Frederick J. Newmeyer. Generative Linguistics: A Historical Perspective.
London: Routledge. 1996. Pp X + 218 (body 177pp, notes 12pp, references
20pp, indexes 7pp). $49.95. ISBN 0-415-11553-1
Reviewed by Randy Allen Harris (University of Waterloo)
This review is moderately long, and contains the following divisions:
INTRODUCTIONS, SYNOPSES, COMMENTS, SUMMARY, INVITATIONS, NOTES, and WORKS
Since I hope this will be not so much a review as the opening turn in a
multi-party conversation, I'll start with some introductions.
Hello, I'm Randy Harris. I'm not a linguist, though I play one for
students and colleagues in an English and Rhetoric department at a Canadian
technological university. I know and esteem the author of the book that
will form our subject matter.
On my left is said author, Frederick J. Newmeyer. Newmeyer *is* a
linguist, holding the chair of linguistics at the University of Washington.
He has published books and articles regularly on foundational issues for
over twenty-five years, and is the editor of a major four-volume survey of
linguistics (Newmeyer, 1988). That would be a decent career for anyone.
But his importance as a linguist is eclipsed by his significance as a
historian of linguistics,--as someone who looks, over time, at linguists
and their practices, rather than looking directly at language. His
_Linguistic Theory in America_ (1980a, 1986a), even now that other books
and articles have finally come along to cover some of the same territory
(Harris, 1993; Huck and Goldsmith, 1996; G. Lakoff, 1992; R. Lakoff, 1989),
is still the most important book for understanding the flow of ideas that
defines the crucial early decades of transformational generative grammar.
And it is in this role, as historian of linguistics, that he comes before
On my right is his most recent book, _Generative Linguistics: A Historical
Perspective_, the latest volume in the interesting Routledge History of
Linguistic Thought Series, under the general editorship of Talbot J.
Taylor. The book is slim, stylish, and modestly priced (as Routledge
hardcovers go). It collects Newmeyer's conference papers, journal
articles, book extracts, and reviews, written over the last fifteen or so
years. The conference papers are especially nice to have here, since they
were formerly scattered hither and yon. Many of the published ones were
available only in photocopies, or in expensive volumes alongside less
compelling material; one hadn't been published at all, another was stuck
in forever-forthcoming limbo. The journal articles were perhaps in less
dire need of republishing, but they add some worthwhile material to the
book. The book extracts and reviews might easily have been left out (or in
the case of one review, written especially for this book, recast).
Without further ado (and commentary delayed), we can move now in between
The books contains an introduction and thirteen further chapters, in three
1. The "Introduction" (7pp) contextualizes both Newmeyer's area of study
and the specific chapters of the book,--the former rather nicely, the
latter very tersely.
Part I General Trends. Four conference papers and two journal articles
(as follows) on diverse aspects of the Chomskyan programme.
2. "Bloomfield, Jakobson, Chomsky, and the roots of generative grammar"
(6pp) argues that although Bloomfield and Jakobson had produced partial
generative grammars before Chomsky, (1) neither was pursuing the systematic
programme that Chomsky initiated, and (2) neither had any influence on
Chomsky in this regard. Placed alongside Bloomfield's and Jakobson's work
(in fact, raised above those works, for its more visionary goals) is
Chomsky's undergraduate honours essay.
3. "The structure of the field of linguistics and its consequences for
women" (5pp) has a slightly misleading title. "Consequences" is a bit off
the mark, since there is only very slight speculation about causal
relations, but the paper outlines the dimensions of linguistics (c.1990),
remarks on the presence of women in its principal subfields, and suggests
(or hopes) that linguistics might be inherently more welcoming to women
scholars than are other sciences.
4. "Has there been a 'Chomskyan revolution' in linguistics?" (15pp). "Yes".
5. "Rules and principles in the historical development of generative
syntax" (27pp) identifies four major sequential periods in generative
syntax, characterizing them by the swing between two research orientations,
the focus on rules (such as transformations) and the focus on principles
(such as island constraints): early transformational grammar (rule
oriented); generative semantics (principle oriented); lexicalism (rule
oriented); and government-binding (principle oriented).
