Kind of a question about the meta-history of linguistics as a discipline. Chomsky released 'Syntactic Structures' in the US in 1957; Tesnière released Éléments de syntaxe structurale posthumously in France in 1959.

Some of Tesnière's ideas have become part of the norm in Bare Phrase Structure, but I've never seen Tesnière cited as the origin of these ideas. Several of the later developments within generative, constituent-based syntax are recapitulations of things that Tesnière was already doing in his work. When I say "Chomsky" below I mean in his original 1957 work, not his later works.

  • Projection and bottom-up syntax -- There is no node whose daughters do not contain itself. Chomsky views sentences as headed by a non-projecting S node; Tesnière by a projecting verb. In BPS, all phrases are built by self-replicating MERGE operations, which operate bottom-up, instead of the top-down phrase structure rules used by Chomsky's original work. BPS is 'categoryless syntax', in the sense that by relinquishing top-down PSRs, phrase types are dictated by their constituents instead of their constituents being dictated by their phrase types, like a dependency grammar. Also, The head of the sentence in BPS isn't the verb, but it is a projection of an actual node, not just an abstract non-projecting "S".
  • Subject inside verb shells -- Chomsky divides the sentence (S) between subject (NP) and predicate (VP). Tesnière places subjects as subordinate to verbs. The vP hypothesis and subject-internal VP hypothesis in later Chomskyan linguistics generates the subject as specifier to the VP or vP.
  • Dependencies -- The relations which Tesnière calls 'dependencies' are maybe recapitulated in Chomskyan linguistics as 'interpretable features'. We might say that X 'depends on' Y for the interpretation of a feature like Case, theta-role, gender, number, and so on.
  • Arguments -- Tesnière's concepts of argument and adjunct are captured by different structural positions in X' theory; Tesnière's concept of valency comes up frequently in later Chomskyan works.
  • Agnostic directionality of heads -- Tesnière's original representations do not reflect the linear order of words; they tend to be agnostic on linearity, and effectively state that the difference between head-initialism and head-finality is mostly arbitrary. In later Chomskyan works, the linear order of the phrasal head is something decided by the PF, and the LF is largely oblivious to it.

It seems like at least some elements of Chomskyan grammar are, perhaps not taken from Tesnière, they are at least independently arrived upon the original positions of Tesnière. The big differences, structurally, seem to be that the Chomskyan tradition has embraced 'movement' and multiple levels of syntactic representation and the fuller integration of syntax with morphology and semantics (though Chomsky was originally in agreement with Tesnière that syntax was very distinct from both; he originated the doctrine of 'lexicalism' and was infamously dismissive of semantics early on).

Yet, I don't think I have ever read a theory paper from the generative linguistic tradition which has cited Tesnière or credited him for being first to point out certain syntactic facts. Chomsky knows French, so he certainly could have read Tesnière; before becoming a professor, he was a grader and tutor in French and German classes.

Did Chomsky ever cite or acknowledge Tesnière? Were his later ideas influenced by him in any significant way? Or, is this truly a case of 'convergence', where two theorists arrive independently on the same facts? I just find it odd that in all my schooling in the generative tradition, only one professor ever called attention to Tesnière, even though he was the first to posit many of the theoretical positions which now form the core 'orthodoxy' of generative linguistics.

  • Interesting... I've seen in an interview where he's asked about other languages and he says he wishes he knew any... Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 12:56
  • @Luke Sawczak Oh wow, really? I’ve seen an interview with him describing how he got interested in languages and he talks about growing up learning Hebrew from his Jewish education and then assisting French and German classes at I believe UPenn? I’ll have to try and find that interview again to double check I’m not mistaken about this anecdote. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Chomsky just has a really high bar for what he considers “knowing” another language.
    – Khove
    Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 15:40
  • That's quite possible, and he may even mean be distinguishing comprehension and production (though being a tutor in said classes suggests needing both anyway). Also, I just checked my own and he says "I'd love it if I were bilingual" — which can mean quite a different thing from having learned to speak two languages. So we can probably discard my point! Commented Jun 20, 2021 at 17:58
  • In this video, Chomsky appears to clearly understand Foucault's French: youtube.com/watch?v=3wfNl2L0Gf8 Commented Jul 1, 2021 at 14:30

1 Answer 1


I do not think that Chomsky ever cited Tesnière in a meaningful way, because if he had, we would know about it. I state this as the main translator of Tesnière's work Elements of structural syntax to English. Consider the question from the point of view of the tremendous impact that Chomsky's ideas have had on the linguistics world. Had Chomsky ever cited Tesnière's works in a meaningful way, the linguistics world in general would likely now be much more aware of Tesnière's contributions than it is.

There is another important fact in this area, one that the question alludes to. Tesnière died in 1954, and at that time he had only one published sketch of his approach to syntax (Esquisse d'une syntaxe structurale, 1954). It is plausible to assume that Chomsky did not know about it, mainly because Tesnière was not a prominent linguist before his death. Thus, my stance is that some of the key ideas present in Tesnière's oeuvre appeared later in Chomsky's works largely independently. Chomsky likely never had and has not had any direct exposure to Tesnière's ideas.

There certainly does seem to have been some of Tesnière's thinking in the air, though. The strongest piece of evidence of this in my view is Tesnière's nonsense sentence Le silence vertébral indispose la voile licite 'The vertebral silence indisposes the licit sail', which Tesnière penned at some time in the 1940s when he was drafting his Elements. Chomsky appears to have seized on the same idea, his famous sentence Colorless green ideas sleep furiously appearing in his thesis from 1955.

Interestingly, this question could be answered definitively if someone were to simply ask Chomsky himself. I myself am in no position to do this, but someone may know someone who could do it. I am just putting the possibility out there. I for one would very much enjoy hearing how Chomsky answers the question.

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