An Animated Introduction to Noam Chomsky’s Groundbreaking Linguistic Theories

Most peo­ple who know Noam Chom­sky know him equal­ly as a giant in aca­d­e­m­ic lin­guis­tics and a long­time left­ist dis­si­dent and polit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor. Only a com­mit­ted few, how­ev­er, read much of his work in either—or both—fields. He is one of those thinkers whose major con­cepts enter the dis­course unmoored from their orig­i­nal con­text. Phras­es like “uni­ver­sal gram­mar” and “man­u­fac­tured con­sent” tend to pop up in all kinds of places with­out ref­er­ence to Chomsky’s mean­ings.

If you sim­ply haven’t got the time to read Chom­sky (and let’s face it, there’s a lot going on in the world these days), you might famil­iar­ize your­self with his media the­o­ry in an amus­ing video here. For an entry into Chomsky’s work in lin­guis­tics, see the brief ani­mat­ed TED-Ed video above. The explain­er revis­its the Chom­skyian rev­o­lu­tion of 1957, when he artic­u­lat­ed his ideas about the uni­ver­sal prop­er­ties of lan­guage in his first book, Syn­tac­tic Struc­tures.

Chom­sky, the video says, explored the ques­tions, “are there uni­ver­sal gram­mar rules and are they hard­wired into our brains?” He did not invent the con­cept of “uni­ver­sal grammar”—the idea can be found in the 13th cen­tu­ry writ­ing of Roger Bacon—but Chomsky’s spe­cif­ic mean­ing of the term applies unique­ly to lan­guage acqui­si­tion. Rather than sug­gest­ing that lan­guage exists as an abstract uni­ver­sal prop­er­ty, Chom­sky argued that its basic struc­ture, shared across the world, derives from struc­tures in the brain that take shape in infan­cy.

Humans phys­i­cal­ly evolved to acquire and use lan­guage in strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar ways that accord with uni­ver­sal­ly observ­able and applic­a­ble rules, Chom­sky argued. As the les­son points out, a claim this broad requires a moun­tain of evi­dence. At the time, many lan­guages around the world had not been suf­fi­cient­ly stud­ied or record­ed. Since Chomsky’s ini­tial argu­ments, ideas about lin­guis­tic sim­i­lar­i­ties have been sig­nif­i­cant­ly revised.

Sev­er­al crit­ics have argued that no amount of data can ever pro­duce “uni­ver­sal” rules. After decades of cri­tique, Chom­sky revised his the­o­ries, explain­ing them in dif­fer­ent terms as “Prin­ci­ples and Para­me­ters” that gov­ern lan­guages. He has fur­ther sim­pli­fied and spec­i­fied, propos­ing one uni­ver­sal cri­te­ri­on: “Recur­sion.” All lan­guages, he argues, can nest ideas inside oth­er ideas.

Recur­sion, too, has been force­ful­ly chal­lenged by the study of an Ama­zon­ian lan­guage that shows none of the char­ac­ter­is­tics Chom­sky glob­al­ly out­lined. The oth­er part of Chomsky’s the­o­ry of uni­ver­sal grammar—the idea that the brain devel­ops innate, iso­lat­ed lan­guage-mak­ing faculties—has also been refut­ed by neu­ro­sci­en­tists, who have not found evi­dence of any such spe­cif­ic struc­tures.

Why, then, is Chom­sky still so crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant to lin­guis­tics, cog­ni­tive sci­ence, and oth­er fields of study? For one thing, his work encour­aged the study of lan­guages that had been neglect­ed and ignored. The debates Chom­sky gen­er­at­ed pushed the field for­ward, and broke the spell of the Behav­ior­ism that dom­i­nat­ed the human sci­ences into the mid-20th cen­tu­ry. Even where he was wrong, or over­con­fi­dent, his work remains an essen­tial ref­er­ence for the kind of think­ing that rev­o­lu­tion­ized lin­guis­tics and brain sci­ence.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Noam Chom­sky Talks About How Kids Acquire Lan­guage & Ideas in an Ani­mat­ed Video by Michel Gondry

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Noam Chomsky’s Man­u­fac­tur­ing Con­sent and How the Media Cre­ates the Illu­sion of Democ­ra­cy

Noam Chom­sky Defines What It Means to Be a Tru­ly Edu­cat­ed Per­son

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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