الرئيسية / English / THE CHOMSKYAN THEORY: Past and Present

THE CHOMSKYAN THEORY: Past and Present

Introduction

It is widely known that Chomsky has  brought about a revolution in the field of linguistics. He has postulated a syntactic base called deep structure that consists of phrase structure rewrite rules and a set of transformations. Those phrase rewrite rules generate base or kernel sentences. Then transformational rules transform these kernel sentences into derived ones the sentences of languages then, can be generated by the application of transformational rules to the kernel sentences according to an obligatory and optional set of transformational rules. Thus, a derivation involves a sequence of phrase markers, the first of which is a base and the last is a surface structure that is equivalent to an actual sentence.

Despite the constant development in this framework, the notion of ‘transformation’ remained central in every version of TGG. Similarly, other characteristics of TGG, such as its analysis of inflectional affixes as being independent elements, continued to exist in subsequent formulations of the theory.

Nowadays different linguists practice various frameworks of syntactic theory.one of these frameworks is the Transformational Generative Approach being practice by Chomsky and many others of his students and followers. The fundamental basis of this framework is that there is a language faculty in the brain responsible for language acquisition. It consists of a system that stores data and other systems that access the data (Chomsky, 1995).

Noam Chomsky has shifted the focus of investigation from the “performance” (the speaker’s actual use of language) to the “competence” ( the subconscious control of a linguistic system). He criticized the empirical approaches of the previous decades and showed that they are inadequate to explain the complexities of linguistic structure and that a generative model is more adequate. He argued that semantic considerations were an integral part of grammatical analysis and posited a deep structure in his grammatical analysis.

Furthermore, Chomsky  presupposed that language acquisition  is a matter of mastering a rule system that permits us to distinguish between grammatical and ungrammatical sentences. He argued that this system of rules lies in the brains of the speakers of language and cannot be discovered by studying a limited corpus. Chomsky considered the study of language a clue to our understanding of the human mind and argued that linguistics could legitimately be a branch of cognitive psychology (Chomsky, 1972). He also pointed out that the aim of linguistics was to find out how language works and to establish the universal characteristics that define human languages. He has done his best to account for the creative aspect of language, which enables speakers to produce and understand new sentences uttered for the first time (i.e. the creativity of language). He, moreover, tried to explain the fact that children have to learn their languages in a short period of time on the basis of a limited data (i.e. the poverty of the stimulus).

Early Transformational Grammar

The earliest version of TGG was formulated in Chomsky’s 1957 book, Syntactic Structures. This book contained formal rules licensing all and only the grammatical sentences of the language in question. The key assumption of TGG is that an adequate grammar must generate sentences in a sequence, each related to the next by a transformation. For example, passive constructions were generated from the same underlying structure as their active counterparts. This was done, as shown in (1b), by a passive transformation that shifted the order of the two NPs and inserted the auxiliary be and the preposition by in their appropriate positions.

(1) a. The police chased the criminal.

      b. the criminal was chased by the police.

In his book, Chomsky (1957) also proposed that tense was a separate element apart from the verb in the underlying structure. A movement transformation too was designed to derive the construction of ‘inversion questions’. To account for the negation of sentences, moreover, he proposed an insertion transformation that positions ‘not’ in its appropriate place. Both these two transformations intervene and prevent the combination of the verb with the tense inflection[1]. For this reason, Chomsky devised a transformation capable of inserting the dummy do in order to carry tense. Several other functions of the auxiliary do (e.g. in ellipsis constructions) were analyzed as instances of tense stranding. This syntactic dissection of the functions of the auxiliary do as well as the clear demonstration Chomsky used in his book have convinced many linguistics.

The Standard Theory

After the modifications made to TGG in 1965, Chomsky labelled the resulting framework the ‘Standard Theory’. It differed technically from its antecedent TGG in certain aspects. Among the defining characteristics of this theory were the innovation of recursive phrase structure rules and the introduction of syntactic features to account for the subcategorisation. It surpassed the early TGG by proposing a semantic component called ‘deep structure’ (DS) to represent the necessary information for interpreting sentences. In this deep structure, a simple mapping between semantic roles and grammatical relations was claimed. The words and phrases in the surface structure were arranged identically, as is in an actual sentence (i.e. after the application of certain operations to DS, the resulting structure will be similar to the spoken or written sentence).  Thus, transformation in this theory played a very crucial role in linking sound to meaning.

