Transformation grammar is a way of viewing syntax first proposed in 1957 by Noam Chomsky, the most influential linguist of the 20th century. It is hard to overestimate the impact this new theory had on all of the social sciences; within a few years, it had replaced the prevailing paradigm of structuralism in linguistics and behaviorism in psychology. Chomsky’s method of explaining grammar is far-reaching and offers a unified view of the mind and human behavior.
Until the 1960s, stimulus/response-style behaviorism was at least tacitly accepted by an overwhelming majority of American psychologists (as well as by many working outside the field). Language was believed to be acquired through successive reinforcements of increasingly correct responses of a target item. Native English-speaking children, then, would go from saying wa-wa to wata to water because they would receive more drinks the closer they came to the adult pronunciation.
Until the 1950s, linguists were usually concerned either with historical issues of reconstruction or philology or with formal methods of describing the structures of the world’s languages. For example, much attention was paid to how constituents of words or sentences were organized hierarchically. Structural linguists could show why phrases such as “old men and women” were ambiguous (i.e., do we mean old men and all women or only old men and old women?) by dissecting them into their ordered component parts.
Chomsky showed the limitations of these approaches to psychology and linguistics. First, most infants are exposed more to baby talk than adult speech by their parents, yet most children learn correct forms. Second, Chomsky argued, because most people create new sentences they have never heard before, linguists need to focus their attention on how speech is generated rather than analyze forms already uttered. Chomsky posited a set of phrase structure or rewrite rules that outline how a basic sentence might be constructed in a language. For instance, in English we might define a rule whereby sentences are composed of (a) noun phrases as subjects (for example, “I”) and (b) verb phrases. A verb phrase (“ate”) can be rewritten as a pure verb plus a noun phrase direct object (“ate the hamburger”). Thus, a sentence such as “I ate the hamburger” could be made by these few simple rules. With the addition of a lexicon—a set of possible words that could fit into the various slots in a sentence—an infinite number of sentences could be generated.
However, most native English speakers intuitively feel that other sentences, such as “I did not eat the hamburger,” “Who ate the hamburger?”, and “The hamburger was eaten by me,” are somehow related to our initial sentence. Chomsky posited special transformational rules that formally derive these from the basic, or kernal, sentence. For example, a simple English passive transformation might be that if given a sentence of the form “X verbs Y,” we can create the well-formed sentence “Y was verb + past tense by X.” Thus, “Joe sees Jane” also allows us to say “Jane was seen by Joe.” The task, then, is to discover the right phrase-generating rules and all of the different trans-formations they entail.
Chomsky maintained that these kinds of rules, although specific to each language, are universal. All languages, then, are really more alike than different. Besides changes in nomenclature, Chomsky’s project has gone through several substantial revisions over the past four decades, including government and binding theory, principles and parameters, and the current minimalist program. However, transformation linguistics is still the dominant model in the language sciences (although certainly not without its critics). Thus, no linguists, anthropologists, cognitive scientists, psychologists, or philosophers have been unaffected by Chomsky’s theories, even if they are not in full agreement with his claims.
- Chomsky, N. (1957). Syntactic structures. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton.
- Chomsky, N. (1995). The minimalist program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Huck, G. J., & Goldsmith, J. A. (1995). Ideology and linguistic theory: Noam Chomsky and the deep structure debates. London: Routledge.
- Radford,A. (1988). Transformational syntax: A first course. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.