LINGUIST List 5.537

Sat 26 Mar 1994

Disc: Mainstream Linguistics

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Randy Allen Harris, Mainstream Linguistics (Comment on Nevin post)
  2. Steven Schaufele, GPSG and 'mainstream' linguistics
  3. Vicki Fromkin, Re: 5.331 Mainstream Linguistics
  4. Margaret Winters, mainstream linguistics
  5. Randy Allen Harris, Mainstream Linguistics (response to Salkie's post)
  6. David Gil, MAINSTREAM

Message 1: Mainstream Linguistics (Comment on Nevin post)

Date: Tue, 22 Mar 94 15:00:09 -0Mainstream Linguistics (Comment on Nevin post)
From: Randy Allen Harris <>
Subject: Mainstream Linguistics (Comment on Nevin post)

In the 5.312 LINGUIST issue on Mainstream Linguistics, Bruce Nevin
(bnevinLightStream.COM) took up Vicki Fromkin's (IYO1VAFMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU)
LINGUIST 5.310 challenge to provide instances of "Chomsky's virulent
attacks on the opposition." Nevin offers Chomsky's anti-phoneme arguments
as an instance:

>Revisiting Chomsky's account brought it all back, and this time I delved
>into a detailed review of what was actually said by one of those whom he
>attacked in that essay (chapter 4 of _Current Issues_), namely, his
>teacher Zellig Harris. I was astonished at the extent to which Harris's
>views are distorted, his claims misrepresented, and his statements
>isolated from context and misleadingly recontextualized. Harris was
>saying things very different from what Bloch and the others were saying,
>but they were all lumped into "taxonomic phonemics."

Examples of this sort are quite easy to come by. Chomsky and Halle's
(counter-)attack on Householder fits the bill, in virulence and in
misrepresentativeness. Chomsky's now-sacred attack on Skinner is of the
same stripe, as is his later _NYRB_ attack on the same target. His
scapegoating of Lakoff as the transformationalist poster-boy in "Remarks"
is similar, though not as nasty (other comments directed at Lakoff,
however, approach this level of unpleasantness). His attacks on McCawley,
Hill, Jakobson, and Quine, also categorize easily as misrepresentations, to
name just examples I can recall quickly. Other LINGUIST subscribers, I'm
sure, have different lists.

(There is also the matter of the misrepresentative and virulent attacks by
others while flying Chomsky's colours--Lees, Postal, Katz, Brame, ...
--which contribute to the perception of Chomsky as a brutalizer of other
people's work. I personally find it difficult to believe all of these were
conducted without his encouragement, and he could certainly have
dissociated himself from them if he wished, but this is a quite different
matter from the one Fromkin raises and Nevin addresses.)

Nevin says he can see only two possibilities of Chomsky's
misrepresentations of other people's work (specificically with reference to
the _Current Issues_ example of Harris's phonology):

>I can think of only
>two interpretations: that Chomsky really did not understand what Harris
>was saying--he has said as much in an interview someplace, I think, but
>probably with reference to syntax--or that he was deliberately
>misrepresenting Harris. Either is difficult to excuse, and the latter
>would be reprehensible.

Having exchanged voluminous correspondence with Chomsky about my own
writings (and having tried this theory out on others who have had similar
exchanges), my explanation is simpler and involves much less presumed
skullduggery: Chomsky is an extraordinarily bad reader. (I trust there
is no need to run through a catalogue of the qualities of his genius to
balance this one observation of a deficiency.) More particularly, he reads
work he is ill-disposed towards with what Richards called "combatitive
blinkers", looking for positions and sub-positions he can attack while
overlooking the fuller context. He may also read work that he is
well-disposed toward with affectionate blinkers, looking for material he
can use and overlooking differences (as in his account of the Cartesian
tradition, for instance), but people whose work he is disposed favourably
towards can comment on this possibility far better than I.

Chomsky has quoted my own words back to me in private correspondence either
completely out of context or in a new context that has only the resemblance
to the original that a fun-house mirror would have. He has done this many
times. Now, surely he wasn't *trying* to misrepresent my own words to
me--surely he knows I remember the context, or can check it easily--so what
possible point could there be in distortion? The only answer that makes
sense is that he truly believes the construal he has put on my words is
accurate, that his reading strategies have blinded him to the context.

