LINGUIST List 5.272

Mon 07 Mar 1994

Disc: Mainstream Linguistics

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Steve Berman, 5.270 Mainstream Linguistics
  2. Vicki Fromkin, Re: 5.270 Mainstream Linguistics
  3. , Re: 5.270 Mainstream Linguistics
  4. Bernhard Rohrbacher, Re: 5.270 Mainstream Linguistics

Message 1: 5.270 Mainstream Linguistics

Date: Mon, 7 Mar 1994 17:15:41 +5.270 Mainstream Linguistics
From: Steve Berman <>
Subject: 5.270 Mainstream Linguistics

John Sowa writes:

 Chomsky established his reputation by his brilliant
 contributions in the 1950s and '60s. Since the early '70s, Chomsky has
 continued to make important positive contributions to linguistics.
 Unfortunately, his polemics and virulent attacks on younger colleagues
 have had a disastrous effect on the progress of linguistics and related
 areas of cognitive science.

Can he provide citations of "virulent attacks on younger colleagues" by
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Message 2: Re: 5.270 Mainstream Linguistics

Date: Mon, 07 Mar 94 07:54 PST
From: Vicki Fromkin <IYO1VAFMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 5.270 Mainstream Linguistics

I find John Sowa's comments re Wigner very interesting and important but
his comments on Chomsky very wrong. I have been listening to Chomsky
(since 1963 -- when I first heard him speak at the Amer. Psych Assoc)
and have been reading him since I entered graduate studies in lx in 1962.
He is very supportive of young scholars and always has been and is not
one to attack the 'opposition'. He may ignore what others say but
that is different. In face-to-face debate he of course gives his
opinions and states his differences and can be very sharp in doing so.
In fact, one of the constant criticisms of him is that he doesn't
deal with the opposition and they then feel he underestimates them
because he ignores them. But he speaks and writes about what is
of interest to him. I say this not as a "formalist" ( really hate
that term since theories in science are formal by their very need
to be explicit and testable) since my research would probably be
considered 'peripheral' in the sense used in the message which
opened this discussion.

I have heard much greater attacks on Chomsky and on 'formal'
linguistics by those in the 'non-formal camp, including the suggestion
that Chomsky and his supporters are "polemical in their virulent attacks"
on the opposition. This is a myth. Like many of the myths that continue
to abound in lx concerning Chomsky. It would be interesting just to
look at the last number of years in tHE LINGUIST LIST to see where
the polemics have come from (such as the one below). I would bet there are
few if any polemics from the formal side and lots from the other side.

As I have written previously, it seems to me that there are lots of
important substantive issues of disagreement which need airing and
should be aired. Let's stop perpetuating inter-displinary (which go out
side too often) views which have no reality. If there is a call
for 'formal' syntacticians etc it must be that even among those who
do not fall in that camp there is the perhaps unspoken agreement that
students in any department need to learn of what is still the dominant
if not the majority theoretical position in our field.
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Message 3: Re: 5.270 Mainstream Linguistics

Date: Mon, 07 Mar 1994 12:54:31 Re: 5.270 Mainstream Linguistics
From: <>
Subject: Re: 5.270 Mainstream Linguistics

>Martin Haspelmath writes
>> What I find more interesting is the question why there should be such a
>> mainstream-periphery division in linguistics at all. Does it exist in all
>> fields? Or is this specific to linguistics? A priori, a field could be
>> divided sociologically in all sorts of ways -- there could be two major
>> and equally respected schools (as in American party politics), or there
>> could be numerous small schools, with none of them having a clear leading
>> role (as in the present Russian parliament). In fact, linguistics seems to
>> be organized in the way Mexican politics is. Why?

