Generative linguistics

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Generative linguistics is a school of thought within linguistics that makes use of the concept of a generative grammar. The term "generative grammar" is used in different ways by different people, and the term "generative linguistics" therefore has a range of different, though overlapping, meanings.

Formally, a generative grammar is defined as one that is fully explicit. It is a finite set of rules that can be applied to generate exactly those sentences (often, but not necessarily, infinite in number) that are grammatical in a given language (or, of course, particular dialect or otherwise sociolinguistically defined way of using a language), and no others. This is the definition that is offered by Noam Chomsky, who popularised the term, and by most dictionaries of linguistics.

More popularly, but somewhat to the apparent distaste of certain professional linguists including Chomsky, the term is used to define the approach to linguistics taken by Chomsky and his followers. Chomsky's approach is characterised by the use of transformational grammar - a theory that has changed greatly since it was first promulgated by Chomsky in his 1957 book Syntactic Structures - and by the assertion of a strong linguistic nativism (and therefore an assertion that some set of fundamental characteristics of all human languages must be the same). The term "generative linguistics" is often applied to the earliest version of Chomsky's transformational grammar, which was associated with a distinction between "Deep Structure" and "Surface Structure" of sentences, a distinction that Chomsky has since abandoned.

Chomsky also launched his approach to linguistics with a virulent attack on alternative approaches, in particular the behaviorist view then popular, in the form in which it had been put forward by B. F. Skinner in a book also published in 1957, Verbal Behavior. A final, and still looser, meaning of "generative linguistics", therefore, might be summarised as "anti-Skinnerian linguistics" - or just generalised anti-behaviorism.

Psycholinguistics, which in the early 1960s was developing rapidly as part of the general movement towards cognitive psychology, found this anti-behaviorist emphasis congenial, and rapidly absorbed many Chomskian ideas including the notion of generative grammar. However, as both cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics have matured, they have found less and less use for generative linguistics, not least because Chomsky has repeatedly emphasised that he never intended to specify the mental processes by which people actually generate sentences, or parse sentences that they hear or read.

Cognitive linguistics emerged in the latter years of the twentieth century as an alternative linguistic paradigm to generative linguistics. Cognitive linguistics seeks to unify the understanding of language with the understanding of how specific neural structures function biologically, whereas generative linguistics concerns itself with analysing only the language. he:בלשנות גנרטיבית


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