We all read our enemies for ways we can down them, of course, but my
experience with Chomsky suggests that he is extreme in this regard, and
perhaps less conscious of the tendency. And this interpretation of him
offers at least a partial explanation for why he seems so often to go after
almost unrecognizable versions of other people's positions.


On Householder:
Chomsky, Noam, and Morris Halle. 1965. Some controversial questions in
phonological theory. _Journal of linguistics_ 1:97-138; responding to
Householder, Fred W., Jr. 1965. On some recent claims in phonological
theory. _Journal of linguistics_ 1:13-34.

On Skinner:
Chomsky, Noam. 1959. Review of _Verbal behavior_. _Language_ 35:26-58.
Chomsky, Noam. 1970. The case against B. F. Skinner. _New York review of
books_ (30 December):18-24.
For some discussio of the first article, see Andresen, Julie. 1990.
Chomsky and Skinner 30 years later. _North American contributions to the
history of linguistics_. Edited by P. F. Dineen, S. J., and E. F. K.
Koerner. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 145-66.

On Lakoff:
Chomsky, Noam. 1970. Remarks on nominalization. _Readings in English
transformational grammar_. Edited by R. Jacobs and P. Rosenbaum. Waltham,
MA: Ginn, 184-221 (discussions of Lakoff, passim).
For increasingly virulent attacks on Lakoff, see:
Chomsky, Noam. 1973. Letter to the editor. _New York review of books_
(19 July):33, and
Chomsky, Noam. 1980a. The new organology. _Behavioral and brain
sciences_ 3:42-58.

On McCawley:
Chomsky, Noam. 1972. _Studies on semantics in generative grammar_. The
Hague: Mouton. 78.

On Hill and Jakobson:
Chomsky, Noam. 1964. _Degrees of grammaticalness_. _The structure of
language_. Edited by J. Fodor and J. Katz. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice
Hall, 384-9.

On Quine:
Chomsky, Noam. 1969. Quine's empirical assumptions. _Words and
objections_. Edited by D. Davidson and J. Hintikka. Dordrecht: Reidel,
53-68. (See Quine's response in the same volume, p. 302.)

 -------======= * =======-------
 Randy Allen Harris

 Rhetoric and Professional Writing, Department of English, University of
Waterloo, Waterloo ON N2L 3G1, CANADA; 519 885-1211, x5362; FAX: 519 884-8995
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Message 2: GPSG and 'mainstream' linguistics

Date: Tue, 22 Mar 1994 16:44:22 GPSG and 'mainstream' linguistics
From: Steven Schaufele <>
Subject: GPSG and 'mainstream' linguistics

In LINGUIST 5-312, Raphael Selkie <RMS3VMS.BRIGHTON.AC.UK> remarks

> One reason why GB linguistics is perceived as the mainstream is that the
> competitors tend to move out of linguistics.
> The history of Generalised Phrase Structure Grammar (GPSG) is interesting in
> this respect. ...
> The GPSG advocates rarely produce papers now developing the theory, or even
> assuming it. GPSG always had strong links with computational linguistics, and
> many of the key GPSG people from the early days are now doing more computing
> and less linguistics. ...
> What do people think of this picture? Is it accurate?

At least as regards GPSG, i find this picture inaccurate. My
perception is that a lot of the people who were heavily into GPSG in the mid-
80's are into HPSG now. And historically HPSG is unquestionably a development
of GPSG. They are certainly not 'the same' theory, but then, Minimalist-PPA
isn't the same as late-70's style trace theory, and neither are the same as
Aspects-style transformational grammar, which isn't the same as late-50's
'Syntactic Structures'-style transformational grammar. To suggest that what
Pollard, Sag, Levine, Goldberg, and others are doing isn't a development of
GPSG makes about as much sense as saying that what Chomsky et al. are doing
isn't a development of transformational grammar.

