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Generative Grammar

  The generative approach to grammar originates with the most influential linguist of the 20th century, Noam Chomsky. Although revolutionary, Chomsky\'s theorizing did carry forward several linguistic traditions, including the Descriptivist aim to study language in an objective manner. For Chomsky, this aim was achieved with the adoption of recently formulated terms and concepts from mathematical logic and recursive function theory. As a result, it became feasible for the systematic properties of syntactic relations to be expressed in formal terms.

A grammar that generates sentences should not be viewed as some kind of sausage machine, churning out, or generating, grammatical strings of words (sentences). The grammar itself is entirely neutral with respect to matters of sentence production and comprehension (see psycholinguistics). In fact, the term generate, in a formal sense, refers simply to an abstract ability to be explicit about the status of a given sentence, namely, whether it is grammatical or not.

The generative approach redefined the very object of enquiry in linguistics. Previously, a limited body of language data was analysed to produce a list of structural regularities. The problem, though, is that the insights derived from this approach cannot be transferred automatically beyond the confines of the particular sentences chosen for analysis. The more challenging goal, taken on by generativists, is to explain the linguistic competence of a native speaker, that is, the knowledge of language present in the minds of individuals. There is an attempt, then, to describe the grammars of specific languages, as known to their native speakers, in addition to specifying the knowledge of language shared by all human beings.

A striking property of linguistic systems, noted by Chomsky, is that an infinite number of different possible sentences can be produced and understood by the native speakers of a language on the basis of a finite set of grammatical rules or principles. Chomsky showed how this infinite formal power derives from the recursive property of grammars. Recursion is possible when part of the outcome of a linguistic rule can feed back into the original rule again, and set in train a potentially infinite cycle.

A central aim in generative grammar, then, is to capture those properties which allow the generation of all (and only) the possible sentences of a language. Additionally, the grammar provides each sentence with a description which outlines the construction type and the relevant relationships obtaining with other kinds of construction. Given the complexities of language, it is perhaps not surprising that it is a matter of some considerable controversy as to which particular rules or principles provide the best account of grammar. Nevertheless, the influence of Chomsky\'s concept of generativism is so pervasive that almost all syntactic theories developed since the late 1950s have shared the basic assumptions of the generative approach to grammar. MS

See also theories of grammar; universal grammar.Further reading G. Horrocks, Generative Grammar; , F.J. Newmeyer, Linguistic Theory in America.



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