LINGUIST List 4.644

Mon 30 Aug 1993

Disc: _The Linguistics Wars_

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  1. , Review of _The Linguistics Wars_

Message 1: Review of _The Linguistics Wars_

Date: Mon, 30 Aug 93 12:56:49 -0Review of _The Linguistics Wars_
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Subject: Review of _The Linguistics Wars_

[Editor's note: With the review that follows, we are initiating a new
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 "The Linguistics Wars"
 Randy Allen Harris
Oxford Univ. Press 1983 ISBN # 0-19-507256-1 Hardback, $30 list
 Reviewed by John Lawler <>

This fascinating book provides the first even-handed account of (and a
much-needed scholarly discussion of the merits of) both competing fac-
tions and their ideas in the first and bitterest schismatic dispute in
generative grammatical history: the Generative Semantics / Interpretive
Semantics (henceforth G/I) debate (though to call it a "debate", as
Harris shows -- and as those of us who lived through it recall -- is to
misreport the events considerably).

To begin with, the book is extraordinarily well written, far more enjoy-
able and interesting than anything I've ever read in the history of
linguistics, approachable by any non-linguist interested in the topics
covered -- and utterly fascinating for linguists. This is all the more
striking and laudable in linguistics, whose abysmally low standards of
professional writing and clarity are a constant embarrassment to those
of us who are interested in discussing linguistics with non-linguists.

In addition, the standard of scholarship exemplified in this book is
simply stunning. Linguists' habits of citation and reference have been
bemoaned humorously, but tellingly by Pullum 1991[1983-89] (which ref-
erence is taken from the book, demonstrating H's citation style, indi-
cating *both* the first date of circulation or publication *and* the
publication date of the specific work referred to), but this book is not
only outfitted with all the necessary apparatus, which is only to be
expected, after all, in a reworked Ph.D. dissertation (Harris 1990),
but uses it in a completely non-intrusive and very illuminating way.

It is clear that the survey of the literature has been not only broad
but also deep, since over and over again H traces the basic ideas that
gained currency in later theory back to their roots in the G/I dispute,
citing underground papers both with their date of composition and circ-
ulation *and* with their date of eventual publication, if any. What
emerges is a refreshing deconstruction of the revisionist history of
modern syntax that has entered into linguistic mythology and folklore,
canonized by Newmeyer's accounts (Newmeyer 1980, 1986).

The book comes with two glowing encomiums on the dust cover that are
both worth quoting in full. The first is a generous endorsement from
Newmeyer himself:

 "I enjoyed 'The Linguistics Wars' immensely. Randy Harris writes
 with erudition and wit and always succeeds in presenting a balanced
 view of the controversies that have raged in the history of genera-
 tive grammar. He made me reconsider a number of positions that I
 have argued for in my own work; typically, even where I remained in
 disagreement with him, he made me appreciate a complexity to the
 issues that I had overlooked."

The second is by Paul Postal, a major combatant in the dispute and a
major character in the book:

 "Through his deep and extensive research, Randy Allen Harris has
 managed to throw new light on the schism in generative linguistics
 which indelibly colored the period from the late sixties to the
 late seventies. His insightful account of this period and the
 major figures involved reveals many new aspects of the disagree-
 ments and disputes at issue and the features of fact, theory and
 personality which underlay them. Future study of this period in
 linguistics will surely be shaped by this excellent work, which
 captures very closely the feel of what went on. I am inclined to
 say that the level of scholarship which the author manifests on
 nearly every page in many ways puts to shame that of much of the
 material he deals with."

Throughout this book, I found myself agreeing repeatedly with both of
them -- though in my case he made *me* (as a generative semanticist)
appreciate the complexity of a rather different set of issues from the
ones Newmeyer is referring to. As a minor combatant who played a small
role in some peripheral theaters of operation during the wars, I was
naturally interested in Harris's treatment of things I knew about first-
hand; and I was struck forcefully and repeatedly -- like Postal -- by
how exactly on target his references were. He gets the citations and
quotations exactly right, but more important, he places everything
clearly in the contexts where they were intended to be read and under-
stood, and represents their content and intention fairly and clearly.
Scholars can scarcely hope for better treatment.

It must be said, however, for the benefit of those who are interested in
looking up themselves and their friends and enemies, that the book's
index is, alas, incomplete, in that it covers the extensive footnotes
only sketchily. In addition, most irritatingly, and unnecessarily so in
a book produced and published by electronic means, all of these foot-
notes are placed at the end of the book instead of on the page where
they refer. Publishers need to be reminded that such practices do not
contribute to the utility, not to speak of the enjoyment, of their
product. We were willing to put up with this as a necessary evil in
typewriter/typesetting days, but now that any wordprocessor can do the
job better, academic publishers should be put on notice that the compe-
tition is stiffer these days.

It is clear enough that I enjoyed the book, and recommend it highly. It
seems equally clear from the proclaimed opinions of Postal and Newmeyer
that many others are likely to enjoy it as well. However, not everyone
appears to be thrilled with this book. To quote from the Preface (p.ix):

 "...two people disagree so violently with the substance of this
 book as to require special notice, Chomsky and [George] Lakoff.
 Both had very extensive comments on the same previous incarnation
 of the book, comments which I found mostly very profitable, and
 for which I remain extremely grateful, but both had very strong
 negative responses to the overall arrangement and orientation.
 Their responses were essentially inverse, Lakoff finding me to
 have sided with the interpretive semanticists, Chomsky finding
 me to have told the generative semantics version, both feeling
 that I slighted or ignored their own impressions or interpreta-
 tions of the dispute. I should stress that the version they saw
 is very different in many ways from the one in your hands, but I
 have reason to believe that neither of them will be much more
 pleased with this version (their displeasure, in fact, may very
 well increase, since some of the latent elements that they found
 objectionable in the earlier version are stated a little more
 directly here; my correspondence with them sharpened my judge-
 ments on several matters, sometimes in directions neither of them
 would have preferred). Indeed, Chomsky even objects strenuously
 to my characterization of him in this preface; he sees no 'symmetry'
 between his and Lakoff's opposition to the book. I am naturally
 distressed by their negative reactions, but it would have unques-
 tionably been impossible to satisfy both; perhaps by satisfying
 neither, I am closer to neutrality than either of them believe."

Time will tell, no doubt. In the meantime, enjoy.

 References, cited as in the 29-page bibliography (pp 311-340):
 [NB: Newmeyer 1980 and 1986 are actually 1980a and 1986a there]

 Harris, R. Allen. 1990. The life and death of generative semantics.
 Ph.D. dissertation for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

 Newmeyer, Frederick J. 1980. _Linguistic theory in America_.
 New York: Academic Press.

 Newmeyer, Frederick J. 1986. _Linguistic theory in America_. 2nd ed.
 New York: Academic Press.

 Pullum, Geoffrey K. 1991[1983-89]. _The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax
 and other irreverent essays on the study of language_.
 Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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