Syntactic Structures. NOAM CHOMSKY.
Syntactic Structures
Syntactic Structures

Syntactic Structures

“The mainstream of linguistics since 1957, the year in which [“Syntactic Structures”] appeared, has been dominated by Noam Chomsky …. It is difficult to overestimate Chomsky’s impact on both linguistics and contemporary ideas in general: ‘Chomsky is currently among the ten most-cited writers in all of the humanities [and social sciences] (behind only Marx, Lenin, Shakespeare, the Bible, Aristotle, Plato, and Freud) and the only living member of the top ten.’ It is common to speak of ‘the Chomskian revolution,’ so radically distinct is Chomsky’s program from that of his American structuralist predecessors.” — Mark Aronoff & Janie Rees-Miller, eds., “The Handbook of Linguistics” (Blackwell 2003), quoting Steven Pinker, “The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language” (1994).


In 1985, the linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum published an essay in the journal Natural Language and Linguistic Theory entitled “A Memorandum from the Academic Vice Chancellor ….” Inspired by a recent foundation grant of $20 million to Stanford University to establish a Center for the Study of Language, Pullum’s essay imagined the fighting that would break out in another (hypothetical) university receiving a similar gift, with the university’s three divisions — Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences — all competing with each other to host the new department, and to benefit from the resulting increase in scope, staffing, budget, and public attention. The essay presents the views of each of the three divisions on the true nature of the study of language, and therefore on the proper placement of the new department.

Some fifty years earlier, the infighting described in Pullum’s essay would have been narrower in scope and easier to resolve. Linguistics, with its roots in philology and the study of foreign cultures, was either a branch of the humanities or else it was one of the social sciences. That situation abruptly changed in 1957, with the publication of the work offered here. “The publication of Noam Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures marked a watershed in the study of human language. It was Syntactic Structures … that turned linguistics from a branch of anthropology into a mathematical science” (Keith Devlin, “In Retrospect: Syntactic Structures”, in Nature 386:670 (1997). The book introduced a new approach to linguistics, known as “transformational generative grammar,” that re-made linguistics into a formal theory (or, today, a congeries of competing formal theories) with deep links to mathematics, symbolic logic, and computer science. Indeed, Donald E. Knuth, author of the classic work The Art of Computer Programming, credits Chomsky’s book as an important influence on him; in the late 1950s, he had “found the mathematical approach to grammar immediately appealing — so much so, in fact, that I must admit to taking a copy of … Syntactic Structures along with me on my honeymoon in 1961. During odd moments, while crossing the Atlantic in an ocean liner and while camping in Europe, I read that book rather thoroughly and tried to answer some basic theoretical questions. Here was a marvelous thing: a mathematical theory of language in which I could use a computer programmer's intuition!” (Knuth, “Selected Papers on Computer Languages”; Stanford 2003).

By separating syntax from meaning (an idea embodied in Chomsky’s famous sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”), “Chomsky was able to bring the exact methods of mathematics to bear on syntactic structure … Specifically, it was Chomsky’s familiarity with the techniques of twentieth-century mathematical logicians such as Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel that provided the key to his new science of syntax … Chomsky set out to formulate rules that describe how words may be put together to form a grammatical sentence. It was, in other words, an ‘axiomatic’ approach to language” (Devlin, op cit.). (For a more detailed discussion of Chomsky’s generative transformational approach to syntax, see Robert Freidin, “Noam Chomsky’s Contribution to Linguistics: A Sketch,” in Keith Allan, ed., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics; 2013, particularly § 19.3.)

When Syntactic Structures was first published in February 1957, Chomsky was an unknown instructor. The book — an edited version of the lecture notes for a course he was teaching — was published by Mouton, an obscure Dutch publisher located in The Hague, as part of a series of short linguistic monographs collectively titled Janua Linguarum. It seems likely that the initial print run was extremely small (even though MIT had placed an advance order for 250 copies). An internal Mouton memo dated August 17, 1956, six months before the publication date, states that “I am glad that [Chomsky’s] MS for Janua is on the way. Like you, I am convinced that the book will sell well with this title; if sales are half as good as with Jakobson-Halle, I will be happy enough (almost 400 copies till now!).” Camiel Hamans, “The Coming About of Syntactic Structures”, in Beitrage zur Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft 24(1): 133-56 (2014). Clearly, the publisher’s expectations were not high. However, the book caught on. It has been was translated into numerous languages, and has never been out of print since its original publication. “Syntactic Structures became the one great bestseller of the Janua Linguarum series, with new editions and reprints in 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1976, and a thirteenth and last edition in 1978 ….” (Id.).

Origins of Cyberspace 532; Time Magazine ’s list of “All-Time 100 Nonfiction Books.”

The Hague ['s-⁠Gravenhage]: Mouton and Co., 1957. Thin octavo, original wrappers. Perhaps a touch of rippling to wrappers, a little fading to spine. VERY RARE SIGNED.

Note: A custom box is available for an additional $250..

Price: $3,800 .

See all items by