Posted: Jan 09, 2023 12:39 am
by don't get me started
1. The Linguistics Wars: Chomsky, Lakoff and the Battle over Deep Structure - Randy Allen Harris

547 pp.

Well, here was a cracking start to the new year. For those who are outside the field of linguistics the name of Chomsky is probably familiar and his status and genius linguist is a given. Within the field, things are not so simple. This is not based on some minor quibble about a part of his program. For many professional linguists, the whole thing stinks to high heaven. There is no baby, only bathwater, and the viewpoint taken in generative grammar holds the status for many of not even being wrong.

We get a good overview of the ever shifting sands that underlie the good professor's pronouncements, the constant reframing, re-labeling, reconfiguing that is the pattern of over six decades of theorizing. Harris meticulously details the various shifts and reversals that have taken place with ample quotations, along side the selective memory misrepresentation of other scholars' critiques, ample evidence of intellectual dishonesty, hubris, arrogance and blithe dismissal of entire fields of research as 'uninteresting', frivolous and deeply misguided.

The picture that emerges is of something like a Trumpian figure in his absolute commitment to never be wrong on any issue, never apologize, never concede and inch, characterize his opponents as evil, foolish, to monopolize every interaction,to denigrate all opponents as unable to appreciate his genius, endless self promotion and an insatiable desire to be the center of attention. Clearly a lot more intelligent than Trump, but displaying many of the same character traits.

Now, to be fair, Harris also peels back the skin of some of Chomsky's opponents (Especially George Lakoff) and there is plenty to bemoan here as well. The rancour and incivility that characterized the peak of the linguistics wars was not confined to one side only and plenty of the competing theories fell by the wayside under repeated assaults from the Chomskyan side.

The author finishes up by asking if the legacy of the good professor is cemented and he will take his place in the pantheon, or whether in future decades the whole Chomskyan program will be subject to ridicule and obscurity like phrenology and phlogiston theories. Of course, predicting the future is a fraught endeavor but the fact that the whole thing might be just a case of the imperial tailors being busy is interesting.

This was a very lengthy, detailed and complex book, but the author writes with an engaging, almost conversational style that makes it an easier read than it should be and laugh out loud in places.

(There is mention aplenty of Chomsky's political activism and his staunch opposition to the Vietnam war. And here we are in 2022 with him sharing the same stance as - of all people- Henry Kissinger over the war in Ukraine and urging accommodation of Russian sensitivities. For shame Noam, for shame!)