History of Language Research–General Linguistics, Generative Grammar, and Cognitive Linguistics


Hello, I am Hisanori Iijima. In this issue, I would like to introduce the history of linguistics. The history of linguistics is said to have been studied since the time of Socrates in ancient times.

It has been more than 2,000 years since then. “General Linguistics” started by Saussure, “Generative Grammar” started by Noam Chomsky, an American linguist who revolutionized the world of linguistics, and “Cognitive Linguistics” which emerged as the antithesis of Generative Grammar. Cognitive Linguistics,” which emerged as the antithesis of Generative Grammar, will be explained in general terms.

General Linguistics(by Saussure)

General linguistics, also known as theoretical linguistics, seeks to describe and explain the nature of language as a universal human phenomenon. It is concerned with discovering general principles that underlie all languages, aiming to model what an ‘ideal’ language might look like and how it operates. Its subfields include syntax (sentence structure), phonology (sound structure), morphology (word structure), semantics (meaning), and pragmatics (context-dependent meaning).

The central questions in general linguistics involve understanding what is common to all languages, how languages change over time, how they are processed in the brain, and how children acquire their first language. By exploring these questions, general linguistics provides a broad foundation upon which other branches of linguistics, like generative and cognitive linguistics, are built.

Generative Grammar(by Chomsky)

Generative grammar, a theoretical framework for the study of linguistics, was developed by Noam Chomsky in the mid-20th century. This framework views language as an innate faculty in humans, coded in the genes, and aims to define the rules and principles that generate (hence the name) the structure of any given language.

The central idea behind generative grammar is the concept of a ‘universal grammar‘ – an inherent structure common to all human languages, which allows children to learn a language quickly and efficiently. This framework emphasizes the abstract properties of languages, mainly syntax, and often assumes that semantics and phonetics follow from syntactic structure.

Generative grammar has evolved through several stages, each represented by a different model, such as transformational grammar, government and binding theory, and most recently, the minimalist program. Each model attempts to specify the rules of grammar in increasingly elegant and minimal terms.

In this context, perhaps some of you (especially those of you in the sciences) may have heard of the “Chomsky Hierarchy”. Yes, that Chomsky’s theory is the “Generative Grammar Theory”. More specifically, Chomsky’s theory is very esoteric. Therefore, there is even a Chomsky dictionary on the market! LOL. Well, it is difficult!

Cognitive Linguistics(by Lakoff, Langacker)

Cognitive linguistics, on the other hand, is an approach that emerged in the late 20th century, focusing on the interaction between language and cognition. In contrast to generative grammar, cognitive linguistics denies the existence of an innate universal grammar and instead believes that language is rooted in our general cognitive abilities such as perception, attention, and memory.

Cognitive linguists see language as a tool adapted to the needs of human communication, shaped by human experience and the environment. They investigate the ways in which concepts are structured, categorized, and processed, and how these processes are reflected in language use. Key concepts in cognitive linguistics include metaphor, frame semantics, mental spaces, and conceptual blending.

One of the key areas of cognitive linguistics is cognitive semantics, which sees meaning as based on conceptualization rather than abstract symbolic relations. Another crucial area is cognitive grammar, which perceives grammar as a symbolic system that links semantic and phonological representations.


Each of these approaches to linguistics – general, generative, and cognitive – provides a unique perspective on the nature of language.

  • General linguistics gives a broad overview of the linguistic phenomenon, creating the platform for other fields to build upon.
  • Generative grammar investigates the innate, structural properties of language, emphasizing universality and innateness.
  • Cognitive linguistics, however, prioritizes the role of individual cognition and sociocultural factors in language use and acquisition.

These approaches are not mutually exclusive but rather complement each other in providing a holistic understanding of language. Language, in its complexity and ubiquity, necessitates multiple viewpoints for comprehensive analysis and understanding. The amalgamation of insights from general linguistics, generative grammar, and cognitive linguistics promises a more rounded and in-depth exploration of this uniquely human phenomenon.