(Pt 2) Reading: Language and Mind by Noam Chomsky, Chapter 2 (‘Linguistic Contributions To The Study Of Mind: Present’)

A Summary of Some Basic Linguistic Rules According To Noam Chomsky

We’re back!

Picking up where I left off: (Pt 1) A useful general dichotomy Chomsky establishes in this chapter is the difference between two types of grammar:

“…The discussion at the level of particular grammar would be one of descriptive adequacy, and at the level of universal grammar it would be one of explanatory adequacy” (32)

As the chapter progresses, Chomsky’s first rule called into the spotlight for analysis is the deletion rule, which he eventually shows that the conditions on and exceptions to this rule could prove in the future that the rule is completely incorrect. He actually uses strong language while talking about ambiguity in sentence structure:

“…The surface structure is often misleading and uninformative and…our knowledge of language involves properties of a much more abstract nature, not indicated directly in the surface structure” (37)

Then he rants for a bit about how all of the research into deep structure is shallow and aren’t complex enough. Not that he’s done anything to solve that problem.

Another rule discussed is that of vowel shifts in different forms of a word (adjectival, nominal, etc.) He loses me when he starts using weird symbols to signify consonantal shifts, but the concepts of vowel shifts and vowel/consonant preservation are important. Furthermore, the application of cyclic rules on sentences are also discussed, which seems to me to be a rather vague rule that is broadly categorical for the sake of categorization. One of the last rules discussed is the A-over-A rule, which is a rule discussing shifts from questions to imperative answers. This is discussed in conjunction with transparency in noun phrases. Finally, Chomsky ends with discussion of an erasure principle, which works in tandem with certain deletion operations.

The basis for all of these rules, however, is the most important. Chomsky says it clearly here:

“The most challenging theoretical problem in linguistics is that of discovering the principles of universal grammar that interweave with the rules of particular grammars to provide explanations for phenomena that appear arbitrary and chaotic” (48)

While I don’t agree with Chomsky on many levels, his reasoning for pursuing the fields of linguistics and his analysis of other linguists is well worth reading. Chomsky ends with an excellent point: any rule we make up in order to make a grammar clear is not necessarily part of the system that is the human language. The way we make up operations and rules to clarify language has no particular justification for its creation. All in all, while Chomsky did put somewhat of an agenda in this chapter, it tackled a lot of complex ideas and theories of linguistics that I would be otherwise unclear about.


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


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