6. "Chomsky's 1962 programme for linguistics: A retrospective" (13pp)
outlines the research goals and initiatives that Chomsky laid out at the
Ninth International Congress of Linguists and traces their path over the
next thirty years, finding a "remarkable" overall consistency in his work
specifically and the field at large. The presence of several fine
co-authors gives this paper particular breadth, allowing comparatively full
coverage of syntax, semantics, and phonology.
7. "Linguistic diversity and universal grammar: Forty years of dynamic
tension within generative grammar" (17pp) in part is a chronicle of
Chomskyan linguists' treatment of variety among languages (linguistic
diversity) in the face of their overwhelming commitment to fundamental
similarity (universal grammar); in part, it is a defence of that
commitment, especially against charges of methodological narrowness and
Part II: The linguistic wars. Two book extracts from _Linguistic Theory
in America_ and two reviews (as follows), concerning the generative
semantics / interpretive semantics clash of the late sixties, early
8. "The steps to generative semantics" (11pp) outlines the theoretical
foundations of generative semantics as established in Katz and Postal
(1964) and Chomsky (1965). From the former came the hypothesis that
meaning does not change over a derivation, from the latter the suggestion
that lexical co-occurrence is governed by features of deep structure. The
first led to an identification of deep structure with meaning, the second
to lexical decomposition (hence, to 'deeper' deep structures).
9. "The end of generative semantics" (13pp) catalogs the failures of
generative semantics: on questions of 'deep' lexical categories; on
lexical decomposition; on global rules; on the commingling of grammar and
pragmatics; on the coverage of data; on institutional organization; on the
choice of names for example-sentence protagonists.
10. "Review of Geoffrey J. Huck and John A. Goldsmith, _Ideology and
Linguistic Theory: Noam Chomsky and the Deep Structure Debates" (10pp)
takes issue with Huck and Goldsmith's earlier volume in the Routledge
History of Linguistic Thought series. Huck and Goldsmith (at least in
Newmeyer's representation of them) argue that the central claims of
generative semantics are still followed by the majority of generative
linguists; hence, that generative semantics was not falsified (as Newmeyer
repeatedly argues--see, e.g., the synopsis of chapter 9 above); hence, that
the demise of the movement was entirely sociological, not truly
'scientific' (in a Popperian sense). Newmeyer uses the review to respond,
reasserting that generative semantics lost influence principally because it
was wrong, and was proven wrong. Huck and Goldsmith, too, are wrong, in
the way they construe generative semantics.
11. "Review of _The Best of CLS: A Selection of Out-of-Print Papers from
1968-1975" (4pp) praises the collection for its historical interest, its
theoretical value, and its confrontation of still-recalcitrant data, while
finding a few faults with its organization and coverage.
Part III: Grammatical theory and second language learning. One book
chapter, and two conference papers (as follows) on the intersection, or
lack thereof, between the Chomskyan programme and second-language
12. "The ontogenesis of the field of second language learning research"
(9pp) follows the development of work on the learning of non-native
languages, from the pedagogically driven contrastive analysis framework of
the 40s and 50s, through a period of Chomsky-induced 'nihilism' in the 60s
and 70s, to the more independent (of pedagogy) and theoretically mature
current (c.1988) work,--finding, however, that it must still struggle for
freedom from pedagogy.
13. "The current convergence in linguistic theory: Some implications for
second language acquisition" (13pp) compares generalized phrase structure
grammar, lexical-functional grammar, and government-binding (all c.1987)
primarily on the issues of modularity and locality, arguing that
second-language researchers need not be wary of generative theory because
of superficial differences. For instance, all three frameworks have
modular structure, and modularity implies an orientation on principles (in
the sense of chapter 5), which means that all three imply researchers
should investigate acquisition of general properties rather than of
14. "Competence vs. performance; theoretical vs. applied: The development
and interplay of two dichotomies in modern linguistics" (8pp) milks the
implications of the rule- and principle-oriented historical schema (see
chapter 5) for second-language instruction by way of three possible
strategies for (generative) theory incorporation: the mechanical
(translating theoretical notions into classroom heuristics); the
terminological (conducting business as usual but dressing it up in the most
fashionable theoretical clothes); and the implicational (allowing the
theories to inform the entire instructional approach). Unfortunately, the
verdict comes back that (generative) theory and pedagogical practice may be
congenitally unsuited to each other, except in the most amorphous ways.
Newmeyer is, I've said, the most important historian of generative
linguistics. But he's more than a historian (some would say less, for the
same reason): he's an apologist, an advocate, a friend indeed, of
generative grammar, especially of those generative positions most closely
associated with Chomsky. It's not that he blindly follows Chomsky; his
"Rules and principles", perhaps the finest single paper of his career, is
motivated by a rejection of the accretionary picture of generative history
that Chomsky (1986) offers (see pages 39-40 of the present volume). But
Newmeyer seldom misses an opportunity to pass favourable judgement on
Chomsky's theories, goals, or methods. And he very regularly protects them
against attack from without. Chapters 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, and 10 are--though
this is not all they are--clear celebrations of Chomsky and/or his ideas.
This undeniable bias in his work, particularly since it was often couched
in his earlier career in the flat, even tones of just-the-facts-ma'am
reportage, is the source of much of the controversy surrounding his work.
He defends his approach with a weak, lesser-of-two-evils argument in the
introduction ("A 'believer's' view stands in danger of manifesting a
certain bias, to be sure, but is such bias likely to be more pernicious
than that manifested by one who has gone on record as *opposing* the major
theoretical pillars of the field? Unfortunately, a sizable proportion of
the historiographers of the field fall into the latter category"--p.2).
But, for my money, a historian who is honest enough to tell you that he is
building a case for cherished beliefs (or, for that matter, that he is
slinging mud at them) is much preferred to a historian who hides his
biases, or, worse, doesn't know he has them. And, as the current book
reflects, Newmeyer has become more and more explicit about his beliefs over
the years. On almost every page he reminds readers that he is mounting
arguments, providing reasons to believe, selling wares he has tested and
put his own faith in.
Newmeyer's best work does this in a very thoughtful and reasoned way. It
is always lit by a polemical current, but it is thorough, fair,
and--there's no way to say this without the taint of
wholesomeness--sincere. And _Generative Linguistics_ contains examples of
Newmeyer at his best,--chapters 4, 5, and (the collaborative) 6.
I do, however, have some complaints. Two.
For all the merit of many of its papers, the editing is shockingly bad.
Not just bad, but lazy in a way I find inexplicable in a scholar as
generally conscientious as Newmeyer. It's difficult not to see in this
level of carelessness, whatever the true feelings of author and publisher,
some contempt for the reader.
In the face such casual editing, my second complaint seems wildly
optimistic, but I would have wished Newmeyer had tried a bit harder to
update the papers. I don't mean that they should have all been rewritten
(though, for a few, that would have been nice). But in his review of _The
Best of the CLS_ (Schiller and others, 1988), Newmeyer praises the
inclusion of afterwords for many of the papers (p. 139). Most of the
papers in _Generative Linguistics_ would have benefited from a similar
device,--for instance, an afterward to "Chomskyan revolution" (chapter 4)
might have addressed the controversy it stirred; one following "Current
convergence" (chapter 13) might have commented briefly on the fate of those
no-longer current theories; one on the _Linguistic Theory_ extracts
(chapters 8 and 9) might have answered some of the critics of his version
of the rise and fall of generative semantics.
To a certain extent, chapter 10 (the review of Huck and Goldsmith, written
expressly for this volume) serves the latter purpose. But Robin Lakoff
(1989) leveled a very concerted attack on Newmeyer's account as well, and
she hasn't been answered; James McCawley (1980), who has (see Newmeyer,
1980b), also had some criticisms that might be addressed more publicly.
