {3}

Further problems arose over quantifiers, negation and movement rules. Chomsky's initial assumptions were fourfold. Firstly that transformations preserved meaning, i.e. that surface structure was linked to meaning only by deep structures. Secondly, that transformational rules were simple and did only one thing at a time. Thirdly that the deep structures were similar to surface structures. And fourthly that transformational rules were the only rules needed to link surface and deep structures. Now it appears that all four cannot be held jointly. Generative Semantics holds to the first but not the third or fourth. Extended Standard Theory holds to the second, third and fourth. Trace Theory holds to the second, third and fourth again, but claims that all information on the deep structure is to be found in the surface structure. It envisages this generation sequence: deep structure to transformational component to surface structure to semantic component to semantic representation. Trace theory seems to be better supported by phonetic evidence, though complications arise with ambiguous sentences, which require two surface and two deep sentences.{3}

Leaving aside such professional disputes, what exactly can we say of these structures and procedures? In what sense are they real, existing in our brains, our innate behaviour, our social training? Just as with Structuralism, very different interpretations have been advanced. Do we (a) behave as if we follow rules, i.e. simply know how? Do we (b) actually know the rules as rules and blindly follow them? Or do we (c) recognize the rules and conscientiously apply them, i.e. know that something is actually the case? Philosophers insist on pursuing such distinctions, and of course disagree.


Chomsky, and grammarians in general, dislike the whole tenor of that debate. Their job is simply to identify grammatically correct sentences, and display linguistic competence as a characteristic of the human mind. Some philosophers are satisfied with (a), saying that human beings simply have an ability to learn languages, about which little more can be said at present. We can all ride a bicycle without knowing the mechanics involved. Other philosophers, adopting (b), regard the rules as psychologically real, even though they are hidden from all but professional (Chomskian) grammarians, and laboratory testing has not found that response times necessarily reflect rule complexity. {3} And some, examining option (c), ask in what (simpler) language we can "see" the rules — without starting an infinite regress in asking how that simpler language is in turn "seen". Perhaps we do have some basic, innate language hardwired into our brains, a mentalese as Jerry Fodor terms it. {4}

At this point comes a parting of the ways. Logicians have tried to represent the structures in symbols of formal logic and arrive at the truth conditions of sentences. In many cases, notably those involving quantifiers, this has proved very difficult. Grammarians, however, have simply concerned themselves with the structures of natural languages, mapping sentences on "semantic representations". Being possible interpretations of sentences, rather than meanings as such, these "semantic representations" do not give logicians what they want. The latter see the relationship between the word and the world outside as the central problem of meaning. The grammarians see language as a self-contained global system, and are concerned largely with synonymy, similarity of meaning, redundancy, ambiguity and entailment.


Where does that leave us? Several points need to be made. Firstly that an enormous amount of effort has gone into Chomskian grammar: thirty years of work by thousands of linguists. Some of their approaches are open to criticism — the introspection, and the emphasis on model-building rather than model-testing. There is also doubt among some linguists whether languages like Chinese really fit the Chomskian model. {5} But no one should underestimate its achievements, which belong to a league quite different from the flimsy works of the continental Structuralists. Chomskian documentation is extensive, and the reasoning carefully argued through.

Notwithstanding, the connection of language with meaning has proved more complicated and elusive than was originally hoped. Agreement is as difficult to reach as in linguistic philosophy. Difficulties continue to appear the deeper one looks.

What constraints does Chomskian grammar place on what we can do with language? Literary theorists of many persuasions see language as mediating between ourselves and reality, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposed that language actually shaped our perceptions. Again, there is no real consensus. Grammatical competence is not meaning necessarily: "green ideas sleep furiously", to quote a famous example, is grammatically correct but nonsense all the same. Do the innate structures of language, to the extent that they exist, place filters on our understanding in the way argued by Kant? Is perhaps Chomskian linguistics a brake on creativity even, telling us that there are limits to what we can think or imagine, limits just as powerful as those imposed by society, and arising from the same reasons: social activities reflecting our basic makeup?

It depends. {6} Realist, who believe that language develops and adjusts to our interactions with real things in the world, argue that there can be no language that allows us to see the world in radically different outlines. Chomsky's work in this case is simply concerned with syntax, correct grammar. Even philosophers like Heidegger, they would argue, who fashion their own language to evade the limiting categories of current thought, still need the conventions of syntax to make themselves understood. Poststructuralists, in contrast, who argue against the view that language is constituted by its external relations, and believe that meaning is isomorphous with language, make strenuous efforts to escape the "prison bars of language": the playful anti-rationalism of Foucault and Derrida. The more widely read among them might even argue that the nonliterary arts each have their own language {7}, not readily inter-translated (the problems of hermeneutics) and that Kuhn and others have shown that scientific revolutions not only change our view of the world, but the very meaning of our terms. {8} Debate continues, though more within disciplines than across this fundamental philosophical divide.

This and other pages in the theory section have been collected into a free pdf ebook entitled 'A Background to Literary Theory'. Click here for the download page.


1. Deep grammar is well covered by linguistic textbooks. See Noam Chomsky's Language and Responsibility (1979) for his position vis a vis Structuralism. Also p. 203 of J.L. Merquior's From Prague to Paris (1986)), Chapter 2 of John Passmore's Recent Philosophers (1988), Chapter 7 in Howard Gardner's The Mind's New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution (1985), and Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind (1994) for the difficulties. A very useful bibliography is to be found on pp. 141-145 of Passmore 1988.
2. Chapter 13 of Richard Harland's Superstructuralism and Post-Structuralism (1987).
3. Chapter 6 of Michael Devitt and Kim Sterelny's An Introduction to the Philosophy of Language (1987).
4. Jerry Fodor's Representations (1981).
5. Chapter 6 of Geoffrey Sampson's Schools of Linguistics: Competition and Evolution (1980).
6. Chapter 4 of Fred D'Agostino's Chomsky's System of Ideas (1986).
7. Nelson Goodman's The Languages of Art (1968).
8. pp. 95-97 in Passmore 1988.

Internet Resources

1. Leonard Bloomfield, Language And Linguistics, Biographies. Brief AllRefer Encyclopedia entry.
2. Reminiscences by Pike on Early American Anthropological Linguistics. Ken Pike. May 2001. Survey of key figures.
3. Bloomfield's "Meaningless" Science of Sounds. Spring 1998. Part of Univ. of Alberta PhD. thesis.
4. Noam Chomsky. Jan. 2004. Wikipedia entry: importance for linguistics, his criticism of Postmodernism, and his political activities, includes references and listings.
5. The Anatomy of a Revolution in the Social Sciences: Chomsky in 1962. E. F. Konrad Koerner. Winter. 1994. The politics of linguistics.
6. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Daniel Chandler. 1994. Introduction in terms of mould and cloak theories.
7. Fodor, Jerry. Tadeusz Zawidzki.
. Dictionary of Philosophy entry.
8. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Jerry Fodor. Oct. 1998. Fodor's review of Edward Wilson's book: an introduction to Fodor's views.
9. Granny's Campaign for Safe Science. Daniel C. Dennett. Dennett's attack on Fodor's strategy.
10. Semantics Web Resources. Kai von Fintel. Technical nature of current research.