Generative grammar

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In theoretical linguistics, a generative grammar refers to a particular approach to the study of syntax. A generative grammar of a language attempts to give a set of rules that will generate exactly those combinations of words which form grammatical sentences in that language. The term was originally used in relation to the theories of grammar developed by Noam Chomsky, beginning in the late 1950s, although Chomsky has said that the first generative grammar in the modern sense was Panini's Sanskrit grammar.,[1] and has also acknowledged other historical antecedents, such as Humboldt's description of language as a system which "makes infinite use of finite means."

Early versions of Chomsky's theory were called transformational grammar, and this is still used as a general term that includes his subsequent theories, the most recent being the Minimalist program. There are a number of competing versions of generative grammar currently practiced within linguistics. Other theories that have been proposed include dependency grammar, head-driven phrase structure grammar, lexical functional grammar, categorial grammar, relational grammar, link grammar, and tree-adjoining grammar. In stochastic grammar, grammatical correctness is taken as a probabilistic variable, rather than a discrete (yes–no) property.

Chomsky has argued that many of the properties of a generative grammar arise from an "innate" universal grammar. Proponents of generative grammar have argued that most grammar is not the result of communicative function and is not simply learned from the environment (see the poverty of the stimulus argument). In this respect, generative grammar takes a point of view different from cognitive grammar, functional, and behaviorist theories.[citation needed]


There are a number of different approaches to generative grammar. Common to all is the effort to come up with a set of rules or principles that formally defines each and every one of the members of the set of well-formed expressions of a natural language. The term generative grammar has been associated with at least the following schools of linguistics:

Historical development of models of transformational grammar[edit]

Chomsky, in an award acceptance speech delivered in India in 2001, claimed "The first generative grammar in the modern sense was Panini's grammar".This work, called the Ashtadhyayi, was composed in the 6th century BC.

Generative grammar has been under development since the late 1950s, and has undergone many changes in the types of rules and representations that are used to predict grammaticality. In tracing the historical development of ideas within generative grammar, it is useful to refer to various stages in the development of the theory.

Standard Theory (1957–1965)[edit]

The so-called Standard Theory corresponds to the original model of generative grammar laid out in Chomsky (1965).

A core aspect of Standard Theory is a distinction between two different representations of a sentence, called Deep structure and Surface structure. The two representations are linked to each other by transformational grammar.

Extended Standard Theory (1965–1973)[edit]

The so-called Extended Standard Theory was formulated in the late 1960s to early 1970s. Features are:

  • syntactic constraints
  • generalized phrase structures (X-bar theory)

Revised Extended Standard Theory (1973–1976)[edit]

The so-called Revised Extended Standard Theory was formulated between 1973 and 1976. It contains

Relational grammar (ca. 1975–1990)[edit]

Main article: Relational grammar

An alternative model of syntax based on the idea that notions like Subject, Direct Object, and Indirect Object play a primary role in grammar.

Government and binding/Principles and parameters theory (1981–1990)[edit]

Chomsky's Lectures on Government and Binding (1981) and Barriers (1986).

Minimalist Program (1990–present)[edit]

Main article: Minimalist Program

Context-free grammars[edit]

Generative grammars can be described and compared with the aid of the Chomsky hierarchy proposed by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s. This sets out a series of types of formal grammars with increasing expressive power. Among the simplest types are the regular grammars (type 3); Chomsky claims that regular grammars are not adequate as models for human language, because all human languages allow the center-embedding of strings within strings.

At a higher level of complexity are the context-free grammars (type 2). The derivation of a sentence by a grammar can be depicted as a derivation tree. Linguists working in generative grammar often view such derivation trees as a primary object of study. According to this view, a sentence is not merely a string of words, but rather a tree with subordinate and superordinate branches connected at nodes.

Essentially, the tree model works something like this example, in which S is a sentence, D is a determiner, N a noun, V a verb, NP a noun phrase and VP a verb phrase:

Basic english syntax tree.svg

The resulting sentence could be The dog ate the bone. Such a tree diagram is also called a phrase marker. They can be represented more conveniently in text form, (though the result is less easy to read); in this format the above sentence would be rendered as:
[S [NP [D The ] [N dog ] ] [VP [V ate ] [NP [D the ] [N bone ] ] ] ]

Chomsky has argued that phrase structure grammars are also inadequate for describing natural languages, and formulated the more complex system of transformational grammar.[2]

Grammaticality judgments[edit]

When generative grammar was first proposed, it was widely hailed as a way of formalizing the implicit set of rules a person "knows" when they know their native language and produce grammatical utterances in it (grammaticality intuitions). However Chomsky has repeatedly rejected that interpretation; according to him, the grammar of a language is a statement of what it is that a person has to know in order to recognize an utterance as grammatical, but not a hypothesis about the processes involved in either understanding or producing language.[citation needed]


Generative grammar has been used to a limited extent in music theory and analysis since the 1980s.[3][4] The most well-known approaches were developed by Mark Steedman[5] as well as Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff,[6] who formalised and extended ideas from Schenkerian analysis.[7] More recently, such early generative approaches to music were further developed and extended by several scholars.[8][9][10][11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ S.S. Chattopadhyay, An event in Kolkata, Frontline
  2. ^ Chomsky, Noam (1956). "Three models for the description of language". IRE Transactions on Information Theory 2 (3): 113–124. doi:10.1109/TIT.1956.1056813. 
  3. ^ Baroni, M., Maguire, S., and Drabkin, W. (1983). The Concept of Musical Grammar. Music Analysis, 2:175–208.
  4. ^ Baroni, M. and Callegari, L. (1982) Eds., Musical grammars and computer analysis. Leo S. Olschki Editore: Firenze, 201–218.
  5. ^ Steedman, M.J. (1989). "A Generative Grammar for Jazz Chord Sequences". Music Perception 2 (1): 52–77. JSTOR 40285282. 
  6. ^ Lerdahl, Fred; Ray Jackendoff (1996). A Generative Theory of Tonal Music. Cambridge: MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-62107-6. 
  7. ^ Heinrich Schenker, Free Composition. (Der Freie Satz) translated and edited by Ernst Ostler. New York: Longman, 1979.
  8. ^ Tojo, O. Y. & Nishida, M. (2006). Analysis of chord progression by HPSG. In Proceedings of the 24th IASTED international conference on Artificial intelligence and applications, 305–310.
  9. ^ Rohrmeier, Martin (2007). A generative grammar approach to diatonic harmonic structure. In Spyridis, Georgaki, Kouroupetroglou, Anagnostopoulou (Eds.), Proceedings of the 4th Sound and Music Computing Conference, 97–100.
  10. ^ Giblin, Iain (2008). Music and the generative enterprise. Doctoral dissertation. University of New South Wales.
  11. ^ Katz, Jonah; David Pesetsky (2009) "The Identity Thesis for Language and Music".

Further reading[edit]