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Noam Chomsky (b. 1928) American theoretical linguist


Ferdinand de Saussure (1857—1913) Swiss linguistics scholar


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The term established by the American linguist Noam Chomsky to denote that unconscious store of linguistic knowledge which enables us to speak and understand our first language properly without having to think about it, permitting us to utter and comprehend sentences that we may never have heard before. Competence is what we know about the language we speak (without having to know that we know it), whereas performance is what we do with this knowledge in practice: that is, actual utterances. The distinction between competence and performance (similar to Saussure's distinction between langue and parole) is made in order to isolate the proper object of linguistics, which is to make the implicit rules of speakers' competence explicit in the form of grammar. The concept has been extended by theorists of communication, as ‘communicative competence’, and also adapted by some literary theorists who identify a ‘literary competence’ in experienced readers' implicit recognition of narrative structures and other literary conventions: a competent audience, for instance, will recognize the difference between the end of a scene and the end of the whole play, and so applaud at the right time.

Subjects: Literature

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