Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Chomsky Miscellany

Just some random tidbits of interest, possibly only to myself; I'm not sure how the below reflects on my own Chomsky Problem. But I think there is some insight to be had...

Dell Hymes, who was one of the great sociolinguists, said he thought Chomsky's work was amazing, but that Chomsky ought to be doing sociolinguistics. Of course, I agree, and why he isn't at all interested in sociolinguistics was part of what actuated my own Chomsky Problem. See The Politics of Linguistics by Frederick J. Newmeyer, pp.121-122.
On Noam's style:

A poet I really love named David Antin, who is known for taking an intellectual topic, then appearing before an audience and "improvising" long, jazzy, poetic takes on the topic, then transcribing sessions that turned out well and putting them into books, said in Conversation With David Antin that he thought Chomsky was able to explain his abstruse linguistic theories in "an educated vernacular." (p.58)
I thought that was an interesting take...

Matt Ridley, a popularizer of current topics in biology, said in his book Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, that Chomsky quasi-acolyte Steven Pinker is "the first linguist capable of writing readable prose." (p.94) Methinks this says something paradoxical about linguists: that they're deeply concerned with language, but write with such dull styles; but I think it says more about Ridley, a rather top-notch, very tweedy Oxbridge writer. (I once asked Matt Ridley a question at a book talk he gave in Santa Monica, California. It was about junk DNA and a very fanciful idea I had about what its function might be, and he very nicely told me the idea was "science fiction.")

For anyone interested in the deep history of Chomsky and linguistics, Randy Allen Harris's The Linguistics Wars is a must-read. Here's Harris on this topic:

"There is certainly no question - whatever Chomsky's distaste for the observation - that he is a tremendously skilled rhetor. He isn't an especially impressive prose stylist. His writing can be as dense, gnarled, and forbidding as a blackberry patch, full of fruit you can see but you just can't get to, though Chomsky can also reach moments of persuasive lucidity unmatched in linguistics." (p.244)

In Christine Kenneally's riveting book from 2007, The First Word, which I recommend to Generalists who want a good overview of linguistics from Chomsky's point of view and from three or four other major divergent stances, some of Chomsky's best students got fed up with his schemas because they couldn't account for meaning in language, so they broke with him and started their own competing system, Generative Semantics. (Not to be confused with Korzybski's General Semantics!) These brilliant ex-students were caught up in the late 1960s counterculture and were, as Kenneally writes, "irreverent, exuberant, and combative. Their criticisms of Chomsky extended from the way he divided up language to his ascetic style. One running joke of the era was inventing a title for the world's shortest book, like "Problems of the Obese" by Twiggy; a popular candidate among linguists was The Bawdy Humor of Noam Chomsky." (p.34)

From another linguist, Michael Agar, in his Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation (1994): 

"I remember, during my graduate days, reading Chomsky's Aspects of a Theory of Syntax. God, what a beautiful book, what elegant arguments and intricate models. Chomsky is a genius, and the linguistics he invented is much more interesting than the old chop-'em-up and sort-'em-out kind of grammar that existed before him.

"But he stayed inside the circle. Did he ever. Here's an excerpt from the first page:
Linguistic theory is concerned primarily with an ideal speaker-listener, 
in a completely homogenous speech-community, who knows its 
language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant 
conditions as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and
interest, and errors (random or characteristic) in applying his knowledge
of the language to actual performance.

"I suffered the classic case of mixed emotions. Chomsky's beautiful, elegant book had little to do with what I, as an ethnographer, wanted to do with language." (pp.150-151)
I'm struck by the deep animosity Chomsky and Lakoff seem to have for each other. Dig this, from Harris's book:

In a 1980 issue of the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, which gives authors chances to respond to their colleagues' criticisms, Chomsky, on Lakoff:

"[Lakoff's] remarks betray a very serious misunderstanding.

"[He] shows no awareness [of important issues]

"Lakoff seems totally unaware of the actual character of the technical work to which he refers. 

"[The semantic work of interpretive semantics is] a matter Lakoff has never understood. 

"Lakoff's misunderstanding of the technical work is so far-reaching that his comments on it are completely irrelevant.

"Lakoff shows no awareness of these issues." (p. 243)

Now, Harris again: "For his part, Lakoff is less than fond of Chomsky. In conversation, this disaffection takes the form of concern about his politics, his honesty, and his ego (three subjects that figure prominently in many unfavorable discussions about Chomsky). But in print he is considerably more circumspect than Chomsky. Still, Lakoff rarely foregoes the chance to attack a Chomskyan stance, with enthusiasm. [...] Chomsky takes offense quite easily, and Lakoff could likely have annoyed him in any number of ways, but he goes right for Chomsky's most sensitive area, calling him all talk and no science.  Lakoff focuses on those aspects of Chomsky's work where 'we are in the realm of rhetoric, not science.' Much of Chomsky's work, Lakoff says, is vacuous for practical purposes, 'but as rhetoric, it is effective - at least so far as academic politics is concerned.' Chomsky is particularly guilty for having 'artfully chosen' some of his terms, an accusation Chomsky finds deeply repugnant." (pp.243-244, op. cit)

The Harris book is old enough to vote in Unistat now, and sadly, he has not seen fit to update this wonderful work. But much has happened since 1980, when Chomsky and Lakoff fought it out in the pages of a journal. The rancor seems still there, but has morphed, and I will share some of my delvings and diggings in some posited "future."

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