In fact, such a claim is an example of the kind of ignorance of what's going on
 elsewhere in the field that many find offensive. I am not accusing Selkie of
being willfully ignorant of the historical and conceptual links between GPSG
and HPSG, but there is an added dimension here that i find personally
distressing: Just as some workers in the vineyard deliberately choose to ignore
 some of the vines as being too 'exotic' or 'alien' to be of relevance to their
 methods, so some deliberately choose to ignore other methods as unworthy of
consideration or investigation. Others may not go that far, but regard any
given system as hermetically (in the full sense of the word) sealed off from
all others, to the extent that no one pursuing one system can learn anything
from the others. The result is a failure to recognize the many positive
contributions of such 'heterodox' frameworks as GPSG, Relational Grammar, or
Case Grammar, to name just a few of the most blatant examples.

As a student of syntactic theory who is (1) uncommitted to any particular
framework (2) deeply desirous of learning what any proposed framework can teach
 us about universal grammar (in the generic sense, not necessarily the PPA
sense) and (3) fascinated with the challenge of enriching a given framework
with the insights derived from others, i personally think this is a crying

Dr. Steven Schaufele
Room 119
Research Institute for Linguistics (Department of Theoretical Linguistics)
Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Eotvos Lorand University)
P. O. Box 19
1250 Budapest
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Message 3: Re: 5.331 Mainstream Linguistics

Date: Tue, 22 Mar 94 08:22 PST
From: Vicki Fromkin <IYO1VAFMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 5.331 Mainstream Linguistics

I was going to opt out of any further discussion re 'mainstream
linguistics' but Wenchao Li has spurred me on to just a few more comments.

He suggests that while "generalizations are important....a distinction
needs to be made between 'linguistic generalizations' and 'what is
important in GB/PYP/formal etc. linguistics." Not sure what this means.
A generalization stated as an hypothesis or 'principle' in any thoery
is either a valid one or not. Evidence must be provided (empirical
language data as evidence) to support such a generalization. If the evidence
is faulty then the so-called generalization is not a linguistic generaliz.
but a spurious one and must be rejected.

Obviously one should not attempt to provide a parallel between mathematics
and linguistics. Mathematics is not an empirical science; linguistics is.
But mathematics is used by empirical sciences as shown by the history of
physics. Sorry to keep quoting authorities but sometimes it helps to
quote from an Einstein so noone can object to a statement as simply
another one of those 'formalist' views. So a few more quotes from AE:
(all from Essays in Science - Basic Books. 1934)

"The scientist has to worm general principles -- which serve as the starting
point of deductions -- out of nature by perceiving certain general features
which permit of precise formulation, amidst large complexes of empirical facts.

"The theoretical scientist is compelled in an increasing degree to be guided
by purely mathematical, formal considerations in his search for a theory,
because the physical experience of the experimenter (or language analyst, vaf)
cannot lift him into the regions of highest abstraction. The predominantly
inductive methods apprepriate to the youth of science must give way to de-

Now obviously linguistics isn't physics. In fact, physics is probably the
simplest of sciences which is why it has made so much headway. But one
cannot reduce chemistry to physics, or biology to chemistry, or linguistics
to biology. (although reductionists do believe one can). However, the
need for formal, explicit theories which are explanatory as well as
descriptive, which seek the simplest (in the scientific sense) set of
general principles holds for all sciences, linguistics included.
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Message 4: mainstream linguistics

Date: Tue, 22 Mar 94 16:21:07 GMmainstream linguistics
From: Margaret Winters <>
Subject: mainstream linguistics

As a side issue to the question of what is mainstream in linguistics
and what the consequences are for how linguists are treated, Paul
Deane commented on what he saw as the usually negative results of
being a linguist in an English or foreign language department. I
think that what he indicated as problems - lack of respect for your
work stemming from lack of understanding and information about it,
and the resulting negative recommendations for tenure and promotion -
are, to generalize from a few experiences, more an occurrence in
English Departments than FL. Foreign language departments in the
US have a traditional slot for someone to do the history of the
language and, usually, early literature and people in my experience
seem to be perfectly happy to have a historical linguist in that
slot. English departments I have observed seem more likely to feel
that linguists will undermine the notion of correct writing and
speaking that other members of the department are trying to instill
in their students, and are therefore more apt to hire a medieval
literature person and include the history of English as one of that
person's courses rather than bring in a historical linguist. Like
Leo Connolly, who commented on this matter a short while ago, I've
spent my whole career to date in language departments where I have
always been made to feel fully welcome and central to what the
department is doing both in terms of the courses I teach (basically
anything going in French linguistics) and my research.

