Energy Sources of the Future

Syntax is the theory surrounding the basic template of language — constructing sentences out of words. It is a higher level of cognition than morphology (the manner in which words are constructed), and is far more than just a topic for grammarians. Instead, in recent years the study of syntax has relevance in the cognitive structure of language, but also in the way the human brain synthesizes meaning, representation, logic, and can construct multi-levels of hierarchy throughout a the individual’s communication’s universe. The construct that the basic structure of sentences is, at its most basic, hierarchical, became a new and exciting topic in the 1950s. The idea that behind any linear order or words and morphenes that exists in natural languages there is yet another, more hidden but no less robust, organization nested within, was a milestone for psychologists, linguists, sociologists, and anthropologists in bringing together divergent theories about human knowledge. One such pioneer in this field was Noam Chomsky, specifically in his Theory of Generative Syntax first articulated in his holistic approach to language in “Systems of Syntactic Analysis” (1953). This was developed further into a more universe theory of grammar in the publication of Syntactic Structures (1957).

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Biographical Introduction- Noam Chomsky has had a huge impact on the field of modern linguistics. He received his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955 having completed most of his thesis research during a four-year Harvard Fellowship. He began his teaching career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1955 and has remaned there since, consistently receiving honors and awards for his service there. Chomsky remains newsworthy to the lay audience because of his extreme liberal viewpoints and anti-war speeches and still tours giving public criticisms of U.S. Foreign policy and the legacy of U.S. global power (Wall, 2008).

Chomsky’s approach to linguistics focuses on his views regarding a universal grammar, “an innate set of linguistic principles shared by all humans, the initial state of the language learner, and linguistic variation” (Audi, 2009, 138). Through his work on universal grammar and the cognitive processes involved in communication, Chomsky rejected the Skinnerian approach to behaviorism, finding instead a more naturalistic approach to the study of language an the mind/language template (Sullivan, 2000).

Theoretical Introduction- Generative grammar approaches linguistic syntax in a more universal an holistic manner. This approach attempts to formulate a set of rules that will predict the combination of words that form appropriate and culturally-based grammatical sentences. Further, generative grammar hopes to predict the morphology of a sentence, giving insight into the paradigm of culture and world-view through language acquisition and development (Marastsos and Matheny, 1994). Chomsky’s early work in this area was called “transformational grammar,” a term that generally encompasses a more umbrella definition of various approaches of generative grammar.

Chomsky, however, developed the idea that within language each sentence has a dual level approach — the surface structure and the deep structure (Chomsky, 1957). The surface structure is the overt meaning and organization of the thought. But the importance is really the deeper structures — the core semantic relationships within a sentence that is mapped by the surface structure via linguistic transformations. Within the paradigm of world languages, Chomsky believes that there are numerous similarities between various languages’ deep structures. These templates tend to reveal deep structural meaning that has been concealed by surface structure. This means that syntax, regardless of the innate language, can only really be understood by psychological and mathematical means, not just structural analysis (Newmeyer, 1986).

For example, we may have two structurally similar sentences: “Tom is eager to please,” and “Tom is easy to please.” A structural analysis does not explain the differences in meaning between these two units. Similarly, structurally dissimilar sentences like: “Tom gave Ann a flower,” and “Ann was given a flower by Tom,” and “A flower was given Ann by Tom,” all have the same meaning, but are quite different on the surface.

Instead of analyzing the innate meaning of these examples using a structured technique, Chomsky argues that it is only through subconscious knowledge of transformational grammar that one can truly understand the deeper meaning of language. Of course, this theory has been challenged by many with its emphasis on syntax and lack of focus on semantics, but as Chomsky himself said:

But the fundamental reason for [the] inadequacy of traditional grammars is a more technical one. Although it was well understood that linguistic processes are in some sense “creative,” the technical devices for expressing a system of recursive processes were simply not available until much more recently. In fact, a real understanding of how a language can (in Humboldt’s words) “make infinite use of finite means” has developed only within the last thirty years, in the course of studies in the foundations of mathematics (Chomsky, 1965, 8).

This grammatical theory evolved further into psycholinguistics, or which characteristics of neural and cognitive activity combine to make syntax possible. For example, Chomsky’s model takes traditional grammar, mapped as in Figure 1, where’d (sentence), D (determiner), N (noun), V (Verb), NP (Noun Phrase), and VP (Verb Phrase):

Impact on Linquistics- Chomsky’s core theoretical principles still focus on generative grammar, but in the 1990s he further developed the theory into Minimalism, or a definition of two additional levels of representation; Logical Form (LF) and Phonetic Form (PF) which determine meaning through syntax analysis (Chomsky, 1995). Two of the ways in which Chomsky’s modeling dramatically changed linguistics, though were the manner in which he expanded the view of Mentalism and Combinatoriality. Mentalism allows the linguist to focus on the user’s mind in language instead of just usage, which is a far more robust and detailed view of language acquisition and acculturation. Combinatoriality takes language to a further extreme as a process of cognitive and psycho-social development, and sees it as an actual expansion of culture. Chomsky’s manner of viewing language with the premise that it is possible to construct linguistic rule structures that would explain the workings of language at the surface and deeper levels also challenged the entire field of linguistics, resulting in what some call the “linguistic wars” of the mid-1960s (Jackendoff, 2002).

Conclusions- While Chomsky continues to make the news for his political and cultural views, and most recently the controversy surrounding a trip to Israel, it is his basic philosophy and view on syntax and linguistics that has made him one of the most important intellectuals of the 20th century (“Who’s in, Who’s Out?” 2010). His views on grammar, construction and language development have, in fact, paved the way for a new generation of linguistic scholarship, all based on moving into a deeper understanding of grammatical construction and philosophical/coginitive meaning (Armstrong and Karchmer, 2009).


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