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Essay about Noam Chomsky's Impact on Language

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Modern day linguistics has seen the arrival of many different viewpoints of language. Beginning with Noam Chomsky, unquestionably one of the most influential figures in recent linguistics, new theories and ideas have been introduced at a rapid rate. In part due to his status as a revitalizer in the field, but also due to his often controversial theories, Chomsky maintains a place at the center of this discussion. His search for a universal grammar and criticism of pure descriptivism have informed generations of research. Much of this has been reactionary against him, but his influence can not be discounted. His theories of a universal grammar have inspired writers on both sides of the debate. Paul Hopper argues against this view, positing…show more content…

He seeks to find underlying similarities across these “distinct” languages, to construct a general theory of a singular language. However, it seems as though he cannot be scientifically vindicated without the groundwork being laid down by many of the authors that he is critical of. Thus, it is particularly interesting that Chomsky seems to be so at odds with the idea of descriptivism. When Chomsky says, “Grammar should not be merely a record of the data of usage, but, rather, should offer an explanation for such data,” (587) he is acknowledging the usefulness, presumably to his own theories, of descriptive linguistics. He in fact recognizes the debt he owes when he says, “To me, it seems that [structural linguistics'] major achievement is to have provided a factual and a methodological basis that makes it possible to return to the problems that occupied the traditional universal grammarians...” (590) But he goes on to say, “On the other hand, it seems to me that the substantive contributions to the theory of language structure are few, and that, to a large extent, the concepts of modern linguistics constitute a retrogression as compared with universal grammar.” (590) Where the descriptivists see an end, Chomsky sees only the means, and is somewhat dismissive of them. Chomsky is relatively blatant in his rejection of these ends. He later states, “[The linguist] is, first of all, concerned to report data

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"Chomsky" redirects here. For other uses, see Chomsky (disambiguation).

Noam Chomsky

Chomsky in 2017

BornAvram Noam Chomsky
(1928-12-07) December 7, 1928 (age 89)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
EducationUniversity of Pennsylvania (BA, MA, PhD)
EraContemporary philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
SchoolAnalytic philosophy
InstitutionsHarvard University
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
ThesisTransformational Analysis (1955)
Doctoral students


  • Mark Baker, Ray C. Dougherty, C.-T. James Huang, Ray Jackendoff, George Lakoff, Howard Lasnik, Robert Lees, James McCawley, Barbara Partee, John R. Ross, and many others

Main interests

Linguistics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, cognitive science, political criticism

Notable ideas



    • J. L. Austin, Mikhail Bakunin,[1]Alex Carey,[2]C. West Churchman, William Chomsky, René Descartes,[3]John Dewey, Nelson Goodman, Morris Halle, Zellig Harris, Hebrew literature,[4]Wilhelm von Humboldt,[1]David Hume,[5]Roman Jakobson, Immanuel Kant,[6]Martin Luther King, Jr.,[7]Karl Korsch, Peter Kropotkin,[8]Karl Liebknecht, John Locke, Rosa Luxemburg, Dwight Macdonald,[9]Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, George Armitage Miller, George Orwell, W. V. O. Quine, Pāṇini, Anton Pannekoek, Jean Piaget, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Hilary Putnam,David Ricardo, Rudolf Rocker, Bertrand Russell, Russian literature,[4]Diego Abad de Santillán, Ferdinand de Saussure, Marcel-Paul Schützenberger, Adam Smith, Alan Turing, Ludwig Wittgenstein



    • Michael Albert, Julian Assange, John Backus,[11]Derek Bickerton, Bono,[12]Julian C. Boyd, Jean Bricmont, Hugo Chávez, Daniel Dennett,[13]Daniel Everett, Clinton Fernandes, Norman Finkelstein, Robert Fisk, Jerry Fodor, Amy Goodman, Stephen Jay Gould,[14]Glenn Greenwald, Gilbert Harman, Marc Hauser, Christopher Hitchens,[12]Norbert Hornstein, Niels Kaj Jerne, Naomi Klein,[12]Donald Knuth,[15]Peter Ludlow, Colin McGinn,[16]Michael Moore,[12]John Nichols, Ann Nocenti,[17]John Pilger,[12]Steven Pinker,[18]Harold Pinter,[12]Tanya Reinhart, Arundhati Roy, Edward Said,[19]John Searle,[20]Neil Smith, Aaron Swartz,[21]Crispin Wright,[13] and many others

