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.