On the specifics of Newmeyer's research, I have little to say here. This
review is plenty long enough as it is, and there is probably a queue around
the virtual block waiting to tackle that job (see INVITATIONS below). But
I don't want to leave the impression that this is a book of dull claims.
Newmeyer's work is almost always engaging, in the non-trite sense of the
word; it makes you think, reconsider, and charge off in search of
arguments, sometimes fer, sometimes agin. It has a polemical undertow
which drags you out of position (and drags positions out of you), either
pulling you along or forcing you to swim for the comfort of shore.
My own engagement with the book partook of both responses, not infrequently
on the same page. The "Rules and principles" paper, for instance, is a
work of lasting and original scholarship, whose general drift I find very
compelling. Within the first few pages, major movements of the last thirty
years fall into a completely new perspective,--a perspective, moreover, not
fully compatible with any other treatment of that period, including (in my
reading) Newmeyer's own histories. 'Yes indeed', I was quickly saying,
'there have been two ruling themata in generative linguistics.'  And
'yes indeed: they have alternated fairly consistently and overlapped only
briefly'. But also 'wait a minute now: generative semantics as principle
oriented?' lexicalism as rule oriented?.
In the conventional history of generative semantics, it was first
rule-happy and then data-happy (when it found there weren't enough rules
for all the good facts), and never, ever, interested in principles to
define those rules or govern that data. In the conventional history of
lexicalism, it was an offshoot of the extended standard theory, whose
raison d'e^tre was the development of filters and constraints (principles),
in horrified reaction to the rule- and data-delirium of generative
semantics. The chapter of the first edition of _Linguistic Theory in
America_ that deals with the post-generative semantics period and the rise
of lexicalism is entitled "Syntax in the 1970's: Constraining the
syntactic rules" (Newmeyer, 1980a: 175).
But, indeed, Newmeyer shows nicely how generative semantics was born of the
desire for over-arching grammatical principles, and how lexicalism was
predominantly concerned with language-specific constructions (and the
viability of one rule type or another to characterize those constructions).
What makes this paper so fascinating for me, however, is that Newmeyer
manages this persuasive historical overview and re-analysis while
maintaining his allergy to global constraints, sneezing out violent
denunciations whenever the term shows up in proximity to 'conditions' or
'filters' or 'constraints' (that is, to Chomsky-sanctioned principles),
lest the later be tainted by the former. So, Ross's island constraints,
for instance, and Postal's cross-over conditions, are 'principles' in
Newmeyer's terminology, but where Ross and Postal came to regard their
proposals as global principles (after that notion was introduced), Newmeyer
can't abide by the designation, insisting that global solutions are, by
definition, unconstrained (unprincipled?).
This attitude, of course, allows for Ross's and Postal's work to play
significant roles in later developments of the Chomskyan programme, but for
the anti-globality hysteria issuing from that programme (in the seventies)
to be characterized as a calm and rational rejection of a falsified theory.
"Call me a hopeless romantic", Newmeyer invites in one chapter (p. 137):
OK, you're a hopeless romantic.
_Generative Linguistics: A Historical Perspective_ belongs on the shelves
of every library with holdings on generative grammar, and on the desks of
everyone with a serious interest in the history of the field, but it should
not (as _Linguistic Theory in America_ should) inform all contemporary
linguists' understanding of their field. Some of the papers are Newmeyer
at his finest (chapters 4, 5, and 6). Others certainly deserve to be
rescued from the obscurity that might elsewise be theirs (chapters 2, 3,
and 7), or brought to the attention of scholars who might not otherwise
find them (12 and 14). And Newmeyer's response to Huck and Goldsmith
(chapter 10) requires publication. Other offerings are, particularly in
the form they are given here, and particularly at the expense of more
interesting pieces, add little to the book (chapters 8, 9, 11, and 13).