I repeat my disclaimer - I am generalizing from personal experience
and a totally unscientific survey based on random observation and
other purely anecdotal material. But I will agree with Leo Connolly
that there can certainly be far worse fates than to be a member of
a foreign languages department as a linguist!

Margaret Winters
usually of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
until June at the University of Edinburgh <>
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Message 5: Mainstream Linguistics (response to Salkie's post)

Date: Tue, 22 Mar 94 11:25:42 -0Mainstream Linguistics (response to Salkie's post)
From: Randy Allen Harris <>
Subject: Mainstream Linguistics (response to Salkie's post)

In the 5.312 LINGUIST issue on Mainstream Linguistics, Raphael Salkie
(RMS3VMS.BRIGHTON.AC.UK) made a peculiar observation about the sociology
of linguistics:

>One reason why GB linguistics is perceived as the mainstream is that the
>competitors tend to move out of linguistics.

If this was true, it still wouldn't say much; it would be a symptom, not a
cause. If the majority of competitors simply packed up and moved on,
leaving GB folks to paddle in the mainstream alone, this would require
explanation, not provide it. But I'm not at all sure that the claim is
accurate. I don't know enough about the individual careers of the GPSGers
who constitute Salkie's main datum, but the generalization doesn't hold of
his other primary example:

>The same kind of thing happened with Generative Semantics. Its main advocates
>either moved into adjacent fields (G. Lakoff), came to eschew theory entirely
>(McCawley, Ross) or snipe from the computational sidelines (Postal). These are
>not meant as putdowns but as statements of fact. All those named have
>continued to do important work - but not as part of a coherent school.

Salkie in fact gives three different reactions here, not one, and they
aren't terribly accurate. Lakoff continued to expand his interests--in
particular, what he wants to include under the label, "linguistics"--but he
hardly left the field. He is regarded as one of the principal forces in
cognitive linguistics.

McCawley certainly never went anywhere, and he is deeply, seriously
theoretical; what he has come to eschew is dogma, about data or theory. He
makes every generalization or principle fight for its individual existence,
rather than embracing a monolithic packet of them from a given school.
Ross's frame of mind is perhaps similar, though he does come close to
satisfying Salkie's claim, in that he hasn't published a great deal of
linguistics in recent years, and his view of linguistics encompasses areas
that many would regard as outside the field (in particular, poetics). But
this surely follows as much from the fact that he hasn't been anchored to
an institution for awhile, let alone a linguistics department, as it does
from a non-GB wanderlust that just took him elsewhere.

Salkie's comments about Postal seem especially bizarre. Postal clearly
does computational work, in the sense that GPSG or early TG are
computational frameworks: he spends a good deal of time computing the
consequences of his own and other people's formalisms. But no one familiar
with his work (or with computational linguistics for that matter) would
characterize it as coming from the computational sidelines. Too, his
framework is as coherent as they come.

Salkie also asks this question:

>Why do developments round Chomsky keep going straight ahead while
>the others break up into fragments?

Some would dispute the characterization "straight ahead", but the answer,
in a word, is Chomsky. He defines a center of gravity that a huge amount
of work revolves around.

But it turns out that the question was a rhetorical one, to which Salkie
provides this answer:

>[The GB framework] reassures its devotees that they are doing something
>important ... [namely] finding things about the structure of
>the human mind. If there are profound and important principles waiting to be
>discovered about how the human organism works, this provides linguistics with
>a deeper purpose.