Avram Noam Chomsky (US: ( listen)av-RAHMNOHMCHOM-skee; born December 7, 1928) is an American linguist, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, and political activist. Sometimes described as "the father of modern linguistics," Chomsky is also one of the founders of the field of cognitive science. He is the author of over 100 books on topics such as linguistics, war, politics, and mass media. Ideologically, he aligns with anarcho-syndicalism and libertarian socialism. He holds a joint appointment as Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and laureate professor at the University of Arizona.[22][23]

Born to middle-class Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia, Chomsky developed an early interest in anarchism from alternative bookstores in New York City. At the age of 16 he began studies at the University of Pennsylvania, taking courses in linguistics, mathematics, and philosophy. From 1951 to 1955 he was appointed to Harvard University's Society of Fellows, where he developed the theory of transformational grammar for which he was awarded his doctorate in 1955. That year he began teaching at MIT, in 1957 emerging as a significant figure in the field of linguistics for his landmark work Syntactic Structures, which remodeled the scientific study of language, while from 1958 to 1959 he was a National Science Foundation fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study. He is credited as the creator or co-creator of the universal grammar theory, the generative grammar theory, the Chomsky hierarchy, and the minimalist program. Chomsky also played a pivotal role in the decline of behaviorism, being particularly critical of the work of B. F. Skinner.

An outspoken opponent of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, which he saw as an act of American imperialism, in 1967 Chomsky attracted widespread public attention for his anti-war essay "The Responsibility of Intellectuals". Associated with the New Left, he was arrested multiple times for his activism and placed on Nixon's Enemies List. While expanding his work in linguistics over subsequent decades, he also became involved in the Linguistics Wars. In collaboration with Edward S. Herman, Chomsky later co-wrote an analysis articulating the propaganda model of media criticism, and worked to expose the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Additionally, his defense of unconditional freedom of speech – including for Holocaust deniers – generated significant controversy in the Faurisson affair of the early 1980s. Following his retirement from active teaching, he has continued his vocal political activism, including opposing the War on Terror and supporting the Occupy movement.

One of the most cited scholars in history, Chomsky has influenced a broad array of academic fields. He is widely recognized as a paradigm shifter who helped spark a major revolution in the human sciences, contributing to the development of a new cognitivistic framework for the study of language and the mind. In addition to his continued scholarly research, he remains a leading critic of U.S. foreign policy, neoliberalism and contemporary state capitalism, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and mainstream news media. His ideas have proved highly significant within the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements. Some of his critics have accused him of anti-Americanism.

Early life

Childhood: 1928–45

Avram Noam Chomsky was born on December 7, 1928, in the East Oak Lane neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father was William "Zev" Chomsky, an Ashkenazi Jew originally from Ukraine who had fled to the United States in 1913. Having studied at Johns Hopkins University, William went on to become school principal of the Congregation Mikveh Israel religious school, and in 1924 was appointed to the faculty at Gratz College in Philadelphia. Chomsky's mother was the Belarusian-born Elsie Simonofsky (1904–1972), a teacher and activist whom William had met while working at Mikveh Israel.

What motivated his [political] interests? A powerful curiosity, exposure to divergent opinions, and an unorthodox education have all been given as answers to this question. He was clearly struck by the obvious contradictions between his own readings and mainstream press reports. The measurement of the distance between the realities presented by these two sources, and the evaluation of why such a gap exists, remained a passion for Chomsky.

Biographer Robert F. Barsky, 1997

Noam was the Chomsky family's first child. His younger brother, David Eli Chomsky, was born five years later. The brothers were close, although David was more easygoing while Noam could be very competitive. Chomsky and his brother were raised Jewish, being taught Hebrew and regularly discussing the political theories of Zionism; the family was particularly influenced by the Left Zionist writings of Ahad Ha'am. As a Jew, Chomsky faced anti-semitism as a child, particularly from the Irish and German communities living in Philadelphia.

Chomsky described his parents as "normal RooseveltDemocrats" who had a center-left position on the political spectrum; however, he was exposed to far-left politics through other members of the family, a number of whom were socialists involved in the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. He was substantially influenced by his uncle who owned a newspaper stand in New York City, where Jewish leftists came to debate the issues of the day. Whenever visiting his uncle, Chomsky frequented left-wing and anarchist bookstores in the city, voraciously reading political literature. He later described his discovery of anarchism as "a lucky accident", because it allowed him to become critical of other far-left ideologies, namely Stalinism and other forms of Marxism–Leninism.

