Generative Grammar

One of the funny (or maybe you don’t think it’s very funny) things about human language is that it is infinitely creative. You can carry on making longer and longer sentences for as long as you like, if you really want to. For example:

1. I saw the book.

2. I saw the book on the table.

3. I saw the book on the table in the living room.

4. I saw the book on the table in the living room at my friend’s house.

5. I saw the book on the table in the living room at my friend’s house in the countryside.

6. I saw the book on the table in the living room at my friend’s house in the countryside near a river.

7. I saw the book on the table in the living room at my friend’s house in the countryside near a river next to a mountain.

8. I saw the book on the table in the living room at my friend’s house in the countryside near a river next to a mountain in a village …

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If you really, really wanted to, you could just keep applying the grammatical rule for prepositional phrases forever and ever into infinity. How much do you like prepositional phrases?

I think we can all agree that you could probably keep this up for as long as you like, although thinking up meaningful prepositional phrases gets more difficult as you go along. It seems that it becomes difficult because you have to really be creative and think up stuff that makes sense. Also, you would probably get bored or confused (or go crazy or die)! But how can language be infinite?

Actually, the idea that language is infinitely creative has a very long history. In other words, people noticed this a very long time ago. A scholar named Pāṇini, who was born in present-day Pakistan about 2,500 years ago (no one knows exactly when because it was such a long time ago!), wrote a grammar for the Sanskrit language, giving lots of rules to produce well-formed sentences.

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Sanskrit text from the 11th century. Photo. By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The idea that language was infinitely creative was considered very important in the seventeenth century in Europe. The French philosopher René Descartes, of course, suggested that our ability to think, to reason, proves that we exist; it was widely believed that our ability to think was grounded in our ability to use language. So the power and creativity of language and the power and creativity of reason were closely connected.

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René Descartes on the right, with Queen Kristina of Sweden. Photo. By Nils Forsberg After Pierre Louis Dumesnil (1698-1781) (crop) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The nineteenth century philosopher Humboldt is regarded as the first European to notice that the infinite variety of language is rooted in a system of relatively simple rules. In the twentieth century, Noam Chomsky set out to understand how this is possible, building on the work of Bloomfield (1914) and Harris (1951). Modern Generative Grammars, applying rules recursively, like the prepositional phrase rule in 1-8 above, are able to generate an infinite set of well-formed sentences from a finite set of grammatical rules.

Droste
This picture shows a woman holding a tray. On the tray is a box. On the box we see the same picture of a woman holding a tray. The picture on the box also has a smaller picture that also contains another picture … and so on forever (except it doesn’t, because the picture gets too blurred)! Anyway, this is an example of recursion. In linguistics, it is the repeated application of a rule, potentially forever. Photo. By Jan (Johannes) Musset? ([4] [5]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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Matryoshka dolls employ a form of recursion. Photo. By BrokenSphere (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

References:

Bloomfield, L. (1914). An introduction to the study of language. New York: Henry Holt.
Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects Of The Theory Of Syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Chomsky, N. (1966). Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter In The History Of Rationalist Thought ([1st ed.). New York,: Harper & Row.
Descartes, R. (1637/1960). Discourse On Method And Meditations. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.

Harris, Z. (1951). Methods in structural linguistics. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Humboldt, W. (1836/1999). On Language: on the diversity of human language construction and its influence on the mental development of the human species. New York: Cambridge University Press (Originally published in 1836).

Featured image: By OldakQuill (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons