LINGUIST List 8.755

Mon May 19 1997

Disc: Murphy's Review of Barsky

Editor for this issue: Helen Dry <>


  1. Geoffrey K. Pullum, F. Murphy, review of Barsky (LINGUIST 8.673 5/7/97)

Message 1: F. Murphy, review of Barsky (LINGUIST 8.673 5/7/97)

Date: Mon, 19 May 97 11:57:59 PDT
From: Geoffrey K. Pullum <>
Subject: F. Murphy, review of Barsky (LINGUIST 8.673 5/7/97)

From: Paul M. Postal ( and
 Geoffrey K. Pullum (

Feargal Murphy's review of Barsky's "Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent"
(LINGUIST List: Vol. 8, no. 673, 5/7/97) takes at face value some
astonishing claims about the dissension over generative semantics
(GS) that Barsky quotes from Chomsky's letters. These historically
indefensible claims should not be allowed to stand unchallenged.

Paraphrasing page 151 of Barsky's book, Murphy accuses Randy Allen
Harris's book "The Linguistic Wars" (1993) of "selective...omissions"
because it fails to record "that all the appointments in MIT at the
time were of generative semanticists, while those people Chomsky was
actually working with were not appointed". But Chomsky's claim that
opponents of his were appointed to the faculty in his own department
is entirely fanciful. The relevant letter (Chomsky to Barsky 4/3/95)
mentions four linguists: Postal, Kiparsky, Ross and Perlmutter. All
were proponents of broadly Chomskyan ideas when they were hired.
Three were hired before the dispute began: Newmeyer (1996: 101)
correctly says that "The real fight began upon Chomsky's return to
MIT in 1967", but Postal was hired in 1963 (after two years on a
research appointment not in Chomsky's department) and left MIT in
1965, while Kiparsky's hiring was 1965 and Ross's was 1966. That
leaves Perlmutter, who was hired during the dispute period, but
evinced no GS loyalty (he never asserted anywhere that deep structures
are semantic structures). The same holds of Kiparsky, whose only
foray into syntax found favor with Chomsky (see "Conditions on
transformations", footnote 28).

Harris is not guilty of omission. But Chomsky is. The letter cited
suppresses the fact that in 1974-75, with the debate over GS still
raging (as readily verified by looking at the journals between 1974
and 1977), Joan Bresnan, a noted GS opponent, was recruited with
Chomsky's strong support. Thus the only MIT linguistics appointment
genuinely linked to the GS dispute contradicts Chomsky.

Murphy continues, still paraphrasing Barsky: "But the more telling
point about the linguistic wars is that Chomsky was at this time
simply very busy with other issues like the Vietnam War." Neither
Murphy nor Barsky has tried to verify this. In actuality, Chomsky
did not let his anti-war speaking engagements crowd out the battle
against GS. He played a dominant role, writing voluminously,
lecturing repeatedly, and corresponding energetically. One letter
he sent to McCawley about the "respectively" argument in 1967 was 12
pages long. Between 6 November 1970 and 1 December 1975, within the
central period of the dispute, he sent Postal 11 letters, about 13
typed pages, mostly about the issues in the GS dissension. He gave
many lectures (some of which we personally attended) containing harsh
criticisms of GS and defenses of autonomous syntax and interpretive
semantic rules (e.g. the Shearman Lectures in London in 1969 and the
LSA Golden Anniversary Symposium at Amherst in June 1974; after the
latter he debated McCawley in the question period). He published
"Remarks on nominalization" (1970), "Deep structure, surface
structure, and semantic interpretation" (1970), "Some empirical
issues" (1972), and "Questions of form and interpretation" (1975),
all laced with explicit and implicit criticism of GS. "Conditions on
transformations" (1973) opposes raising to object and directly
attacks McCawley's English-as-VSO version of GS (footnote 33). He
wrote a 53-page introduction to his 1955 opus LSLT (published 1975)
including further negative remarks about GS (see notes 28 and 40).
His January 1976 interviews with Mitsou Ronat provided a further
opportunity to disparage GS, which he took (see pp.148-54 of
"Language and Responsibility", 1978). And so on. Politically busy
though he may have been, Chomsky clearly spent hundreds of hours on
decrying and discrediting GS in the years following 1967.

Murphy adds that "Chomsky is quoted as dismissing Harris's analysis
as belonging to the view that `everything must be a power play'."
Indeed he is. But did Harris use that phrase or anything like it?
Harris (letter to Postal 3/17/97) denies he ever did. And we find
no such phrase in Harris's book. The phrase is Chomsky's, a
misrepresentation of Harris's careful historical and rhetorical
analysis. (He also calls Harris a "postmodern historian", bracketing
him with deconstructionists, a studied insult.) Murphy's review lets
Chomsky (and Barsky) get away with this misrepresentation, and uses
the LINGUIST List to spread it to thousands.

Chomsky's surprising denial of his spirited role in the successful
struggle to crush GS is uncritically reproduced by Barsky, who as a
biographer should have probed and queried it. Murphy's review now
repeats these denials a third time. Lest readers begin to think that
what they have been told three times is true, we have surveyed some
of the extensive evidence that Chomsky's claims are nowhere near
being true. The truth, almost entirely glossed over in Barsky's
book, can in fact be pieced together fairly accurately from Frederick
J. Newmeyer's "Linguistic Theory in America" (2nd edition, 1986) and
the more recent books on which Chomsky casts aspersions: Randy Allen
Harris, "The Linguistic Wars" (1993), and John Goldsmith and Geoffrey
Huck, "Ideology and Linguistic Theory" (1995).

 Paul M. Postal : []
 Geoffrey K. Pullum : []

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