Reading: Language and Mind by Noam Chomsky, Chapter 1 (‘Linguistic Contributions To The Study Of Mind: Past’)

In his first chapter, Noam Chomsky traces the path of linguistic theories from the 1940s backwards, providing his perspective on how these theories have evolved and how they gave rise to his own theory of generative grammar. In Descartes’ perspective on linguistics and language use, one of his explanatory principles defined the physical body as a single ‘substance’, but the mental space, self-awareness, and awareness of others was still unexplained. Cartesian philosophers postulated that there was a second ‘substance’ whose essence was the mind. Language, according to Descartes, was the only philosophically reasoned proof that another human was in fact human.

The Spanish physician Juan Huarte, however, believed that there were three levels of intelligence in relation to language: simpleminded wit, or the ability to interpret signals from one’s senses; normal human intelligence, which allows for creation of new thought and processing and analysis of aforementioned signals; and a third level of intelligence, which is essentially creative thought. This served as the basis for psycholinguistic theory for a long period of time.

A fairly dead approach to linguistic theory pre-1950s was called ‘philosophical grammar,’ which centers more around usage – so closer to the modern theory of Cognitive Linguistics than Chomsky’s own Generative Grammar theory.

A book known as the Port-Royal Grammar provides one of the two basic tenets for Chomsky’s theory: the idea that a grammar of a language must contain a system of rules that deals with surface and subsurface structure. This book also provides an important linguistic observation that must be taken into account for in every theory – namely, the idea that a speaker can create an infinite number of sentences from a finite set of resources. For example, if I have found what I think is the longest sentence in the world, I can always make it longer by adding “Peter says [longest sentence],” then “Katie says Peter says [longest sentence],” and so on.

A Spanish scholar known as Sanctius gives the basis for the other of the two characteristics of Chomsky’s theory: the idea of linguistic competence, or knowledge, as a measure for linguistics in an individual and as an overarching characteristic of language. This is one of Chomsky’s points that Cognitive Linguistic Theory disagrees with most, which I will try to blog about later.

Finally Chomsky dips into Saussure, who divides linguistics into a slightly different dichotomy than Chomsky: langue and parole, or structure versus lexicon. Syntax plays little part in Saussure’s work.

Well that is all for tonight! Chomsky is an interesting read, mostly because what Chomsky agrees with, I do not. Cognitive Linguistics is diametrically opposed to Generative Grammar, which is why it’s great to get a read from the other side. Chomsky does have a great account of previous linguists, however, which is very useful in getting another perspective on the background of some of the founding fathers of linguistics. Just from tonight’s reading, however, it looks like Chomsky and Cognitive Linguistics theoreticists actually drew from the same body of source material – they just reached different conclusions. I still like Cognitive Linguistic Theory better than Generative Grammar Theory, but that’s very interesting.


Chomsky, Noam. Language and Mind. New York: Harcourt, 1968. Print.


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