Noam Chomsky

(1928 - )

Compiled by Elizabeth Crabtree (May 1999)

Chomsky Biography
Time Line

Noam Chomsky was born in 1928 in Philadelphia, PA. He can be classified as, but not limited to, a linguist and political activist. He has composed and published many literary works that have been dispersed throughout the world and have touched all four corners. He has worked to further the study and understanding of linguistics from both the biological and psychological perspective. Despite his linguistical endeavors, Chomsky has made the time to work for furthering peace, justice and fighting oppression and ignorance throughout the world. He has spoken against political intellectuals who have physically or even psychologically forced other countries to adopt their doctrines, even when it meant speaking up against his nature country. Such was the case during the Vietnam War, when Chomsky opposed US military involvement within the Vietnam boarders.

Chomsky's interest in linguistics can be traced back to his undergraduate days at the University of Pennsylvania. The professor that oversaw this blooming interest was Zellig S. Harris. It was through this professor's suggestion that Chomsky should try to diagram a systematic structure of some language. So Chomsky turned his attention to doing just that with the Hebrew language and the initial creation of his undergraduate thesis in 1949. Which he then went on to rewrite and finish in 1951 as Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew. In this paper, he tried to explain the dispersal of phonetic forms in Hebrew. Chomsky kept reworking this idea until its final publication as The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory. At first, his book was denied publication time and time again. It was finally accepted and started many linguist down the path that Chomsky had started to carve.

Despite his work as a linguist, Chomsky is also a renowned intellectual, author, political activists, civil libertarian, and anarchist. After his undergraduate studies, Chomsky moved on to Harvard University as a Junior Fellow in the Harvard University Society of fellows. This was during the early fifties and the young Chomsky had created a structural theory of linguistics that caused quite a stir. After Harvard, Chomsky went on to teach linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

NOTE: Noam Chomsky does not like the idea of biographies, in fact he despises them completely. He has held the belief that his literature and the points made within all his public manifestations, whether they be literary or political in nature, should speak for itself and need not the story or history of his life to support it or inspire it to others. This is a point well taken. Along with his disregard for biographical sketches, Chomsky also looks down on ceremonial gratification, surprises and humility has rendered him disenchanted with any type of public glorification. For example, for his birthday a collection of letters were collected from various people to Chomsky, thanking him for his work in linguistics, politics, and for effecting others educational endeavors. It was then placed without ceremony, nor much commotion, but quickly and discreetly on the man's desk. It was, no doubt, a birthday present to remember, but remembered in a quiet, discrete, manner. So with the nature of Chomsky's opinions about such manners in mind, I apologize to the great linguistic for my biographical effort.

Chomsky's research and influence on linguistics changed and modernized the discipline. For many years there has been a battle between linguistics as to whether language acquisition is innate or learned. Chomsky argues that language acquisition is an innate structure, or function, of the human brain.

Although known that there are structures of the brain that control the interpretation and production of speech, it was not clear as to how humans acquired language ability, both in its interpretive sense and its production. This is where Noam Chomsky made his contribution.

There are a few factors that Chomsky has used to support his theory of language acquisition. First is that there is an optimal learning age. Between the ages 3 to 10 a child is the most likely to learn a language in its entirety and grasp fluency. After this age, it is hard and even considered impossible for the child to completely grasp the language. This is why school systems are criticized for teaching foreign languages in high school and not in elementary.

The second factor is that the child does not need a trigger to begin language acquisition, it happens on its own. The parent does not need to coax the child to speak, if it around language production, the child will work to produce that language on its own. Several things may help the child develop faster, such as the parent producing baby talk, or being read to on a consistent basis. But these things only have a small effect, and if they are not done, the child will still eventually learn to speak without them.

Another factor found was that it does not matter if a child is corrected, they still grasp the language in the same manner and speak the same way. During one stage, a child will make things plural that are already plural. For example, a child will say geeses instead of geese. It does not matter how many times a child is corrected, the child still says geeses. In one documented case, a child, after being corrected several times by the mother to say feet instead of feets, looked at the mother, said "ohh," as if she understood and then proceeded to say feets.

Another fact is that children go through stages of language acquisition in which they learn certain parts of the language. They all go through these stages at the same time, around the same age. A child in China, will follow the same linguistic patterns of language acquisition as a child in the United States. It is with these observations, along with knowledge about neurological structures that control linguistic communication and interpretation, that Chomsky argues that language is innately organized.

Time Line

1928 ~ Birth in Philadelphia, PA
1949 ~ Creation of undergraduate thesis
1951 ~ Completion of thesis, Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew
1957 ~ Published the novel Syntactic Structures
1957 ~ Made associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
1960 ~ Given title of full professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
1975 ~ Became institute professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
1990 ~ Published On Nature, Use and Acquisition of Language

Chomsky, Noam. Cartesian linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought. New York, Harper and Row: 1966.
Chomsky, Noam. Current Issues in Linguistic Theory. New York, the Hague Mouton: 1964.
Chomsky, Noam. Language and the Mind. New York, Harcourt, Brace and World: 1986.


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