Add to that the fact that we are a notoriously contentious lot, to the
extent that most of us can think of respected colleagues who have
turned their attention elsewhere because they got tired of the
conflict of orthodoxies when all they wanted to do was science. In
this way, we look a little like the creationist party arguing with
people doing real science, not about matters of substance but about
what, from their perspective, is or is not science.
>Martin Haspelmath (LINGUIST 5-255) remarks:
>> (The fact that non-mainstream linguists have fewer job chances can be seen
>> from the fact that many job announcements now include descriptions such as
>> "formal syntax", "formal semantics", etc. What do you do if you belong to
>> the non-negligible minority of linguists who happen to believe that
>> mainstream formal approaches to linguistics are misguided? (e.g. if you
>> think that the fuzzy approaches to grammar that were highlighted in a
>> recent LINGUIST posting are on the right track) By contrast, I haven't
>> seen a job announcement for fuzzy syntax or cognitive semantics yet.)

Steve Schaufele writes:
>Shouldn't it be possible for a scholar to get a job in 'formal syntax' who has
>a wide familiarity with formal syntactic approaches but views them critically?
> This is what i've tried to do in applying for jobs whose adverts include the
>phrase 'formal syntax'. Granted, i haven't yet landed such a job, but it does
>seem to me that an open-minded but critical perspective on any theoretical
>field would in principle be desirable to an academic faculty.

I think a term like "formal syntax" sometimes gets into a job
announcement as a way of saying "formal syntax of a particular
stripe." There have been some impressive contributions to formal
syntax that won't "land such a job" because they are out of the
mainstream tradition. Names like Montague, Harris, Gazdar, Postal,
and Huddleston come immediately to mind. But the meaning of
"formal syntax" defaults to GB, not MG, TG, GPSG, APG, or DG.

Herb Stahlke
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Message 4: Re: 5.270 Mainstream Linguistics

Date: Mon, 7 Mar 1994 11:43:34 -Re: 5.270 Mainstream Linguistics
From: Bernhard Rohrbacher <>
Subject: Re: 5.270 Mainstream Linguistics

Just for the record: GB-Linguistics does not constitute the "Mainstream of
Linguistics" - on the contrary, GB-Linguists are a minority, especially outside
the US and the Netherlands. Accordingly, jobs for GBers are exceedingly rare,
and many institutions might as well have "People working within the Principles
and Parameters framework need not apply" sign on their doors.

More importantly, I find the following passage insulting and downright nasty.

> Drawing a lesson from Wigner, I would claim that someone of Chomsky's
> stature should avoid attacking or even making negative comments about
> younger colleagues or their ideas. Linguistics has no shortage of young
> professors who are very capable of attacking one another. Chomsky should
> take the elder statesman route of making positive contributions in areas
> where he is undoubtedly competent and avoiding negative attacks on
> people and ideas that he does not understand (even when he thinks he does).

This distinction between 'positive contributions' and 'negative
comments/attacks' is of course absurd. Virtually all work in linguistics (and
I suspect science in general) arises out of opposition against previous work.
Typically, a paper starts out like this: "In his 1993 article "The
Antisymmetry of Syntax", Richard Kayne proposes an SVO analysis for German.
In this paper, I show that this analysis cannot explain important syntactic
differences between German and Yiddish that are straightforward under the
traditional SOV analysis..." Admonishing Chomsky not to engage in this
perfectly normal aspect of scientific discourse amounts to an attempt to
seriously limit his ability to function as a linguist. In essence, what is
being said here is "it's time to retire, buddy". Given Chomsky's recent
'positive contributions' (e.g. the minimalist program), such a recommendation
is not only personally insulting, but moreover to the detriment of the field.

Finally, if the author thinks that Chomsky engages in "negative attacks on
people and ideas that he does not understand (even when he thinks he does)", he
should give at least one measly example - as it stands, the statement is
nothing but an unfounded ad hominem attack. By the way: The only way to make
sure that one does not attack 'ideas that he/she does not understand (even when
he/she thinks he/she does)' is to never utter another word. Alas, I have the
suspicion that this is exactly what the author wants in the case of Noam


Bernhard Rohrbacher
Institute for Research in Cognitive Science
3401 Walnut Street, Suite 400C
Philadelphia, PA 19104
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