The great difficulty in reviewing a collection of papers, particularly from
a voice as important as Newmeyer's, is that giving them proper
consideration requires a more space than is normally available, a problem
that is exacerbated when your readers are forced to stare at a blinking
screen. I could only look just below the surface of one paper and give the
sketchiest account of the others, and while some of them don't bear more
than sketchy accounts, many of them are rich and provocative. Newmeyer's
review of Huck and Goldsmith, for instance, could be examined in far more
detail. His characterization of Generative Semantics in _Linguistic Theory
in America_ and elsewhere has long been a thorn in the nether-regions of
many linguists of the period. His acceptance of Chomsky's taxonomic
tarring of post-Bloomfieldians has generated deep enmity, and several
virulent challenges. His treatment of second-language teaching ranges from
condescending to dismissive, and calls for response.
But what would be a problem in another forum--in particular, in a print
journal--can be an advantage here, in a virtual parlour for the clattering
classes. The book has been available for months, and the contents, in some
cases, for decades before that.
Perhaps we could now hear from some others, and, of course, from the author.
. Indeed, I should probably note that in some quarters I am considered
little more than this author's stooge (in those same quarters, he is
usually seen, in turn, as Chomsky's stooge), and certainly my debts to him
are large. He was titularly the external reader on my Ph.D. dissertation,
but his real role was closer to that of a supervisor. He was also
extremely helpful as that dissertation mutated into a book, capping several
years of generous commentary on my endless drafts and queries with an
over-generous jacket-blurb. Perhaps as a consequence of this support, or
perhaps just because of parallels in our research, I am said to share his
blindnesses and biases. Not surprisingly, I don't fully share these views
of me or of Newmeyer.
. The line between linguist and historian of linguistics
("historiographer" is his preferred term) is not always easy to draw in
Newmeyer's work. In his more expressly theoretical work, he usually goes
back to the roots of the notions he tackles, and his historical work always
rests on a very sharp understanding of linguistic data and argumentation.
Also, as a historian he operates largely under the same principle that
governs his work as a linguist, that empirical truth is the primary driver
of developments in the field. He has less truck in personal, social, and
ideological forces than some historians of linguistics. But compare, for
instance, his (1983) _Grammatical Theory_ and his (1986b) _Politics of
Linguistics_: both are detailed explorations of the autonomy thesis; the
former is predominantly theoretical (advancing and countering arguments
around a thesis about how one should study language), the latter historical
(investigating arguments and counter-arguments offered by linguists in
specific periods for how language should, or should not, be studied).
. Co-authored with Stephen R. Anderson, Sandra Chung, and James McCloskey.
. I read the book in manuscript, but have not seen it since it was
published, and have no access to a copy as these comments go to press.
. Co-authored with Steven H. Weinberger.
. The fault, I think, rests with both Newmeyer and with Routledge. One
paper, for instance, is said to be from 1996 (it isn't; it's from 1986),
while another on the same page, a paper from a later volume of the same
journal is said to be from 1989 (it is). Likewise, the second edition of
_Linguistic Theory in America_ is mentioned in consecutive entries,
hailing, however, first from one decade and then from another. One chapter
comes from millennia hence, teleported back from 9911 (what's the stardate
for that?). These sorts of self-evident errors no publisher with $6 / hour
to pay an intern should let out the door. At a somewhat higher level,
reference notes to Newmeyer's own papers are often oblivious to the fact
that those papers have been reprinted in the same volume with them, sending
his readers first to the bibliography, and then, potentially to the
library, when the material is just a few pages away in the same book. More
problematically, several passages in the book suffer the curse of the word
processor: compare pages 64-5 with page 88 for sentence after sentence of
identical text; check pages 82, 121, and 149 to tally how many times the
same remark by George Lakoff is quoted. Perhaps there is just some wish
here to remain true to the original publication, or to keep the papers
entirely autonomous, but it's annoying all the same. Watch out, also, for
typos and wacky hyphens.
. OK, I've got a third complaint, too: not all the selections are
equally well chosen. Especially in the absence of some attempt to make it
more relevant to the brave new world of minimalism, "Current convergence"
is wholly expendable. The _Best of CLS_ review is even less appropriate.
