John Phillips and Chrissie Tan (© the Literary Encyclopaedia)


Linguistic Competence defines the system of rules that governs an individual’s tacit understanding of what is acceptable and what is not in the language they speak.  The concept, introduced by the linguist Noam Chomsky in 1965, was intended to address certain assumptions about language, especially in structuralist linguistics, where the idea of an unconscious system had been extensively elaborated and schematized.  Competence can be regarded as a revision of the idea of the language system.  The empirical and formal realization of competence would be performance, which thus corresponds to diverse structuralist notions of parole, utterance, event, process, etc.  Chomsky argues that the unconscious system of linguistic relations, which Ferdinand de Saussure named langue, is often mistakenly associated with knowledge or ability (or know-how).  Chomsky is concerned to establish a science that would study what he calls “the language faculty”, in analogy with other mental faculties like logic, which as a kind of intuitive reasoning power requires no accumulation of facts or skills in order to develop.  Grammatical knowledge too seems to be present and fully functional in speakers fluent in any language.  So competence in Chomsky’s sense implies neither an accumulated store of knowledge nor an ability or skill.  He rejects Saussure’s langue as “merely a systematic inventory of items”, and instead returns to a rationalist model of underlying competence regarded as “a system of generative processes” (4).  This has the advantage of explaining plausibly events of linguistic innovation in unpredictable situations, as well as pertinence of expression and understanding in particular contexts.  This faculty seems to be absent in animals and (so far) in machines that can nonetheless be taught or programmed to use signs in imitative or predetermined ways.


A key source for Chomsky’s conception is Rene Descartes, whose concern with the creative powers of the mind leads him to regard human language as an instrument of thought.  Chomsky also cites Wilhelm von Humboldt as a source for the conception of the generative nature of competence.  Humboldt argues that use of language is based upon the demands that thinking imposes on language, and that this is where the general laws governing language originate. In order to understand the instrument or the faculty itself, however, it would not be necessary or even desirable to consider the creative abilities of great writers or the cultural wealth of nations; the linguist would, rather, attempt to abstract the generative rules, which remain unchanged from individual to individual.  Competence, in Chomsky’s sense, is to be regarded as entirely independent of any considerations of performance, which might concern other disciplines, like pragmatics, psychology, medicine, or literary theory. 


An individual’s competence is defined by the grammar, or set of rules, that is represented mentally and manifested by their understanding of acceptable usage in a given linguistic idiom.  Grammatical competence thus defines an innate knowledge of rules rather than knowledge of items or relations.  It is said to be innate because one apparently does not have to be trained to acquire it and it can be applied to an unlimited number of previously unheard examples.  The two phrases I speak acceptable Chinese and I speak Chinese acceptably would be regarded as acceptable by any native English speaker, but I speak acceptably Chinese would probably not.  Despite this, the more complex form, I speak quite acceptably Cantonese and some other Chinese dialects as well as Japanese, might be regarded as alright.  Examples like these are thought to provide evidence of a deep structure of grammar, in other words, a linguistic competence.


A project in generative grammar has two distinct aims.  First, it is a matter of analyzing the elements of a sentence or phrase into its distinct parts, thus revealing the so called deep structure of the sentence.  Competence thus implies an unconscious knowledge of the rules for converting deep structure into surface structure.  The procedures have been adopted by or incorporated into several approaches to text and discourse analysis.  The relationship between surface structure and deep structure can be easily demonstrated, for instance, by examples of structural ambiguity, a key source of jokes, like Groucho Marx’s line from Animal Crackers: One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas; how he got into my pyjamas I’ll never know.  The comic aspect of the punch line lies in its revealing the fact that the surface structure of the main sentence expresses two possible grammatical sentences: in my pyjamas I shot an elephant; and I shot an elephant who was wearing my pyjamas.  The discrete unit in my pyjamas each time plays a different grammatical role in the deep structure of the sentence.   


The second, more controversial, aim of generative grammar is to establish and produce descriptive models of the rules that compose the complete grammar.  The rules must be finite yet must be capable of generating an infinite number of innovative sentences.  This aspect of grammar is open to debate and misunderstanding partly because of the intuitive nature of an individual’s sense of what is and is not acceptable.  Projects in generative grammar abound with examples of sentences that lie on the boundaries of what speakers might regard as acceptable, revealing fine degrees of unacceptability as well as acceptability.  The point is not to establish what is right or wrong in any absolute sense.  Rather it is to establish first that a speaker’s competence leads them to intuitive judgments concerning the relative acceptability of sentences; and then it is a matter of producing models of that competence.  So the controversial aspect of generative grammar lies in its assertion of an innate cognitive faculty, from which issues the rules of grammatical structure and generation, and which thus describes the entire grammar of the language faculty, its syntax, which is manifested by an individual’s competence in their language.  Despite the ideal implied by the notion of a complete grammar, Chomsky insists that any science of the language faculty must, like all science, be subject to interminable revision and refinement. 