Chomsky's primary education was at Oak Lane Country Day School, an independent Deweyite institution that focused on allowing its pupils to pursue their own interests in a non-competitive atmosphere. It was here, at the age of 10, that he wrote his first article, on the spread of fascism, following the fall of Barcelona to Francisco Franco's fascist army in the Spanish Civil War. At the age of 12, Chomsky moved on to secondary education at Central High School, where he joined various clubs and societies and excelled academically, but was troubled by the hierarchical and regimented method of teaching used there. During the same time period, Chomsky attended the Hebrew High School at Gratz College. From the age of 12 or 13, he identified more fully with anarchist politics.

University: 1945–55

In 1945, Chomsky, aged 16, embarked on a general program of study at the University of Pennsylvania, where he explored philosophy, logic, and languages and developed a primary interest in learning Arabic. Living at home, he funded his undergraduate degree by teaching Hebrew. However, he was frustrated with his experiences at the university, and considered dropping out and moving to a kibbutz in Mandatory Palestine. His intellectual curiosity was reawakened through conversations with the Russian-born linguist Zellig Harris, whom he first met in a political circle in 1947. Harris introduced Chomsky to the field of theoretical linguistics and convinced him to major in the subject. Chomsky's B.A. honors thesis was titled "Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew", and involved his applying Harris's methods to the language. Chomsky revised this thesis for his M.A., which he received at Penn in 1951; it would subsequently be published as a book. He also developed his interest in philosophy while at university, in particular under the tutelage of his teacher Nelson Goodman.

From 1951 to 1955, Chomsky was named to the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, where he undertook research on what would become his doctoral dissertation. Having been encouraged by Goodman to apply, a significant factor in his decision to move to Harvard was that the philosopher W. V. Quine was based there. Both Quine and a visiting philosopher, J. L. Austin of the University of Oxford, would strongly influence Chomsky. In 1952, Chomsky published his first academic article, "Systems of Syntactic Analysis", which appeared not in a journal of linguistics, but in The Journal of Symbolic Logic. Being highly critical of the established behaviorist currents in linguistics, in 1954 he presented his ideas at lectures given at the University of Chicago and Yale University. Although he had not been registered as a student at Pennsylvania for four years, in 1955 he submitted a thesis to them setting out his ideas on transformational grammar; he was awarded his Ph.D. on the basis of it, and it would be privately distributed among specialists on microfilm before being published in 1975 as part of The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory. Possession of this Ph.D. nullified his requirement to enter national service in the armed forces, which was otherwise due to begin in 1955.George Armitage Miller, a Professor at Harvard, read the Ph.D. and was impressed; together he and Chomsky published a number of technical papers in mathematical linguistics.

In 1947, Chomsky entered into a romantic relationship with Carol Doris Schatz, whom he had known since they were toddlers, and they married in 1949. After Chomsky was made a Fellow at Harvard, the couple moved to an apartment in the Allston area of Boston, remaining there until 1965, when they relocated to the city's Lexington area. In 1953 the couple took up a Harvard travel grant in order to visit Europe, traveling from England through France and Switzerland and into Italy. On that same trip they also spent six weeks at Hashomer Hatzair's HaZore'a kibbutz in the newly established Israel; although enjoying himself, Chomsky was appalled by the Jewish nationalism and anti-Arab racism that he encountered in the country, as well as the pro-Stalinist trend that he thought pervaded the kibbutz's leftist community.

On visits to New York City, Chomsky continued to frequent the office of Yiddish anarchist journal Freie Arbeiter Stimme, becoming enamored with the ideas of contributor Rudolf Rocker, whose work introduced him to the link between anarchism and classical liberalism. Other political thinkers whose work Chomsky read included the anarchist Diego Abad de Santillán, democratic socialists George Orwell, Bertrand Russell, and Dwight Macdonald, and works by Marxists Karl Liebknecht, Karl Korsch, and Rosa Luxemburg. His readings convinced him of the desirability of an anarcho-syndicalist society, and he became fascinated by the anarcho-syndicalist communes set up during the Spanish Civil War, which were documented in Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (1938). He avidly read leftist journal politics, remarking that it "answered to and developed" his interest in anarchism, as well as the periodical Living Marxism, published by council communistPaul Mattick. Although rejecting its Marxist basis, Chomsky was heavily influenced by council communism, voraciously reading articles in Living Marxism written by Antonie Pannekoek. He was also greatly interested in the Marlenite ideas of the Leninist League, an anti-Stalinist Marxist–Leninist group, sharing their views that the Second World War was orchestrated by Western capitalists and the Soviet Union's "state capitalists" to crush Europe's proletariat.

