What Is Generativism?

Generally speaking, the field of linguistics can be divided into four schools of thought: Functionalism, Structuralism, Generativism, Cognitivism. Today, I’d like to discuss Generativism, a method of studying language based on the idea of generative grammar created by Noam Chomsky.

A generative grammar is a set of explicit rules which projects a finite set of sentences onto the potentially infinite set of sentences, comprising a language. The grammar is based on the idea that languages have a limited number of linguistic terms which can be used to create an infinite number of sentences. Generativism aims to explain language as a form of knowledge that all humans possess as part of their cognitive makeup, allowing it to be explained with universal features. In summary, it is a school of thought that attempts to explain and categorize the language instinct with a set of rules that define grammatically accurate sentences from grammatical errors.

Generativism emerged from the rational critique of a former school of thought known as Empiricism, a school that focussed on the idea that the structure of the mind is linked to the structure of the environment. In other words, the followers of the school believed that language acquisition was driven by a learner’s environment, shaping that person’s brain. However, children are able to learn their native languages quickly without complete data from their environments: they are able to fill in the gaps themselves despite hearing other speakers make mistakes in their speech. Furthermore, it is practically impossible for a child to be exposed to every aspect of a language while initially learning it, meaning there is a clear difference between what is attained by the learner acquires (a rule) and the linguistic input the learner reveals from their environment (sentences that mostly conform to the rule).

In order to address these critiques, Noam Chomsky and his followers established Generativism in the early 1960s, and it has been enormously influential in linguistics, philosophy, and psychology. His new system held that language systems are productive, in the sense that they allow for the construction and comprehension of utterances that a learner has never previously encountered. Thus, the school explains why children are able to produce novel utterances even though they haven’t heard the utterances before; the learner must infer a set of rules by virtue of which the utterances are judged to be correct or incorrect.

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