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Noam Chomsky Biography

(1928– ), tabula rasa, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Syntactic Structures, Cartesian Linguistics

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American critic and linguist, born in Philadelphia, educated at the University of Pennsylvania. He has held many academic posts in America and Britain, and in 1976 he became Professor of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For Chomsky the approaches to language of both traditionalists and structuralists were flawed or short-sighted. He saw the learning mind as neither a genetic reservoir nor a tabula rasa but the locus of a set of innate possibilities or capacities; above all, the ability to build entirely new sentences rather than (however elaborately) copy old ones. Chomsky spoke of the ‘deep structures’ of language, and of the relevance of a ‘generative grammar’, that is, of a set of rules which would permit the generation of coherent and intelligible sentences in a given language. ‘Obviously’, he wrote in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), ‘every speaker of a language has mastered and internalized a generative grammar that expresses his knowledge of the language. This is not to say he is aware of the rules … or that his statements about his intuitive knowledge of the language are necessarily accurate … Thus a generative grammar attempts to specify what the speaker actually knows, not what he may report about his knowledge.’ Chomsky's other major works are Syntactic Structures (1957) and Cartesian Linguistics (1966). His concept of ‘linguistic competence’—what a native speaker of a language may reasonably be expected to be able to say and understand—has been adapted by Reader-response theory, where the idea of an analogous ‘literary competence’ is often invoked. Chomsky is a radical critic of his country's foreign policies and was an important opponent of the US involvement in Vietnam. Among his best polemical works are American Power and the New Mandarins (1969), Deterring Democracy (1991), Year 501: The Conquest Continues (1993), Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War and U.S. Political Culture (1993), and World Orders, Old and New (1994). He has continued eloquently and indefatigably to campaign for the rights of repressed minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere.

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