Early career: 1955–66

Chomsky had befriended two linguists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Morris Halle and Roman Jakobson, the latter of whom secured him an assistant professor position at MIT in 1955. There Chomsky spent half his time on a mechanical translation project, and the other half teaching a course on linguistics and philosophy. Chomsky had been recruited to MIT by Jerome Wiesner, an influential scientist who, at this time, was also involved in getting the US's nuclear missile program established [64] Having brought such missile research to MIT, Wiesner then became a nuclear strategy adviser to both Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, before returning to MIT to oversee research programmes at the Institute.[65] However, despite its military involvement, Chomsky has described MIT as "a pretty free and open place, open to experimentation and without rigid requirements. It was just perfect for someone of my idiosyncratic interests and work." In 1957 MIT promoted him to the position of associate professor, and from 1957 to 1958 he was also employed by Columbia University as a visiting professor. That same year, Chomsky's first child, a daughter named Aviva, was born, and he published his first book on linguistics, Syntactic Structures, a work that radically opposed the dominant Harris–Bloomfield trend in the field. The response to Chomsky's ideas ranged from indifference to hostility, and his work proved divisive and caused "significant upheaval" in the discipline. Linguist John Lyons later asserted that it "revolutionized the scientific study of language". From 1958 to 1959 Chomsky was a National Science Foundation fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

In 1959 he published a review of B. F. Skinner's 1957 book Verbal Behavior in the journal Language, in which he argued against Skinner's view of language as learned behavior. Opining that Skinner ignored the role of human creativity in linguistics, his review helped him to become an "established intellectual", and he proceeded to found MIT's Graduate Program in linguistics with Halle. In 1961 he was awarded academic tenure, being made a full professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics. He went on to be appointed plenary speaker at the Ninth International Congress of Linguists, held in 1962 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which established him as the de facto spokesperson of American linguistics. He continued to publish his linguistic ideas throughout the decade, including in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1966), Topics in the Theory of Generative Grammar (1966), and Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought (1966). Along with Halle, he also edited the Studies in Language series of books for Harper and Row, and extended the theory of generative grammar to phonology in The Sound Pattern of English (1968).[79]

He continued to receive academic recognition and honors for his work, in 1966 visiting a variety of Californian institutions, first as the Linguistics Society of America Professor at the University of California, and then as the Beckman Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His Beckman lectures would be assembled and published as Language and Mind in 1968. In this period, military scientists were also interested in Chomsky’s linguistics. While surveying the field for the Air Force, the MIT linguist Bruce Fraser wrote: ‘The linguistic framework within which almost all of the current work in language processing is carried out involves the theory of language developed by Chomsky.’[82] Another survey from 1971 says that ‘much of the research conducted at MIT by Chomsky and his colleagues [has] direct application to the efforts undertaken by military scientists to develop such languages for computer operations in military command and control systems.’[83] However, these scientists eventually found Chomsky’s theories unworkable for their computer systems. Other subsequent difficulties with the theories led to various debates between Chomsky and his critics that came to be known as the "Linguistics Wars", although they revolved largely around debating philosophical issues rather than linguistics proper.

Later life

Anti-Vietnam War activism and rise to prominence: 1967–75

[I]t does not require very far-reaching, specialized knowledge to perceive that the United States was invading South Vietnam. And, in fact, to take apart the system of illusions and deception which functions to prevent understanding of contemporary reality [is] not a task that requires extraordinary skill or understanding. It requires the kind of normal skepticism and willingness to apply one's analytical skills that almost all people have and that they can exercise.