Many other linguists operate under a cognitive umbrella, and certainly not
just formal linguists. Chomsky deserves a huge share of the credit for the
focus on (or, at least, obeisance to) the mental ramifications of
linguistics that have dominated the field for the past three decades. But
it is incredibly narrow to suggest that GB/PP/Minimalism is the only brand
of linguistics that looks for its "deeper purpose" in the workings of the
mind. Indeed, this is one of the many areas where various linguists and
schools try to out-Chomsky Chomsky. Lexical-Functionalism, for instance,
rooted itself in the claim that Chomsky's work at the time wasn't
'psychologically real' enough. Cognitive linguistics has a similar potting

Salkie also suggests very strongly that this deeper purpose is the only
conceivable one for linguists:

>It may be, then, that quite apart from whether GB assumptions are empirically
>defensible, they supply the only basis for a lasting research paradigm within

But there is no reason (except prejudice) to believe that the only
possibility for a lasting research programme is one which pursues cognitive
ends. Linguistic work has thrived when there were other deep purposes
guiding the research--historical, anthropological, nationalist, even
theological purposes. And it would be foolish to predict a future for the
discipline in which sociological, or anthropological, or genetic, or even
Platonic purposes don't come to redefine the mainstream. (It would be
equally foolish to predict a future in which any one of these research
directions is extinguished.) Language has many tentacles, only some of
which reach into the mind, and the history of science shows that research
programmes can change direction in relatively short order when someone
shows that productive work can follow a new (or marginal or forgotten)

Salkie expressed the wish that his words not be taken as put-downs. I have
a similar wish with respect to my words and him. I mean no insult, but the
position expressed in his post seems misguided, and narrow in the extreme.

 -------======= * =======-------
 Randy Allen Harris

 Rhetoric and Professional Writing, Department of English, University of
Waterloo, Waterloo ON N2L 3G1, CANADA; 519 885-1211, x5362; FAX: 519 884-8995
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue


Date: Wed, 23 Mar 94 14:11:06 SSMAINSTREAM
From: David Gil <ELLGILDNUSVM.bitnet>

As the (unwitting) initiator of the "mainstream linguistics" thread,
I am struck by the fact that the discussion has veered away from
what seemed, at least to me, to be a rather important point. The
discussion was triggered by a query of mine on quantifier scope,
wondering why a particular argument in the literature had been
ignored. This generated a number of responses which, in my 15
February summary to the list, I characterized and commented on
as follows:

***** beginning of 15 Feb quote *****

A handful of mostly sympathetic noddings of the head and
commiserations with regard to the sociology of the field, and how
difficult it is to be an "outsider", "non-mainstream", "out of the
loop", and so forth: how difficult it is to get one's stuff published,
then read, then accepted.

Hardly news -- and speaking for myself, at least, I don't really
think I would want to give up my outsider, non-mainstream, out-
of-the-loop status; it suits me just fine, thank you. However, what
I found most remarkable about this category of responses is that
almost all of them WISHED TO REMAIN ANONYMOUS. The more I
ponder this fact, the more I find it disturbing. Far be it for me to
criticize the wishes of my correspondents (and I hope I haven't
betrayed their confidences by splashing word of their existence
over the list); I am certainly quite experienced myself in having to
remain mum about all kinds of matters for all kinds of reasons.
But the question I want to raise is: what array of facts or
circumstances can it be that prompts our fellow linguists to wish
to remain anonymous about their opinions with regard to the
sociology of the field, and such things as patterns of reading,
patterns of bibliographical citations, and so forth? Are they just
being overly cautious, modest, or self-effacing, or are things really
so bad that one can be denied jobs, publication outlets, research
funds, or just plain old professional prestige for speaking out on
such matters? (Or am I just making a mountain out of a

***** end of 15 Feb quote *****

Unfortunately, apart from Martin Haspelmath (and perhaps one or
two other brave souls), nobody answered the above question. I
wonder why.

But maybe the answer is irrelevant. Having followed the
discussion for the last month, it seems to me that the very fact
that people are afraid to speak their minds -- whatever the
reasons may be -- is as damning a datum as anybody could ever
wish to adduce, to show that what's happening in linguistics isn't,
as one discussant suggested, just a whole lot of competing ideas
battling it out on their merits "and may the better idea win".

Ironically, one of the best terms I know of characterizing the state
of affairs in linguistics is "manufacturing consent".

David Gil
National University of Singapore
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