What is Transformational Generative Grammar and What Does it Have to Do with New Testament Greek? (Part 1)

This past semester I was able to take the class “Advanced Greek Grammar.” Each participant spent the majority of the semester researching one topic which they then presented to the class. My topic was Transformational Generative Grammar. Transformational Grammar is an approach to linguistics that was developed in the 60’s and refined in the decades following. The man most associated with TGG is Noam Chomsky, who taught at MIT and is most well known for writing profusely in support of his anti-war views (I am assuming that this mostly has to do with the Vietnam War, but I didn’t get into his political views so I can’t really speak to that).

Chomsky reoriented the task of linguistics to focus on what is universal to every language – that is to say, not elements that are common to every language, but rather a common pool of elements from which all languages are constructed. Before Chomsky this was commonly accepted with regards to things like the various sounds that people use in speaking (this is called phonology). Since languages are constrained in the sounds they can make by the fact that they all have to be formed by the human mouth, there is a common pool of sounds out of which languages can be constructed (for example, the English “s”, the Greek sigma [σ] and the Hebrew sin [שׁ] all make approximately the same sound).

What made Chomsky revolutionary is that he supposed that there were common elements between languages with reference to syntax. “Syntax” is the way languages produce meaning by the way they arrange the parts of language. For example, in English, word order determines meaning. We put the subject first, then the verb, then the object, as in: “The dog bit the man.” You are able to understand the sentence because, whether or not you can explain the rules of syntax, you understand how to use them. Chomsky said that people, generally speaking, are able to tell between a sentence that makes sense and a sentence that doesn’t make sense in their own language. Although people may not speak in proper grammar or be able to explain what makes something grammatically correct, they recognize it because they have internalized a series of rules for their language. These internalized rules are what Chomsky calls a “grammar.” Chomsky wanted to understand how these rules could help a person to form (or “generate”) sentences that are considered grammatically correct to a native speaker.

Think about how insightful this is. If you have ever watched children learn to speak, you realize that they are being taught these rules by their parents and teachers without realizing it. They learn, for example, that the ending “-ed” makes a past tense verb (“I cook” becomes “I cooked”). So they try to make a sentence like “Daddy buyed an apple.” Then their parents correct them and they learn that the past tense of “buy” is “bought.” Eventually they internalize that rule, and in doing so they are developing a “grammar” of the English language.

Chomsky though that the common element in how all languages form correct sentences is that all languages have two levels of structure: a surface structure and a deep structure. The surface structure is what you read or hear. It is the actual sentence that is generated. But Chomsky noticed that often times sentences can have really different meanings, but be structurally very similar. For example, the sentences “Hezekiah is anxious to help” and “Hezekiah is difficult to help” are structurally very similar, but their meanings are pretty different. In other cases, one sentence can have two meanings, as in the sentence “The chicken is ready to eat.”

Because of this, Chomsky theorized that languages also have a second level of structure, which he called “deep structure.” The deep structure cannot be seen in the sentence, but it is implied in the sentence. So, in the first example above, the sentence “Hezekiah is anxious to help” is the surface structure, but has a deep structure that would be something like this: “Hezekiah is anxious for Hezekiah to help someone.” The deep structure of the sentence “Hezekiah is difficult to help” has the deep structure “Hezekiah is difficult for someone to help Hezekiah.” Similarly, the surface structure sentence “The chicken is ready to eat” can be related to two deep structures: “The chicken is ready for someone to eat the chicken”, and “The chicken is ready for the chicken to eat something” (This is all drastically simplified; linguists have developed more technical ways of expressing how language works).

What is the connection between the deep structure and the surface structure? Chomsky thought that they are related by a series of processes called “transformations.” He thought that the deep structure was transformed into the surface structure as the speaker applied the internalized rules of his or her language to the concept that they wanted to communicate. A very simple example of a transformation is deletion. The sentence “You wash yourself” is a descriptive sentence stating something (i.e. an indicative sentence). If we want to make it an imperative sentence in English, we delete the subject, resulting in “Wash yourself.” Chomsky would say that while the subject is not found in the surface structure, it is actually present in the deep structure, as evidenced by the fact that a reflexive pronoun is the object (which, in English, cannot be present unless there is something in the sentence for it to refer back to).

In conclusion, Transformational Generative Grammar is an approach to linguistics developed most notably by Noam Chomsky that says that a common element in the syntax of every language is that there is a deep structure and a surface structure that are related to one another by means of transformations. In the next post, I will discuss how Transformational Generative Grammar can be used in the study of New Testament Greek. In the meantime, if you would like a slightly more in-depth explanation of these concepts or to see some more examples of English transformations, you can read or download my paper on the resources page of my blog.


This introduction to TGG relies heavily on Jean Aitchison’s discussion in Part 3 of her book, “Toward a Universal Grammar” in Jean Aitchison, Linguistics (New York: David McKay & Co. Inc., 1978), 95-140.

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