Aspects of the Theory of Syntax

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1st edition

Aspects of the Theory of Syntax is a book written by American linguist Noam Chomsky, first published in August 1965. It is known in linguistic circles simply as Aspects. Chomsky wrote Aspects to address the various deficiencies found in transformational generative grammar (TGG), a new kind of syntactic theory that he had introduced in the 1950s with the publication of his first book, Syntactic Structures. In Aspects, Chomsky presented a deeper, more extensive reformulation of TGG.


After the publication of Chomsky's Syntactic Structures, the nature of linguistic research began to change, especially at MIT and elsewhere in the linguistic community where TGG had a favorable reception. Morris Halle, a student of Roman Jacobson and a colleague of Chomsky at MIT's Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE), was a strong supporter of Chomsky's ideas of TGG. At first Halle worked on a generative phonology of Russian and published his work in 1959.[1] From 1956 until 1968, together with Chomsky (and also with Fred Lukoff initially), Halle developed a new theory of phonology called generative phonology. Their collaboration culminated with the publication of The Sound Pattern of English in 1968. Robert Lees, a linguist of the traditional structuralist school, went to MIT in 1956 to work in the mechanical translation project at RLE, but became convinced by Chomsky's TGG approach and went on to publish, in 1960, probably the very first book of a linguistic analysis based on TGG entitled The Grammar of English Nominalizations. This work was preceded by Lees's doctoral thesis on the same topic, for which he was given a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. Lees was technically the first student of the new TGG paradigm. Edward S. Klima, a graduate of the Masters program from Harvard and hired by Chomsky at RLE in 1957, produced pioneering TGG-based work on negation.[2] In 1959, Chomsky wrote a critical review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior (1957) in the journal Language, in which he emphasized on the fundamentally human characteristic of verbal creativity, which is present even in very young children, and rejected the behaviorist way of describing language in ambiguous and vapid terms such as "stimulus," "response," "habit," "conditioning," and "reinforcement."[citation needed]

With Morris Halle and others, Chomsky founded the graduate program in linguistics at MIT in 1961. The program immediately attracted some of the brightest young American linguists. Jerry Fodor and Jerrold Katz, both graduates of the Ph.D. program at Princeton, and Paul Postal, a Ph.D. from Yale, were some of the first students of this program. They made major contributions to the nascent field of TGG. John Viertel, a colleague of Chomsky at RLE in the 1950s, began working for a Ph.D. dissertation under Chomsky on the linguistic thoughts of Wilhelm von Humboldt, a nineteenth-century German linguist. Viertel's English translations of Humboldt's works influenced Chomsky at this time and made him abandon Saussurian views of linguistics.[3] Chomsky also collaborated with visiting French mathematician Marcel-Paul Schützenberger, and was able to formulate one of the most important theorems of formal linguistics, the Chomsky-Schützenberger hierarchy. Within the theoretical framework of TGG, G. H. Matthews, Chomsky's colleague at RLE, worked on the grammar of Hidatsa, a native American language. J. R. Applegate worked on the German noun phrase. Lees and Klima looked into English pronominalization. Matthews and Lees worked on the German verb phrase.[4] On the nature of the linguistic research at MIT in those days, Jerry Fodor recalls that "...communication was very lively, and I guess we shared a general picture of the methodology for doing, not just linguistics, but behaviorial science research. We were all more or less nativist, and all more or less mentalist. There was a lot of methodological conversation that one didn't need to have. One could get right to the substantive issues. So, from that point of view, it was extremely exciting.".[5] In 1962, Chomsky gave a paper at the Ninth International Congress of Linguists entitled "The Logical Basis of Linguistic Theory," in which he outlined the transformational generative grammar approach to linguistics. In June 1964, he delivered a series of lectures at the Linguistic Institute of the Linguistic Society of America (these were later published in 1966 as Topics in the Theory of Generative Grammar).

All of these activities aided to develop what is now known as the "Standard Theory" of TGG, in which the basic formulations of Syntactic Structures underwent considerable revision. In 1965, eight years after the publication of Syntactic Structures, Chomsky published Aspects partly as an acknowledgment of this development and partly as a guide for future directions for the field.

Overview of topics[edit]

The goal of linguistic theory[edit]

In Aspects, Chomsky lays down the abstract, idealized context in which a linguistic theorist is supposed to perform his research: "Linguistic theory is concerned primarily with an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogeneous speech-community, who knows its language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, and errors (random or characteristic) in applying his knowledge of the language in actual performance." He makes a "fundamental distinction between competence (the speaker-hearer's knowledge of his language) and performance (the actual use of language in concrete situation)." A "grammar of a language" is "a description of the ideal speaker-hearer's intrinsic competence", and this "underlying competence" is a "system of generative processes." An "adequate grammar" should capture the basic regularities and the productive nature of a language.[6]

The structure of grammar[edit]

Chomsky summarizes his proposed structure of a grammar as follows: "A grammar contains a syntactic component, a semantic component and a phonological component...The syntactic component consists of a base and a transformational component. The base, in turn, consists of a categorial subcomponent and a lexicon. The base generates deep structures. A deep structure enters the semantic component and receives a semantic interpretation; it is mapped by transformational rules into a surface structure, which is then given a phonetic interpretation by the rules of the phonological component."[7]

The addition of a semantic component to the grammar was the most important conceptual change since Syntactic Structures. Chomsky mentions that the semantic component is essentially the same as described in Katz and Postal (1964). Among the more technical innovations are the use of recursive phrase structure rules and the introduction of syntactic features in lexical entries to address the issue of subcategorization.

Syntactic features[edit]

In Chapter 2 of Aspects, Chomsky discusses the problem of subcategorization of lexical categories and how this information should be captured in a generalized manner in the grammar. He deems that rewrite rules are not the appropriate device in this regard. As a solution, he borrows the idea of features from phonology. A lexical category such as noun, verb, etc. is represented by a symbol such as N, V. etc. A set of "subcategorization rules" then analyzes these symbols into "complex symbols", each complex symbol being a set of specified "syntactic features", grammatical properties with binary values.

Syntactic feature is one of the most important technical innovations of the Aspects model. Most contemporary grammatical theories have preserved it.



  1. ^ Halle 1959
  2. ^ Klima 1964
  3. ^ In Chomsky 1970:23, Chomsky writes that "Modern linguistics is much under the influence of Saussure's conception of langue as an inventory of elements and his preoccupation with systems of elements rather than the systems of rules which were the focus of attention in traditional grammar and in the general linguistics of Humboldt."
  4. ^ Yngve 1956.
  5. ^ Harris 1993: 68
  6. ^ Chomsky 1965: 3-5
  7. ^ Chomsky 1965: 141

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