Chomsky on the Vietnam War

Chomsky first involved himself in active political protest against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in 1962, speaking on the subject at small gatherings in churches and homes. However, it was not until 1967 that he publicly entered the debate on United States foreign policy. In February he published a widely read essay in The New York Review of Books entitled "The Responsibility of Intellectuals", in which he criticized the country's involvement in the conflict; the essay was based on an earlier talk that he had given to Harvard's Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. He expanded on his argument to produce his first political book, American Power and the New Mandarins, which was published in 1969 and soon established him at the forefront of American dissent. His other political books of the time included At War with Asia (1971), The Backroom Boys (1973), For Reasons of State (1973), and Peace in the Middle East? (1975), published by Pantheon Books. Coming to be associated with the American New Left movement, he nevertheless thought little of prominent New Left intellectuals Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm, and preferred the company of activists to intellectuals. Although The New York Review of Books did publish contributions from Chomsky and other leftists from 1967 to 1973, when an editorial change put a stop to it, he was virtually ignored by the rest of the mainstream press throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Along with his writings, Chomsky also became actively involved in left-wing activism. Refusing to pay half his taxes, he publicly supported students who refused the draft, and was arrested for being part of an anti-war teach-in outside the Pentagon. During this time, Chomsky, along with Mitchell Goodman, Denise Levertov, William Sloane Coffin, and Dwight Macdonald, also founded the anti-war collective RESIST. Although he questioned the objectives of the 1968 student protests, Chomsky gave many lectures to student activist groups; furthermore, he and his colleague Louis Kampf began running undergraduate courses on politics at MIT, independently of the conservative-dominated political science department.

During this period, MIT's various departments were researching helicopters, smart bombs and counterinsurgency techniques for the war in Vietnam and, as Chomsky says, "a good deal of [nuclear] missile guidance technology was developed right on the MIT campus".[99] As Chomsky elaborates, "[MIT was] about 90% Pentagon funded at that time. And I personally was right in the middle of it. I was in a military lab ... the Research Laboratory for Electronics."[100] By 1969, student activists were actively campaigning "to stop the war research" at MIT.[101] Chomsky was sympathetic to the students but he also thought it best to keep such research on campus and he proposed that it should be restricted to what he called "systems of a purely defensive and deterrent character".[102] MIT had six of its anti-war student activists sentenced to prison terms. Chomsky says MIT's students suffered things that "should not have happened." However, Chomsky has also claimed that MIT has "quite a good record on civil liberties".[103] In 1970 Chomsky visited the Vietnamese city of Hanoi to give a lecture at the Hanoi University of Science and Technology; on this trip he also toured Laos to visit the refugee camps created by the war, and in 1973 he was among those leading a committee to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the War Resisters League.

As a result of his anti-war activism, Chomsky was ultimately arrested on multiple occasions, and U.S. President Richard Nixon included him on the master version of his Enemies List. He was aware of the potential repercussions of his civil disobedience, and his wife began studying for her own Ph.D. in linguistics in order to support the family in the event of Chomsky's imprisonment or loss of employment. However, MIT – despite being under some pressure to do so – refused to fire him due to his influential standing in the field of linguistics. His work in this area continued to gain international recognition; in 1967 he received honorary doctorates from both the University of London and the University of Chicago. In 1970, Loyola University and Swarthmore College also awarded him honorary D.H.L.'s, as did Bard College in 1971, Delhi University in 1972, and the University of Massachusetts in 1973.

In 1971 Chomsky gave the Bertrand Russell Memorial Lectures at the University of Cambridge, which were published as Problems of Knowledge and Freedom later that year. He also delivered the Whidden Lectures at McMaster University, the Huizinga Lecture at Leiden University in the Netherlands, the Woodbridge Lectures at Columbia University, and the Kant Lectures at Stanford University. In 1971 he partook in a televised debate with French philosopher Michel Foucault on Dutch television, entitled Human Nature: Justice versus Power. Although largely agreeing with Foucault's ideas, he was critical of post-modernism and French philosophy generally, believing that post-modern leftist philosophers used obfuscating language which did little to aid the cause of the working-classes and lambasting France as having "a highly parochial and remarkably illiterate culture". Chomsky also continued to publish prolifically in linguistics, publishing Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar (1972), an enlarged edition of Language and Mind (1972), and Reflections on Language (1975). In 1974 he became a corresponding fellow of the British Academy.

Edward Herman and the Faurisson affair: 1976–80

See also: Cambodian genocide denial § Chomsky and Herman

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Chomsky's publications expanded and clarified his earlier work, addressing his critics and updating his grammatical theory.

The work of anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker (left) and democratic socialist George Orwell (right) significantly influenced the young Chomsky.