The Minimalist Program

From the 1950s onwards, the approach to Linguistics directed by Noam Chomsky was hugely influential. There was a massive increase in interest in the subject and people were thinking deeply about language as a creative system. However, not everyone was happy; there were a number of points that caused discontent among Chomsky’s followers.

Many of Chomsky’s views have been challenged.

One very big area of disagreement was the assumption that human language ability is innate. Chomsky took a very strong position on this, proposing that human beings are born with a special language module in their brains. Many people find this difficult to believe. They point out that language ability may be just one part of human beings’ generally more sophisticated mental abilities. This is the position taken by those who call themselves Cognitive Linguists.

Do we have a special, purpose-built module in our brains? Photo. By Grendelkhan at en.wikipedia [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

Unification Grammars tended to use complicated feature structures to show the information associated with individual words. This involves BOTH syntactic AND semantic information. Photo. By Lizmarie (Own work) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A major reason for the Linguistics Wars of the 1960s and 1970s was that people could not accept the way that semantics was being separated from syntax. Many people have suggested that syntax cannot be autonomous from semantics. Alternatives to Chomsky’s approach, including those favoured by Cognitive Linguists, tend to treat words as containing complex syntactic AND semantic information.


Many Linguists found it difficult to accept Chomsky’s reliance on movement operations in explaining how language works. The solution favoured by those working on so-called Unification Grammars was to develop more complex information in the lexicon. Individual words were assumed to contain highly complex structure which could interact with other words by a form of pattern-matching. This pattern-matching is referred to as unification or feature-sharing.

Unification Grammars such as Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar develop complex information, syntactic AND semantic, in individual words. Photo. By Lizmarie (Own work) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Perfect design

Dissatisfaction with Chomskyan Linguistics grew after 1993 when Chomsky started up the Minimalist Program. The Minimalists believe it will be possible to devise super-simple rules for language by assuming that our innate language ability is also perfect in its design. Some critics argue that it is completely unclear what this perfect design means; others argue that there is no reason to believe language would follow such a design, even if we knew what it was. In any case, we are still waiting for the Minimalists’ super-simple rules. People working on Unification Grammar argue that we already have a minimalist, super-simple system that only has one basic operation: pattern-matching (feature-structure sharing). Unification Grammarians are usually neutral on the question of innateness. Other animals appear to be capable of matching operations (at least in simple form), and Unification Grammar is better accepted among Cognitive Linguists than Chomsky’s approach.