The Extended Standard Theory

Unlike the generative semanticists who claimed that all languages could be derived from the same underlying structure, Chomsky and others (Stern, 1996) rejected the idea that similar sentences with identical deep structures must be synonymous. They insisted that transformations involved in the reordering of quantified expressions are capable of changing the scope of quantifiers.

Furthermore, they argued for the existence of another kind of structure responsible for semantic interpretation. Some empty categories were also introduced such as the subject of infinitives and traces that resulted from movement. Chomsky who named this theory the ‘Extended Standard Theory’ (EST henceforth) schematised the phrase structure rules and proposed a rich conception of the lexicon. This approach has modularised the theory of grammar with distinct mechanisms to process different phenomena. A main concern of EST has been to constrain the power of the theory in making available certain classes of grammar. This was accomplished by formulating principles and proposing parameters upon which languages vary. The number of possible grammars (i.e. languages) depends on the setting of those parameters. The rationale behind such constraints was explaining language acquisition, which Chomsky regards as the ultimate goal of linguistic research.

Government and Binding

Later on, and by the cooperation of various proponents of his revolutionary framework many changes and developments took place. For example, in the early 1980s the REST was refreshingly replaced by Government & Binding (henceforth GB) and its mechanisms. GB theory is a syntactic theory also made famous by the publication of Chomsky’s 1981 book, Lectures on Government and Binding. It involves relations of certain categories and elements “governing” and “binding” others in relation to their placement in the sentence. These relationships were supposed to explain restrictions on sentence output. (why a sentence “can” and “cannot” be said in certain ways).

The main topic of research in GB was the development of Universal Grammar. Within this context, GB proponents claim that many principles of the grammar are parameterised. Therefore, learning a language only requires fixing a certain set of parameters that are exceptions to universal linguistics principles plus learning the vocabulary of the language in question. According to GB all languages are essentially similar and vary only in fixing a limited set of parameters. The accomplishment of details about these parameters has been the most active area of research in syntax since the early 1980s.

GB assumes that Universal Grammar consists of certain principles that are shared by all languages. GB theory views Universal Grammar as a computational system made of two components: levels of representation and a system of constraints. It assumes a derivational model comprising four levels of representation (Black, 1999). The lexicon includes all the lexical items together with their idiosyncratic properties. For example, these properties include what sort of ‘subject’ or ‘object’ the verb must have. Lexical items are brought together at D-structure (underlying structure).

D-structure is converted into S-structure, which represents the surface order of the sentence. S-structure is not directly interpreted itself, but is transformed into Phonological Form (henceforth PF) and Logical Form (henceforth LF). PF is responsible for representing the phonological aspects of language. The phrase structure at LF explicitly represents the semantic relationships.

GB theory represents a great shift in the generative tradition. This shift was from transformations to constraints on them. These constraints are grouped together in “modules”. These modules are semiautonomous systems that contain principles and constraints on those principles. Each module applies at particular points in a derivation. Each one of these modules has its own universal principles. An output of a derivation is the result of the interaction between these modules. Transformations, moreover, were reduced to a single moving anything anywhere. Other general principles prevent Move α from overgenerating by filtering out any derivation. GB is also enriched by a number of new empty categories (see chapter 3). Binding theory, on which GB research concentrated, constraints on movement to anaphor/ pronoun-antecedent relations. As a result of the link between movement and the binding principles[2], a richly interconnected system emerged. For example, a constituent can only move to a position where it can bind its trace as shown in (2), otherwise the derivation will be ill-formed.

If the word who has been positioned in a place where it does not bind its trace, then the question in (2) will be ungrammatical. An important connection among movement, c-command, and binding theory is the fact that constituents cannot move rightward because they (i.e. constituents) will not be able to c-command the traces left behind. Thus, they cannot bind these traces either.

To conclude, we summarise the most noteworthy features of GB in the following list:

1. A highly articulated phrase structure encoding the important distinctions and relations.

2. The use of a single movement transformation Move α.

3. An extensive use of empty categories.

4. The use of parameterised universal principles.

5. The elimination of language-specific rules.

The Minimalist Program

Within ten years, GB too had become overloaded by many modifications, resulting in its replacement with the minimalist approach to language. There are two different characteristcs of the recent Minimalist Program (henceforth MP) developed by Chomsky and other linguists of generative syntax. First, derivations and representations conform to an economy condition requiring that they be minimal: no extra steps in derivations and no extra symbols in representations are allowed. Second, the theory itself has progressed in the direction of Minimality. Thus, the collection of different earlier transformations is substituted by Affect Alpha. The constraints on transformations and representations also avoid redundancy by not overlapping in a process that yields the same output.

