Why does Chomskyan linguistics focus on syntax

Summary of Language and mind

Linguistics: From the beginnings to generative grammar

Jacob Grimm (the older of the famous Grimm Brothers) is considered to be the founding father of German studies. His research on comparative linguistics in the first third of the 19th century revolved primarily around the grammar comparison between Germanic and other European languages. Linguistic research as a science existed before: William Jones discovered around 1786 that the structure of Indian Sanskrit bears a certain similarity to that of European languages. The comparison of Indo-European languages ​​thus marked the start of systematic linguistics. The German linguist Franz Bopp compared in his Comparative grammar (1833–1852) Indo-European languages ​​such as Sanskrit, Greek, Lithuanian, Gothic and German together.

Wilhelm von Humboldt, to which Chomsky likes to refer, developed the first theories of ethnolinguistics. In the 19th century, a real zeal for collecting and hunting broke out among linguists: They rushed at whatever linguistic material they could find. This historical-comparative method was practiced until the beginning of the 20th century. Then came the “structuralist turn”: the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure In his lectures he advocated a more structuralist and semiotic (i.e. focused on the sign system) linguistics. His ideas were particularly taken up by behaviorist American descriptivism, its founder Leonard Bloomfield from 1933 had a lasting influence on linguistic research in the USA. This approach was again heavily criticized by Noam Chomsky, who triggered the “cognitive turn” with his generative grammar.


Noam Chomsky developed his theory of generative grammar primarily in opposition to structuralism. When he was obliged to work with it at Harvard University, he realized that he had absolutely nothing to do with American-style structuralism, the so-called Bloomfield School. Bloomfield was based on empiricism and viewed linguistics primarily as an institution that was able to collect and structure as much linguistic material as possible. During his studies, Chomsky broke away from this point of view. The behaviorist program of the American linguists claimed, to put it simply: Man only imitates what he finds. Chomsky denied this claim. Rather, he believed that language "makes infinite use of finite resources", as Wilhelm von Humboldt had already formulated it in the 19th century. In 1955, Chomsky came to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There he wrote, inter alia. Structures of syntax (1957), in which he poses the question of the mechanisms that "generate" language. In the trade journal Linguistics the book was reviewed and Chomsky became a star almost overnight. Because his research fit in with the “cognitive revolution” that occurred in the sciences in the 1960s. In 1959 Chomsky reviewed the book Linguistic behavior the American behaviorist B. F. Skinner. He claimed that language is merely behavior that is shaped by reward and punishment. Chomsky panned the book and detailed Skinner's mistakes. This made the rebellious linguist known to a larger audience.

Impact history

In the 1960s, Chomsky saw his grammar theory take a meteoric rise. Of course only in the professional world, because linguistics was not for the general public. Chomsky had the status of a guru among linguists. In 1961 he became a full professor at MIT and in 1966 he was given the chair in modern languages ​​and linguistics created especially for him. He researched and published diligently to fill the many blank spots in the theory of generative grammar, which he never quite succeeded in doing. He also came into the public eye as a political writer: He repeatedly expressed himself critical of US politics, especially during the Vietnam War. After a veritable triumph of his grammar theory in the 1960s, Chomsky became a controversial figure in the early 1970s. New trends came into fashion in linguistics and Chomsky's rather contextless linguistic research came under fire. The “pragmatic turn” was approaching; Speech act theory, discourse analysis, text linguistics, conversation analysis and sociolinguistics set the tone from then on. Chomsky did not want to participate in the new direction: communication research seemed too cloudy to him and too much a "science of everything possible".

Even if opinions about Chomsky are divided today, one thing is for sure: his work has revolutionized linguistics. Newer approaches such as computer or psycholinguistics would be inconceivable without his theories. Chomsky's positioning of linguistics close to psychology is now generally recognized: it has long been considered an interdisciplinary science between psychology, sociology, computer science, biology and cognitive science.