Study Guide

Noam Chomsky Buzzwords

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FYI: I am not one of those grandiose lovers of slogans and buzzwords. I find them to be mind numbing; they seem to exist in order to stifle free thought and ultimately don't have any active meaning. Nonetheless, some words do crop up in my language and they are important to understand.

But first, here's what I had to say about one slogan that really gets under my skin:

And that's the point of public relations slogans like 'Support Our Troops' is that they don't mean anything […] that's the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody is gonna be against and I suppose everybody will be for, because nobody knows what it means, because it doesn't mean anything. But its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something: do you support our policy? And that's the one you're not allowed to talk about.

Get it? Got it. Good. 

Structural Linguistics

This branch of linguistics started with that great Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and his groundbreaking work, Course in General Linguistics. But enough about him.

Structural linguists basically believe that you can write down all of the sounds, words, and kinds of sentences you hear in a language, and that this descriptive process is essentially just like how kids learn language. You have this basic set of language-y stuff, and you store that in your head, for later use in making language-y stuff that really isn't new, it's just your own mix of this goo that already got into your head.

They also talk about this thing they call the sign. The sign itself has two aspects: the "signifier" (the idea represented by the sign) and the "signified" (how the idea is represented). Still with us?

Now, according to structural linguistics, we can only understand signs by what they aren't. That is, you can't understand a word in and of itself; to really get it, a word has to be looked at in comparison to all other words at the same time. Or, like, we know a "t" is a "t" because it's not an "s" etc., so we know the difference between "cat" and "sat."

Exhausting, I know. Now you know why Post-Structuralism came along—theorists just couldn't take it anymore.

Generative Grammar (i.e., linguistic Post-Structuralism)

I'm one of those linguists who's really into syntax—i.e., the order of words, or, how words fit together to make sentences. It's such a lively subject. I just can't help myself. But back to the matter at hand. "Generative grammar" is more of a concept than a buzzword.

In short, generative grammar is a field of academic inquiry that aims to formulate a set of rules that can produce every single last one of the possible sentences in a language (or set of languages). These rules are viewed as operating on some mind-store of sounds and words—often called a lexicon—to create big long phrases that you and I can understand. Cool, huh?

I'm also interested in the commonalities that emerge across all languages. I believe these commonalities are evidence of what is "natural" or "inherent" to all human languages, and, therefore, what's common to all of our brains.

Generative grammar has many subcategories, such as phonology (sound patterns), morphology (analysis of language's structure), syntax (sentence structure), and semantics (what words mean).

I don't want to confuse you with all of these words (lol jk), but I will say that one of the most important aspects of generative grammar as I theorize it is that humans are born with a language faculty. There is something genetic about the precondition for becoming a talking human that is different from what all other living organisms are born with.

Look: the kiddos don't lick language off the walls. If there weren't an inherent capacity for language, toddlers wouldn't acquire language so quickly, IMO. You can disagree with me if you want—plenty of people do—but that's the end of that story as far as I'm concerned.

Transformational Grammar

One day, I just woke up and asked myself, "How does the brain represent and process language?" It took several cups of coffee and an Egg McMuffin, but in attempting to answer this question, I eventually arrived at the concept of a transformational grammar. Hang tight while I explain.

First of all, I believe that sentences function on two levels: "deep structure" and "surface structure."

The deep structure of a sentence is the basic idea of it: that kernel of whatever you want to express. I conceptualize this deep structure as a set of grammatical relationships between all of the words/ideas in a sentence. Like, in the phrase, "I throw you the ball," "the ball" is still the direct object of the verb "throw"—it's the thing you're throwing—even though we can utter these two phrases with the word "you" stuck between them.

The surface structure is exactly what you think it is: what people actually say. It's that simple this-word-comes-after-that-word kind of structure. The problem is, the surface structure of a sentence can only tell you the meaning of the whole sentence if that meaning is just the semantic sum of each word in it.

So this is how it all hit me: since we know there are single sentences out there that can have a ton of meanings at once, we know that surface structures—and the whole shebang of structuralism, really—can't be the whole story. Plus, humans can make up all kinds of seemingly nonsensical sentences that still seem "grammatical" or somehow linguistically well formed to us.

Dudes, after all, sci-fi/fantasy is a totally burgeoning genre of literature, and at least half of the words and ideas in those books are made up. But we just accept it when Harry Potter characters "apparate," am I right? I believe transformational grammar makes this possible.

And by now, you probably already know what I'm going to say: transformational grammar is what gets you from the surface structure to the deep structure.

If these revelations really light your fire, do check out my book Syntactic Structures. It's over 50 years old, but it's still influential (whether people buy what I'm selling or not). Forgive me for wanting to quote an outside source to explain myself, but when you are smart as I am, it can be tough to break your ideas down for the layman.

So now I am going to offer you what I have found to be a good explanation of generative linguistics:

Part of Chomsky's argument begins with the observation that language is infinite, with no end to the number of possible sentences that you can produce and comprehend. Take Chomsky's sole entry in Bartlett's Quotations, "colorless green ideas sleep furiously"; even if you don't know what it means, you can still immediately apprehend that the sentence is grammatical, whereas "green furiously ideas colorless sleep" is not. Yet any given child's experience is finite; we constantly encounter sentences that we have never heard or seen before. For Chomsky, the question of linguistics is how children bridge the gap between finite and infinite, from the finite input that they have heard to the infinity of what they can comprehend.

Classical Liberalism

Enough about linguistics for now, because I am so totally certain that you're bored out of your gourd right now. Instead, let's touch on a term that can tell you a lot about my politics.

You see, the founding fathers were Classical Liberalists because they opposed a powerful central government that was all up in the citizens' face. We're talking about minimal governmental intervention here.

What, you may ask, happens when the government gets over-involved in the lives of its citizens? People are robbed of their human potential, that's what.

And our founding fathers were also vigorous defenders of free speech, freedom of the press, and the right to assemble. As far as I'm concerned, if it weren't for the enlightenment and Classical Liberalism, anarchy and Marxism would have never even been conceived of.

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