MP is carried still further with specific proposals to reduce the levels of representation to the two minimally basic “interface levels” of Phonetic Form and Logical Form, which establish the instructions needed for the articulatory-perceptual and conceptual-intentional performance systems. It has also reduced X-bar theoretic relations to the primitives of “specifier”, “head”, and “complement”. Syntactic movement, moreover, has also been reduced to the elementary processes of copy and delete. Chomsky, in his 1995 book, The Minimalist Program, has advocated a view of language that is derivational and involves transderivational economic conditions on derivations. There, he viewed the syntactic component as a “near perfect” system associating selections of lexical items to pairs of phonological and logical forms. Variation in the syntactic component is essentially considered morphological in nature: strong features on heads force movement of phrases to local domains for checking and elimination (Johnson, 1996). In Minimalist accounts the language faculty is considered as consisting of two parts:

1. A cognitive system to store the data ( a computational system and a lexicon).

2. Performance systems to use and access the data (the “external” systems Articulatory-Perceptual and Conceptual-Intentional interacting with the cognitive system at two interface levels of PF and LF respectively).

According to Chomsky (1995), there is only one computational system for human language and a lexicon. This computational system consists of two operations Merge and Attract/Move. The Minimalist Program is a theory of Universal Grammar (UG) that considers a linguistic expression to be the most economic product of the interface conditions. The economy conditions of such a character ‘select among convergent derivations’ (Chomsky, 1995: 378). The Minimalist Program does not  presuppose the existence of any conditions (such as the Projection Principle) which relate lexical properties and interface levels (ibid: 220). Viewed this way, the economy of UG (for Chomsky) is mainly about derivational operations of the computation (derivation) such as Merge and Move. UG is not concerned with other operations of the cognitive system, such as LI (Lexical Item), FF (Formal Feature) selection for numeration N, or ther components of the system like “Lexicon”, but this is neither obvious nor empirically verified yet (Lotfi, 2000).

As its name denotes, MP is a research program rather than a syntactic theory. The key assumption in MP is that grammars do not generate sentences but rather they choose the most economic sentence from competitor expressions. MP has emerged from GB, but it represents a radical departure from it. Applying economic conditions to grammars and their operations in explaining language structure is the main goal of Minimalism. The value of analyses depends on how much they minimise the amount of structure and the length of derivations. Chomsky, in his 1995 book, The Minimalist Program, has proposed some principles to minimise the structure and length of derivations. These include ‘Procrastinate’, which says that a constituent does not  move any earlier than necessary, and ‘Greed’, which says that a constituent does not move to satisfy a constraint that properly applies to another constituent. This version of grammar in which transformational derivations compete in forming grammatical sentences represents a major shift in the methodology of  it is worth mentioning that MP has stimulated research in the field even though working out its details is still in its earliest stages. MP is still a very auspicious framework for clarifying the realities of the language faculty in a simple, natural, and economical way. The feature-based analysis in the study of syntactic derivations has been a very positive progress in the history of the study of syntax, too.

In fact, Chomskyan Linguistics is in a very rapid period of theory evolution right now. It has undergone four major revisions since Chomsky’s seminal work in the fifties. The original theory was Generative-Transformational theory, then came Government & Binding, then Principles & Parameters, and now Minimalism. Universal Grammar is still central as are the claims regarding the “poverty of the stimulus”, and the unlearnability of UG from the data the child obtains. To do him justice, Chomsky has been the hand that guided and modelled his framework regularly. He and others had published many books and papers until now. Studies are still carried out to solve some controversial and ambiguous issues. Most of these studies deal with language from the same point of view (as a component of the brain). These works are considered a great contribution in the development of the Chomskyan Theory and each represents a change in the focus of syntactic theory as a whole.


[1] This process is known as Tense Stranding in linguistic studies.

[2] The principles of binding will be discussed in chapter (3).

 

عن أ. فرج محمد صوان

استاذ علم اللغة التطبيقي و اللغة الإنجليزية في جامعة طرابلس وعدد من الجامعات الليبية. حصل على الشهادة الجامعية والماجستير من ليبيا، وشهادة في تعليم اللغة الإنجليزية من جامعة سري البريطانية (Surrey)، ودرس برنامج الدكتوراه في جامعة إيسيكس ببريطانيا (Essex). نشر ثمانية كتب والعديد من المقالات والبحوث. مهتم بالملف الليبي والعربي والاسلامي بجميع جوانبه السياسية والاقتصادية والاجتماعية والثقافية.

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