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Who is Noam Chomsky?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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Noam Chomsky, born Avram Noam Chomsky in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 7 December 1928, is an influential linguist, professor, author, and activist. He was Institute Professor as well as Professor of Linguistics at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Chomsky has lectured and resided at many universities worldwide.

Chomsky earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as a PhD in linguistics. He has authored dozens of books since 1955. Some of his best known include The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Language and Mind, and American Power and the New Mandarins. Imperial Ambitions and Failed States were published in 2006.

His approach to linguistics stems from rationalist philosophy, which holds that the mind is not a blank slate at birth, dependent on experience and learning, but rather is pre-equipped with knowledge universal to human nature. Chomsky believes that all languages — and there are more than 5,000 — contain core similarities in grammar structure that humans inherently understand from birth. The languages people are exposed to at an early age make no difference.

This concept is called transformational generative grammar. Chomsky stresses that it is the universal unconscious aspects of language that allow individuals to create original grammatic sentences. This approach sees linguistics as not merely connected to psychology, but as a definite component of psychology.

According to Chomsky, humans are innately prepared to be immune to tolerate unreasonable political environments. He contends that we are free agents up to a point, because we are very much limited by protective cognitive structures present from birth. He was an anti-war activist in the 1960s and has continued to be a critic of American foreign policy and the United States' participation in war. Many of his writings are political and speak of the need for strong social change in our world.

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Discussion Comments

By cyprus — On Jan 06, 2012

Good point, concordski. "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" is Chomsky's example of a sentence that is grammatically correct, yet nonetheless nonsensical.

You may want to check out my wiseGEEK article, "What is Word Salad" that includes Chomsky's famous "green ideas" sentence. Thanks for your comment!

By anon213388 — On Sep 10, 2011

Chomsky became interested in politics when it became propitious and life threatening to do so.

By anon34479 — On Jun 23, 2009

To me Noam Chomsky exhibits clarity. In my search about educational aspects of child rearing, clarity is the essential quality wading through the morass of philosophies. I highly recommend your consideration of his short BBC interview and another with interviewer Marr.

Lawson, Texas

By concordski — On May 25, 2009

thinking back to when i studied chomsky in a philosophy class, i remember that he created the following simple sentence as an example of a sentence that no one had spoken or heard of before: "colorless green ideas sleep furiously."

its part of a more complex point that i won't go into here, but i just wanted to remind people that chomsky was first and foremost a leading linguist. he only became interested in politics later in his career.

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