LINGUIST List 3.224

Sat 07 Mar 1992

Disc: Linguistic Discourse

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  1. "Bruce E. Nevin", quality of discourse

Message 1: quality of discourse

Date: Thu, 5 Mar 92 11:28:04 ESTquality of discourse
From: "Bruce E. Nevin" <bnevinccb.bbn.com>
Subject: quality of discourse

>From: Richard Ogden <RAO1VAXB.YORK.AC.UK>
>Date: Tue, 11 Feb 92 17:07 GMT

>I have recently been re-reading some of the old papers and books, things
> like Saussure, Twaddell, Firth... and the impression is much more of a
>culture which was less aggressive, less dogmatic than our present one. It's
>only an impresion and others will surely disagree. But the pioneer attitude,
>where more questions are asked than answers given is something which I just
>don't find in modern linguistics; maybe not because it isn't there, but
>because it's hidden underneath the rhetoric.

I'm sorry to be so very slow responding, but I'm only just getting to
look at back issues that have piled up.

I believe there was a deep qualitative change in the discourse of the
field with the rise of generative linguistics. Noam Chomsky is very
skilled as a debater and polemicist. These qualities may have attracted
to him students with like emphases; certainly, students and coworkers
have had to be able to work in a combative milieu, whether by
temperamental preference or as an acquired skill and taste. (As one
friend says, "if you want to talk to Chomsky, wear boxing gloves.) A
number of early champions, such as Lees and Postal, are notable for
their aggressiveness if not ferocity, not always matched by factual
accuracy (e.g. the absurd overstatements in Postal's _Constituent
Structures_). Many times arguments have been made in an aggressive and
indeed outright hostile manner that could have been made with equal
substantive effect by more humane means, means exemplified over and over
in the scholarly conduct of Sapir, or Bloomfield, or indeed Bolinger and
many others. The literature of the period shows many examples of the
yet-unconverted expressing reactions of being bemused, stunned, or
shocked at this quality of argumentation as war. The exchange with
Householder, often quoted as one of the last stages in the "defeat" of
"structuralism," is a good example.

Harris commented on an aspect of this in a footnote to Transformational
Theory (Language 1965):

	The pitting of one linguistic tool against another has in it
	something of the absolutist postwar temper of social
	institutions, but is not required by the character and range of
	these tools of analysis.

Some see these not as tools of analysis but as putative facts about
innate devices for the control of language. Under this sort of
hypostasis, only one such set of facts can be correct and others must be
vanquished. And then (minor detail) egos get involved in the
vanquishing and vanquishment.

I agree with you, Richard Ogden. I should like to see discourse in our
field greatly enriched with more humane modes of linguistic conduct. I
think the linguist list as an email forum contributes very substantially
to this. At least so it seems to me, and so I hope.

	Bruce Nevin
	bnbbn.com
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