I am curious to whether Chomsky has ever addressed anything about orthography, spelling or the impact of writing systems. The way I see it, orthography lies outside of Grammar in his theory. I couldn't find anything to support that, though. Has he ever written anything on it?

1 Answer 1


The first relevant work that I know of are comments for Project Literacy Meeting, Chicago, August 6, 1964, which was later published in Readings in applied transformational grammar, ed. by M. Lester (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970). There were a couple of other works from that early era, viz ‘Some observations on the teaching of Language’ in The pedagogic reporter 21, no. 1 (September 1969): 5,6,13 and ‘Phonology and reading’, in Basic studies in reading ed. by H. Levin and J.P. Williams, 3-18. New York: Basic Books, 1970.

I would also recommend Chomsky & Halle The sound pattern of English. Although you can never be sure who wrote or most-strongly approved of what idea in that work, I assume that at least at the time this represented his feelings. There are numerous short statements about orthography. E.g. p. 49

Orthography is a system designed for readers who know the language, who understand sentences and therefore know the surface structure of sentences. Such readers can produce the correct phonetic forms, given the orthographic representation and the surface structure, by means of the rules that they employ in producing and interpreting speech.

This is not actually a "scientific observation", it is a philosophical idealization of an ideal orthography created by an omniscient being, serving to illustrate the point that variation in pronunciation maybe should not correspond to variation in spelling.

  • Interestingly, Chomsky's syntax did not start with phonotactically analyzed speech, but rather with printed sentences. Syntax was not "a higher level of analysis", but rather something closer to philosophy than field linguistics.
    – jlawler
    Commented Sep 26, 2022 at 16:39
  • 1
    On the history of Chomsky, I like to start with pp 1-5 of his MA thesis, where he is clear that analysis of "grammar" presupposes a pre-determined fixed corpus of sentences.
    – user6726
    Commented Sep 26, 2022 at 17:11
  • @user6726 but he doesn't specify whether such sentences are spoken or written, does he?
    – Matt
    Commented Sep 26, 2022 at 17:25
  • 1
    Not only does he not say, but I think it follows from the "pre-existing corpus" view that he doesn't care. He did not do field work, and 100% of his works dismiss the question of where data comes from – data are arbitrary and axiomatic in his view.
    – user6726
    Commented Sep 26, 2022 at 17:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.