The transformational grammar is a kind of generative grammar , a stream of language developed by Noam Chomsky that provides a set of rules to predict the combinations that appear in grammatically correct sentences.
Avram Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, writer and political analyst. Born on December 7, 1928 in Philadelphia , he is Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at MIT .
Grammar is the most used and fertile study model to address any intellectual approach to language manifestations and norms. Through grammar we establish general rules for the correct use of language (task of the so-called normative grammar), or simply describe how the speakers of a particular linguistic community use their language (task of the descriptive grammar call).
Traditionally, grammar has simply been content with this. It established norms, classified all the types of words of a language until grouping them in a few groupings; then he established the relations between them and thus he could verify the great differences that exist between the languages.
Concepts and Perspectives of Transformational Grammar
However, this whole paradigm varied when a group of linguists, in the mid-twentieth century, began addressing the study of grammar under a new epistemological paradigm. The principal of these new scholars was Noam Chomsky, who advanced a revolutionary idea: according to Chomsky, the languages were not so different. Although superficially, there are languages that seem to have nothing to do with others (think of the Spanish, German and Chinese), he established that, in reality, they all shared a basic structure that was fundamentally identical. He called this deep grammar, and separated it from what he called superficial grammar. According to Chomsky, it is the superficial part of languages that varies, but their deep grammar is practically the same.
All this was the answer to Chomsky’s question: why is a child able to learn any language in the world? If a Japanese child was educated in Germany since childhood, he would learn German with the same ease as any other, and vice versa. Chomsky concluded that every human being is able to learn any language spoken in the world, even the apparently more different ones. And that led him to question the main conclusion of traditional grammar, which established the insurmountable differences between some languages and others, and to dismiss his methods for being too simple and interpretive. All of which led him to propose a new framework of study that ended up being called generative or transformational grammar .
The main paradigm of this new grammar is the following: starting from a set of finite elements (the words of a language), we can create another set of infinite elements (sentences). Indeed, the word combination is potentially infinite, and in fact, as other scholars soon found, speakers use language much more similar to the approaches of generative grammar than to those of traditional grammar. Or in other words: depending on the situation and the requirements, we continually generate new phrases and expressions, and do not simply repeat structures and phrases already learned. That is why languages change, evolve and mix. And all the processes of change, learning and evolution are the main field of study of generative grammar.
Transformational grammar appeals to transformational rules to represent the displacement of constituents and other natural language phenomena. Given its link with Chomskyan theory, we usually talk about transformational generative grammar .
Chomsky set out to analyze the type of language knowledge a speaker has. The linguist was interested in a person’s ability to formulate and understand sentences he has never heard. There is a type of knowledge that enables the development of unpublished phrases according to the needs of each moment.
Chomsky distinguished between the competition (the knowledge that is possessed of a certain language and that allows to understand the messages) and the performance (the concrete use of the competition). Therefore, he determined that grammar must present the grammatical rules that are implicitly applied to construct and understand sentences.
The transformational generative grammar tries to establish what are the grammar rules that allow it, from a reduced set of basic constructions, to generate an infinite number of grammatical sentences .
The Chomskyan stance made a big difference to descriptive grammar , which only limited the analysis to the constituents of sentences already issued. The American focused on a structuralism that transcends the descriptive, since it does not start from the sentences to analyze the structures, but analyzes the structures on two levels: one superficial and the other deep . In establishing this distinction, transformational grammar analyzes the transformations that operate between them.
When Noam Chomsky first published his theory of Transformational Grammar in a book (1957), his work caused great stir in the linguistic milieu because it posed a challenge to the foundations of structural grammars and also to behaviorist theories of language acquisition. In the first chapter of Aspects, he states that language learning is not a matter of habit and conditioning, but a creative process, a cognitive and rationalistic activity, and not a response to external stimuli.
The requirement for formal writing is a peaceful point for this theory of language to be explanatory and scientific. Thus, Chomsky promotes increasing formal rigor in addressing linguistic issues, promoting the formalization of linguistic studies.
In order to carry out his theoretical and scientific project, Chomsky chooses Transformational Grammar (ability to change) as the one that best covers the (syntactic) structures of language. First, he proposes that Transformational Grammar has two kinds of rules: the syntagmatic rules that generate abstract structures and the transformative ones that convert these abstract structures into terminal sequences, which are the sentences of language.
With the development of his theory, Chomsky instituted – besides the superficial structure (ES), which is the unity as they are presented in the sentences made – the notion of deep structure (EP), which underlies the superficial and where the Abstract shapes. Both structures relate through (phrase) transformations.
His book, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965) is a necessary reference to know generativism. It is also known as standard theory. In it, the sentence model has three components: the central (syntactic) and two interpretative (the semantic and the phonological). The syntactic is formed by the base of the utterance that generates the deep structures and the transformations that lead to the superficial structures. Already the two interpretative components focus on the syntactic component, namely: the semantic, on the EP; the phonological, about the SS.
Following this theory, Chomsky proposes in 1972 the extended standard theory and in 1976 the revised extended standard theory. These proposals always have the same goal: to value higher and higher ES, giving less importance to PE, discrediting the role of transformations. These various reformulations in his theory raise the question whether it was really necessary to make this distinction between ES and EP. If not, the contribution of transformational grammar was really ideological: it served to dismantle the behavioral conception of language that supported structuralism.
Transformational grammar makes two important contributions to language teaching: the first contribution is that transformational grammar has made explicit “the skills the language learner needs to approach the competence of a native speaker,” that is, the ability to distinguish grammatical from non-grammatical sentences, ability to produce and understand an infinite number of grammatical sentences. The second is that even a careful examination of these capabilities does not necessarily provide an answer to how they are acquired, it is evident that there are certain ways in which they are very unlikely to be acquired.
However, the clippings and exclusions made voluntarily by Chomsky and Saussure set aside the actual use situation (performance in one; speech in the other) to keep what is virtual and abstract (competence and language), both following the formalist trend.