This Day In History: February 14

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Noam Chomsky presents his groundbreaking theory about human speech with the publishing of Syntactic Structures on February 14, 1957 (although some scholars debate the exact date). The book launches his career as the father of modern linguistics and helps to trigger the "cognitive revolution" in psychology and other fields. 

Syntactic Structures was Noam Chomsky's first book on linguistics. It was published in 1957, only two years after he earned his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. He had difficulty finding a publisher for his work, and the first edition was published in the Hague, in the Netherlands.

Syntactic Structures laid out Chomsky's theory of transformational-generative grammar. Chomsky proposed that grammar was a mathematical system with precise and finite rules, which could generate infinite sentences. The book included the famous sentence "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously," to demonstrate an English-language sentence which was syntactically perfect but semantically meaningless. Syntactic Structures also introduced, implicitly if not explicitly, Chomsky's argument that humans have an innate grammar hard-wired into our brains. 

Syntactic Structures launched Chomsky's career as the "father of modern linguistics." He developed and streamlined his notion of a universal grammar in publications over the following decades. Chomsky clarified that universal grammar was really a set of principles and parameters, and that recursion was a defining feature of human language. His work has been compared to Darwin's theory of evolution or Freud's theory of the unconscious in its seminal importance. Before Chomsky, linguistics was a structural discipline, which emphasized the socially constructed nature of language. After Chomsky, the field was forced to consider a different approach, one based on the innate human faculty of language. Chomsky argued that the fundamentals of language were not learned, but biologically inherited. According to his view, people are born knowing the universal principles of language before they learn a single word.

 Chomsky's publications set the research agenda and sparked controversy in the field of linguistics for more than fifty years. His ideas have also influenced the fields of psychology, philosophy, computer science and artificial intelligence. Syntactic Structures helped to trigger the "cognitive revolution" in psychology and other human sciences. Since its publication, researchers have debated the merits of Chomsky's claims. Chomsky's notion of a universal grammar is frequently critiqued as only applying to European languages. Studies of language learning in young children also challenge Chomsky's theoretical claims with observations of real-life childhood development. Critics further argue that some of Chomsky's assertions about the workings of the human mind are untestable, and therefore unfalsifiable.

Chomsky is also a sharp critic of American politics and foreign policy. He has written over 100 books on topics from linguistics to economic inequality to anti-imperialism. The breadth and depth of Chomsky's work has made him one of the most recognizable public intellectuals of the twentieth century.