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What Is the Minimalist Program?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated: May 23, 2024

The minimalist program is a technique for understanding grammar. The idea was first theorized by renowned grammarian Noam Chomsky in 1993. It is a form of inquiry linked to cognitive science and Chomsky’s earlier musings on transformative and generative grammar. Overall, it falls into the area of theoretical linguistics.

Grammatical studies have not been linked to any one single language, but seek to understand how all grammatical structures and rules come into being. The first studies of English grammar were written in Latin in the 17th century. Each language evolved in a different way, whether top-down like Japanese or oppressed and bottom up like English and Hungarian. How much any one individual should keep to the language’s rules, whether formal or informal, also varies from language to language.

Noam Chomsky, when defining the minimalist program, sought to build upon his own studies from the 1950s onwards concerning generative and transformational grammar. Chomsky summarized generative grammar in 1965. It is the study of syntax. Using such studies, Chomsky believed it is possible to predict a sentence’s morphology based upon its rules. This led to the creation of an algorithm.

The 1993 book on the minimalist program actually led to a return to the study of transformational grammar. Transformational grammar is where a small change to the deep structure of a sentence, its words and syntax, creates a new meaning within its surface structure. Simple examples include turning a statement into a question and turning an active sentence into a passive one. Deep structure involves the words and their relationships, while the surface structure is the meaning of the sentence as a whole.

Chomsky put forward two basic theories in the minimalist program. They were the economy of derivation and the economy of representation. The economy of derivation looks at how grammatical transformations match interpretable data with uninterpretable data. Representation looks at the purpose of a sentence and how a sentence’s structure is no bigger than it needs to be.

The minimalist program offers several innovations in approaches to grammar. First, it seeks to simplify how grammar is represented, simplify grammatical levels and remove government from linguistics. Linguistic government concerns a word and its dependent relations.

Chomsky also developed Base Phrase Structure (BPS) to replace the old X-bar theory. His simplified version concerned the basics of sentence-building. It represents bottom-up sentence construction as opposed to X-bar’s top-down theory. It also states that there are no preconceived phrasal structures in human linguistics.

Chomsky advocated the merge and move theory in his minimalist program. Merging occurs when two words are placed next to each other to make a new meaning; for example, soup and spoon. Soup spoon then becomes a label. Move concerns when a word shifts the reader’s attention from one subject-object to another.

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