A Brief Introduction to Chomsky’s Minimalist Program

American linguist, cognitive scientist and scholar Noam Chomsky has been publishing essays on subjects connected to language and how we use it since the 1950s. Chomsky first “began to revolutionize the study of language” formally and publically when he released Syntactic Structures, in 1957 (Rowe and Levine 140). His ideas about the roots of language seemed radical at the time—they challenged the dominant thinking about linguistics and language origin, that of the structuralist school. He most directly challenged the ideas of predecessor Leonard Bloomfield, whose “Bloomfieldian linguistics” examined mainly the sounds of language, breaking down, “describing and classifying sounds and then morphemes in terms of their function (Rowe and Levine 141).

But Chomsky came along with a new idea. Instead of merely taking the sounds people make into consideration, maybe linguistics should simultaneously analyze meanings. He also proposed the idea that for almost everyone on earth, learning a language is naturally fueled by some internal natural aptitude to acquire language (Rowe and Levine 141). He explained that a child developing language has the capacity to learn any language; that the child has an inherent understanding of the very most basic rules of language—a universal grammar (Rowe and Levine 141).

But there was a problem with the universal grammar idea. It was too essentialist. Anyone with some knowledge of how one or two languages work could explain that every language seems to have its own rules of grammar. How can these rules overlap?

Later, in the 1980s, Chomsky introduced the idea that language grammar laws have principles and parameters. That is, some of the rules do overlap. He posited that language acquisition in children actually is programmed. Children receive basic words and sounds and learn basic sentences first. From there they are able to adapt and rearrange the order of sentences, and expand on them. Chomsky explained that language learners need an “ideal speaker-listener” in a “completely homogeneous speech-community” to learn how to correctly use the grammar of their language (Chomsky, 1965, p. 3-4 as qutd. in Derwing 34). Occasionally, a child who is learning may commit an error in order or words or in word choice during the language acquisition process (34).

When a child begins to build onto his or her basic language skills and form new sentences with added vocabulary, that is when random generation begins to take place. Basically:

the random-generator position entails the random generation of sentences. In minimalist terms this means that syntax is regarded as a random generator of sentential structures, each consisting of a pair (SA,PR) in such a way that SA (semantic analysis) and PR (phonological representation are instructions to “external” systems of semantic interpretation and phonetic realization), respectively (Seuren 150).

Chomsky’s next major publication, The Minimalist Program, explained this process and further built on the principles and parameters theory. Chomsky explained that for language to be learned and to work between speakers, there needs to exist two things: a lexicon and a computational system (Seuren 151) “The computational system draws from the lexicon to form derivations, presenting items from the lexicon in the format of X-bar theory (Chomsky:1995:186, as cited in Seuren 151).

In more basic terms, there must be the capacity in the speaker (and listener) to physically form and make audible the sounds, and there must be a grammatical system (or computational system) of rules in place so that they speaker/listeners can understand one another. Chomsky calls these the sensory motor system (Phonetic Form/PF) and the semantic/conceptual-intentional system (Logical Form/LF) (Poole).

His shift in the study of linguistics moved even further from Bloomfieldian linguistics. He now began to speculate on a transfer from a “random generator” to a meditational concept of language—generative semantics. New vocabulary could be learned and absorbed and mastery of the grammatical rules, even experimental could take form. The idea of generative grammar explains how an individual’s language skills can expand and snowball. Generative grammar describes a prescribed set of laws for language which in turn yield infinite possibilities for how morphemes, or words and phrases, can be combined and formed, yielded infinite possibilities for “utterances” (Rowe and Levine 407).

MP is considered best approximation of “to what may be considered conceptually necessary with regard to any system associating meanings with sounds” (Seuren 31).

The idea that a language is grammatical has ancient origins. Basically, grammar = a “human language computation system.” As we develop and continue to learn, adult humans are constantly negotiating language (Seuren 32). Much of what we gain in language acquisition (and eventually lose) has a lot to do with our physical bodies—our minds, our ears and our mouth’s abilities to form and produce words. And though much of our spoken language delivery relies on the physical, in order for us to cognitively ingest and appropriately respond to language, as in the form of a conversation or written text, one must never overlook grammar.


Works Cited

Chomsky, Noam. The Minimalist Program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 1995. Print.

Derwing, Bruce, L. Transformational Grammar as a Theory of Language Acquisition. A Study in the Empirical, Conceptual and Methodological Foundations of Contemporary Linguistic Theory. London: Cambridge University Press. 1973. Google eBooks. p. 30-35. Web.

Poole, Geoffrey “Minimalism.” Key Ideas in Linguistics and the Philosophy of Language. Edinburg: Edinburgh University Press, 2009. Credo Reference. Web. 26 June 2014. Web.

Rowe, Bruce M. And Diane P. Levine. A Concise Introduction to Linguistics: Third Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice (Pearson). 2012. p. 140-144, 407. Print.

Seuren, Pieter A. M. “The Mechanism of the MP Under Scrutiny.” Chomsky’s Minimalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 26 June 2014. p. 30-51, 150-169. Web.

Smith, N. V. Chomsky: Ideas And Ideals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 26 June 2014. Web.

Stepanov, Arthur. “The End Of CED? Minimalism And Extraction Domains.” Syntax 10.1 (2007): 80-126. Academic Search Premier. Web. 26 June 2014. Web.



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