I've stumbled onto "The Science of Language: Interviews with James McGilvray" and it's great but I'm almost entirely ignorant about the field of linguistics. I've never come across any of the jargon before (Merge, Parameters etc). Despite not understanding much of it in any detail whatsoever there's enough of interest which I do understand to keep me ploughing through it, with the intention of re-reading once I'm better prepared.

I appreciate that it describes Chomsky's work on linguistics which is not really shared by most others in the field, but I was wondering what would be a good resource (book(s), papers, websites etc) for the interested layperson to get up to speed on, initially, Chomsky's theories and, more broadly, other contrasting theories.

  • Wikipedia's always a good place to start.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 13:43
  • 3
    Read some Chomsky. Don't go to secondary sources. Then you'll understand why his viewpoint isn't shared by most others.
    – jlawler
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 13:51
  • 1
    @jlawler This book is Chomsky. It's James McGilvray interviewing Chomsky and both authors have apparently edited and okayed the text prior to publication.
    – user709
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 14:26
  • 2
    You might try Radford Minimalist syntax as background and then move to Chomsky "The Minimalist Program" and "Beyond Explanatory Adequacy". You should expect a certain "Wait, what??" reaction to trying to integrate the totality of the theory. If you care, I would then suggest going back to "Syntactic Structures", "Aspects" and "Lectures on Government and Binding", to get the full impact of the theory.
    – user6726
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 15:19
  • 2
    Does this answer your question? Any solid textbook recommendations to begin studying linguistics?
    – user5306
    Commented Jul 3, 2021 at 0:20

2 Answers 2


For someone who's mostly ignorant of the study of linguistics, I think two good starter books are The Language Instinct (by Steve Pinker), and Foundations of Language (by Ray Jackendoff). Both are people who started more or less in Chomskyan tradition, and branched on in slighly divergent ways.

Those books are good overviews of the types of questions that linguistics asks and some of the types of phenomena it seeks to explain/account for. Unfortunately, both completely forego sociolinguistics, but I don't know offhand what a good lay introduction to that might be.

  • Given the question was tagged "chomsky", I'll assume both you recommended authors touch upon his theories either explicitly in foot notes or by implicitly agreeing with some aspects at least.
    – vectory
    Commented Sep 23, 2019 at 19:52
  • I don't know why you would assume anything, and I don't need the "chomsky" tag to see that the question explicitly asks about Chomsky-derived linguistics. I think my answer addresses the question. Apparently one other person did, too. What were you hoping to contribute with this footnote.
    – Fred
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 0:29
  • I think it's a joke? Someone asking about chomsky and related texts and you go oh right, chomsky, how about you read Jackendoff. The only missing bit for the punchline is calling the universal grammar and minimal programme books outdated. I agree insofar an exploratory book is not recommendable when the author obviously asks for an introduction to linguistics, but none of the two books you referred hit that spot either.
    – vectory
    Commented Sep 25, 2019 at 3:34

A high school student purportedly emailed Noam Chomsky the same question around May 2018. Putatively Chomsky recommended Charles Yang's The Infinite Gift and Ian Roberts's The Wonders of Language.

Personally I recommend Languages A Very Short Introduction, and Linguistics A Very Short Introduction.

The reading list on r/linguistics hasn't been updated since 2006, but I've read all these recommendations and vouchsafe them. Most of them have had new editions published, and I'll edit the edition number and years in the future if I get time.

General Linguistics

  • Adrian Akmajian, Richard A. Demers, Ann K. Farmer, and Robert M. Harnish. Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication. (2001).
  • Mark Aronoff, Janie Rees-Miller. The Handbook of Linguistics. (2003).
  • Kate Burridge, Tonya Stebbins. For the Love of Language: An Introduction to Linguistics. (2015).
  • David Crystal. How language works. (2006).
  • Victoria Fromkin, Robert Rodman, Nina M. Hyams. An Introduction to Language. (2011).
  • Bruce Hayes - Introductory Linguistics. (2010).
  • Ray Jackendoff. Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. (2003).
  • Andrew Radford, Martin Atkinson, David Britain, Harald Clahsen, Andrew Spencer. Linguistics: An Introduction. (2009).
  • George Yule. The Study of Language. (2010).
  • Ohio State University Press. Language Files 11: Materials for an Introduction to Language and Linguistics. (2011).