Arguably the best-known linguistics professor in the world, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Noam Chomsky has become better known in his later years as a political commentator and dissident. In 1957, at the age of 29, he published a monograph entitled Syntactic Structures, which radically altered the study of human language. Two central ideas lie at the core of his revolution: universal grammar and the language acquisition device, or LAD. Universal grammar refers to Chomsky’s observation that, despite the many superﬁcial differences in the surface structure of the world’s languages, they all share a very similar deep structure. To explain how this was possible, he proposed that there is an innate component to human language, a “language organ” pre-wired to absorb linguistic input and decipher the rules of language. This came to be known as the LAD. Chomsky offered as further evidence of this the fact that children tend to develop various components of language in a set order, for example, being able to form possessives before learning to form past tense. Indeed, before any formal instruction in language use has occurred, children show by their errors that they have already learned some of the formal semantic and syntactic rules. Over-regularization errors occur when the child applies a rule to an irregular word for which the rule is inappropriate (e.g., “I run-ned,” “two foots,” “the bird ﬂied,” etc.).
At the time, the dominant perspective on language acquisition was a fairly solid, tabula rasa empiricist view, dominated by B. F. Skinner’s behaviorist approach. Skinner argued that operant conditioning could explain verbal behavior just as well as it did other kinds of behavior, with the combination of imitation, positive reinforcement, and punishment entirely explaining children’s language acquisition. Chomsky insisted that such an explanation could not account for over-regularization errors, as they involve the child stubbornly producing utterances that are not being reinforced and which cannot be explained by imitation, as the child has never heard them before.
Chomsky’s inﬂuence on the ﬁeld of linguistics has been huge, in that his ideas are now central to the ﬁeld. Even so, most linguistic theorists since the 1960s have set out to prove him wrong. His is still the theory from which they begin, the theory to beat. Chomsky himself has long since become better known for his long opposition to U.S. foreign policy, from the Vietnam war through to the occupation of Iraq. He has presented his political views in over thirty books and innumerable articles, and lectures far more frequently on politics than on linguistics.
- Allen, J. P. B, and Van Buren, P., eds. Chomsky: Selected Readings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.