Diverse approaches in literary criticism and critical theory address both the productive potential and the problematic character of the notion of competence.  Michel Riffaterre’s response in 1966 to the exhaustive structuralist reading of Baudelaire’s “Les Chats,” by Claude Levi-Strauss and Roman Jakobson, accuses them of building a “supertext”, based on the collation and classification of regularities, which no ordinary reader could have arrived at independently of structuralist resources.  In a gesture that parallels Chomsky’s response to Saussure, Riffaterre constructs instead the theoretical fiction of the “superreader”, a notion designed to establish those moments in a literary text that invariably draw the attention of the reader because of their unpredictability in the face of normative grammatical restrictions.  Such moments invariably “hold up” the reading process.  The idea of the superreader is to be established independently of any consideration of external conditions on individual readers, the effects on understanding of continual evolution of the language, and changes in poetic or aesthetic conventions.  In later work, Riffaterre builds a sophisticated stylistic method that, again, parallels generative, or transformational, grammar.  He argues that a literary text can by analyzed for the way it has been generated from what he calls its matrix, a “kernel word” or “minimal sentence”.  The matrix allows the generation of forms more complex than itself, creating two levels: the generator (corresponding to the minimal deep structure of the work); and the transform (corresponding to the increasingly complex surface structure). 


Fascinating as the results of Riffaterre’s readings are, critics have discovered numerous problems with them.  The texts he chooses for analysis, for instance, tend to be unpredictable in consistent ways, like Lauréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror.  So while his analyses of texts like this are revealing, critics have been skeptical about his claims for a science of the literary in general, because many texts commonly regarded as literary can be regarded as grammatically normative yet effective in other ways. 


Jonathan Culler, in his Structuralist Poetics, moves away from the idea of the underlying competence of literary works, and considers instead the literary competence of readers.  Culler argues that this literary competence, regarded as a kind of grammar of literature, is acquired in education institutions.  In his later work, On Deconstruction, he develops the idea further, drawing on diverse critical responses to institutions, and questioning the foundations of a literary competence that surreptitiously promotes the doctrines and values of specific traditions.


Literary analysis has also been responsible for effective critical engagements with the implications of Chomsky’s concept of competence.  Colin MacCabe’s essay on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, “Competence and Performance: the Body and Language in Finnegans Wake,” takes issue with the biological grounds of Chomsky’s theoretical formulations, arguing that Finnegans Wake literally “dismembers” any normative conception of the relation between the body and language.  MacCabe argues that more weight must be given to the institutional forms of education and entertainment in the formation of tacit competence as a source of political force.  He insists that in order to build on Chomsky’s studies of competence a concept of discourse is required.


The concept of discourse would help bring Chomsky’s theoretical formulations closer to those of Michel Foucault, to whom he is often opposed.  Foucault, for instance, in The Archeology of Knowledge adapts the notion of archive to account for those rules that govern what we know and what we can say, but which we cannot, for that reason, ever describe.  These rules function not as part of an innate system, as Chomsky contends, but as a “system of accumulation, historicity, and disappearance” (Archaeology 130).  The archive thus designates what Foucault calls the “historical a priori”, historical conditions independent of experience that nonetheless help to determine it.  Several other theorists have comparable formulations, where the always apparently innate laws that conspire to form competences of certain kinds turn out to have been overdetermined by institutions or other systems of organization.  In these cases there are not only linguistic and literary competences but also competences of love, of sexuality, of urban dwelling and so on.  Jacques Lacan’s concept of the Other, as “the locus of the word”, functions just as Chomsky’s concept of the fluent speaker does, with the essential difference that Lacan’s Other is the locus also of the Symbolic and thus represents institutional normalization.  A further celebrated intervention would be Roland Barthes’s formulation, in S/Z, of the codes that he argues govern the realist text.  Barthes exposes a tacit understanding that disguises a highly sophisticated and multivalent matrix of assumptions and expectations.      


A J Greimas, in a discussion of the semiotics of amorous performance, after observing that “every performance presupposes competence”, tells a humorous anecdote that gestures to what is at stake:


I remember during one of Jakobson’s visits to Paris, the question was strongly debated between Jakobson, Lévi-Strauss and Lacan whether, if two young people had been raised following the precepts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “naturally”, without knowing the laws of love, could they or could they not exercise amorous doing?  … I recall that Lévi-Strauss was categorical in saying, “No, they cannot make love”, where Jakobson sided with nature (357).


This reported debate between Jakobson and Lévi-Strauss is suggestive of what is at stake in the concept of competence.  To side with nature is to side with arguments that define the human in terms of universal capacities.  Such capacities, these arguments claim, give rise to wide variations in performance (i.e., languages, cultures, individuals, etc.).  To oppose this view is to side with arguments that claim for human experience an unconscious, a priori, establishment of institutions, laws, histories etc.  In the absence of a model, so far, for an innate universal grammar, one might suppose that a capacity exists that contingently gives the speaker access to whatever syntax or other kind of competence might be required by environmental needs.  Then it would follow as a matter of course that competence no less than performance would always be institutional in some way.   




Noam Chomsky. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1965.

Jonathan Culler. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. London: Routledge, 1983.

Michel Foucault. Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. London: Tavistock, 1972.

A. J. Greimas. “The Love Life of the Hoppopotamus: A Seminar with A. J. Greimas”.  On Signs. Ed. Marshall Blonsky. London: Blackwell, 1985.

Colin MacCabe. “Competence and Performance: the Body and Language in Finnegans Wake”. James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word. Second Edition. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Michael Riffaterre. “Generating Lautréamont’s Text”. Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Poststructuralist Criticism. Ed. Josué V. Harari. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979.