Surely, no one buys a book to read a review of another book, especially one
very brief and mired in specifics. And, as much as I admire that book, I
am not at all convinced that twenty-five pages of _Linguistic Theory in
America_ cry out for reprinting. Both editions of the book are widely
available in libraries, the second is still in print, and the overwhelming
majority of the audience for _Generative Linguistics_ has probably read it;
many own it. On the other hand, Newmeyer's (albeit dated) obscure gem with
Joseph Emonds (1971), "The Linguist in American Society", deserves dusting
off (and updating). His recent paper, "A note on Chomsky on Form and
Function" (Newmeyer, 1994) would serve this volume well. And (if he wants
to print reviews) his (1979) review of Levi (1978), while not strictly
'historical', would reveal more about his notions on generative semantics
than the Schiller review.
. I use the term 'themata' advisedly, in the sense of Gerald
Holton--though Newmeyer does not invoke him or his concepts directly--that
is, as patterns of commitment, or "guiding theme[s] in the pursuit of
scientific work" (Holton, 1988:16) that shape arguments, define data,
inform methodologies, provide goals, and so on.
. See page 62 of the present paper, pages 117, and 131 (and its note,
185-6n1) for similar comments elsewhere in the book.
Chomsky, Noam. 1965. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge: MIT
Chomsky, Noam. 1986. Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use.
New York: Praeger.
Harris, Randy Allen. 1993. The Linguistics Wars. New York: Oxford
Harris, Randy Allen, ed. 1997. Landmark Essays in Rhetoric of Science:
Case Studies. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Holton, Gerald. 1988. Thematic origins of scientific thought: Kepler to
Einstein. Revised edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Huck , Geoffrey J., and John A. Goldsmith, Ideology and Linguistic Theory:
Noam Chomsky and the Deep Structure Debates. 1995. London: Routledge.
Katz, Jerrold, and Paul M. Postal. 1964. An Integrated Theory of
Linguistic Description. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Lakoff, George. 1992. "Philosophical speculation and cognitive science".
The Joy of Grammar. Diane Brentari, Gary N. Larson, and Lynn A. MacLeod,
eds. Philadelphia: John Benjamins. 173-97.
Lakoff, Robin. 1989. "The way we were; Or, the real actual truth about
generative semantics: A memoir". Journal of Pragmatics 13: 939-88.
Newmeyer, Frederick J. 1980a. Linguistic Theory in America: The First
Quarter-Century of Transformational Generative Grammar . New York:
Newmeyer, Frederick J. 1980b. "A reply to James McCawley's review of
_Linguistic Theory in America_". Linguistics 18: 931-37.
Newmeyer, Frederick J. 1983. Grammatical Theory: Its Limits and its
Possibilities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Newmeyer, Frederick J. 1986a. Linguistic Theory in America. Second
edition. New York: Academic Press.
Newmeyer, Frederick J. 1986b. The Politics of Linguistics. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Newmeyer, Frederick J., ed. 1988. Linguistics: The Cambridge Survey.
Four volumes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Newmeyer, Frederick J. 1992. "Iconicity and generative grammar".
Language 68: 756-96.
Newmeyer, Frederick J., and Joseph Emonds. 1971. "The linguist in
American society". Papers from the Seventh Regional Meeting of the Chicago
Linguistic Society. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society. 285-306.
McCawley, James D. 1980. "A Review of _Linguistic Theory in America_".
Linguistics 18: 911-30.
Schiller, Eric, Barbara Need, Douglas Varley, and William H. Eilfort, eds.
1988. The Best of CLS: A Selection of Out-of-Print Papers from 1968 to
1975. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.
Randy Harris is Associate Professor of English at the University of
Waterloo. His research includes scientific argumentation generally, and
linguistic argumentation specifically. He is the editor of _Landmark
Essays in Rhetoric of Science_, and the author of _Linguistics Wars_. See
also note 1 above.
Randy Allen Harris
Rhetoric, Linguistics, and Professional Writing
Department of English, University of Waterloo, Waterloo ON CANADA N2L 3G1
email@example.com; 519 885-1211, x5362; FAX: 519 746-5788