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Review of  The Historiography of Generative Linguistics

Reviewer: Geoffrey Sampson
Book Title: The Historiography of Generative Linguistics
Book Author: András Kertész
Publisher: Narr Francke Attempto Verlag GmbH + Co. KG
Linguistic Field(s): History of Linguistics
Discipline of Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 29.1628

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The word “historiography” is often used, as András Kertész says in his Preface, as little more than a synonym of “history”, in the sense “writing by historians”. Kertész, though, uses it here in a more specific sense, namely “analysis of writing by historians”. That is, Kertész is setting out to compare and evaluate various attempts by scholars to describe the evolution of generative linguistics from Noam Chomsky’s “Syntactic Structures” of 1957 onwards.

This point is worth stressing, because the book could easily be misunderstood and unfairly criticized by readers who fail to grasp the point. For most people who count themselves members of the discipline of linguistics, their main interest is surely (some or all aspects of) the nature of human language. A smaller number will also be interested in the nature of others’ views about the nature of language, as a subject of study in its own right. But Kertész is chiefly concerned with a further level of abstraction: if you like, the nature of people’s views about the nature of other people’s views about the nature of language.

That might seem to make Kertész’s topic so very abstract as to appeal to vanishingly few potential readers. However, in his concluding chapter (Chapter 7), Kertész gives reasons for seeing it as worth pursuing. He argues that getting the historiography right will help us form a better understanding of the concrete issue, the nature of language. Be that as it may, we clearly need to judge Kertész’s book against the goals the author has actually chosen, not against more “obvious” goals one might easily mistake those for. In particular, Kertész does not aim to evaluate generative linguistics, as opposed to historical writing about it: “We will join neither the proponents nor the opponents of generative linguistics” (p. 11).

Chapter 1 briefly defines the overall aim of the book, saying that its topic can be interpreted as examining the diverse solutions implicitly offered by various scholars to the problem (P): “What historiographical ‘framework’, ‘central hypothesis’ and ‘basic terms’ can account for the history of generative linguistics?” Kertész sees the three terms set off here by inverted commas as issues common to the historiography of every science. He relates his concept of historiography of science to standard versions of the philosophy of science, particularly the canonical views of Sir Karl Popper ([1935] 1959), modified by Imre Lakatos (1976), together with Thomas Kuhn’s (1960) idea that scientific progress advances not solely through rejection of theories in favour of other theories which are empirically superior, but also, sometimes, through “revolutions” in which one “paradigm” replaces another with which it is incommensurable.

(Kuhn’s concept of scientific revolutions seemed shocking in its day, though it achieved great influence. Later, it was overtaken in shock value by Paul Feyerabend’s (1975) “anarchistic” philosophy of science. Interestingly, Kertész never mentions Feyerabend. That, for me at least, is no criticism of Kertész, but it is perhaps surprising, because some current proponents of generative linguistics have been relying on Feyerabend’s ideas to make their case – see e.g. Sampson 2017: 65–6.)

Chapter 2, Kertész’s central and by far his longest chapter, proceeds to examine discussions by historians of linguistics about successive milestones in Chomsky’s thinking (apart from “Syntactic Structures”, these are “Aspects” (1965), “The Sound Pattern of English” (1968), “Lectures on Government and Binding” (1981), and “The Minimalist Program” (1995)). From these discussions Kertész distils 22 different solutions advocated at various times to problem (P). This is done in a highly schematic way, so that each of the 22 solutions is couched in terms of the same three categories of ‘framework’, ‘central hypothesis’, and ‘basic terms’. To quote one example, Frederick Newmeyer (1986) is said to imply the following solution to (P):

The basic terms of the historiography of generative linguistics with respect to “Syntactic Structures” are ‘scientific revolution’ and ‘research tradition’, its central hypothesis is “‘Syntactic Structures’ triggered a scientific revolution in the sense of Laudan (1977) rather than in the Kuhnian (1970) sense and thus led to a new ‘research tradition’” and its framework is Laudan (1977).

Kertész pays special attention to whether the historians he discusses saw the development of generative linguistics as including one or more Kuhnian revolutions.

In Chapter 4 Kertész offers a 23rd solution to (P), his own – though he states that he puts this forward not as superior to the 22 previous solutions, only as different, in that it captures an aspect which they do not, while ignoring other aspects which they do address. Kertész calls his solution “the p-model of plausible argumentation” (here p seems to stand for “plausibility”). I shall not attempt to summarize the p-model, partly because Kertész’s definition is very complex, and also because his statement in this book relies heavily on references to another book, Kertész and Rákosi (2012), which I have not seen. However, one key feature is that it treats the contents of general linguistic theory, and of grammars of individual languages, not as assertions that can be known with certainty to be true but only as propositions having various degrees of plausibility.

(I am not sure whose views this emphasis on plausibility rather than certainty is intended to contrast with. For the general philosophy of science it is a familiar principle – it is central to Popper’s concept of science.)

Chapter 5 is a case study examining how the 23rd solution to (P) treats, in particular, the relationship between “Syntactic Structures” and “neo-Bloomfieldian linguistics”. Chapter 6 raises a number of questions about the historiography of linguistics for which Kertész’s solution 23 ought to offer answers, but which currently remain open in the sense that those answers have not yet been elaborated. And, finally, the main content of Chapter 7 was already summarized earlier in this review.


I cannot say I find Kertész’s approach to the history of generative linguistics particularly congenial; I am sceptical about the rigidly schematic manner in which he reduces diverse scholars’ accounts to a fixed, arbitrary-looking set of three categories. However, my disagreements are at a “high level” – I do not see Kertész as having got specific facts wrong, though reading him has led me to realize that some fundamental axioms he seems to take for granted appear to me shortsighted. Without reading Kertész, I might never have been led to formulate aspects of my own position explicitly, so the exercise has been more enlightening than it might be to read some book with which I agree more fully.

One way in which Kertész appears possibly shortsighted relates to the role of science as a branch of human knowledge. Sir Karl Popper’s “demarcation criterion”, in terms of falsifiability, did not define a distinction between meaningful discourse and nonsense, but between science and non-science. This has been obscured, for some readers, by the fact that they have been less interested in “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” (the book which introduced the demarcation criterion) than in later writings where Popper used his criterion in order to attack certain bodies of discourse (including Marxism and psychoanalysis) as pseudosciences. It might be reasonable to gloss “pseudoscience” as “nonsense”. But there are also “good” non-sciences, such as the study of history. History is undoubtedly a valid and worthwhile academic subject, but it is not (and, except by Marxists, is not usually claimed to be) a science. History writing is mainly about human actions, which are largely determined by human thought, and thinking is an innovating, unpredictable activity; consequently the study of history yields few falsifiable general laws.

Kertész notes that one component of the change brought about by Chomsky in linguistics was a shift in the central focus of the discipline from phonology to grammar (or as Americans prefer to say, syntax). He does not make the point that this change created novel questions about the scientific status of the subject. Arguably, it is possible to state falsifiable laws about the phonology of a language. For instance, no English word will begin with the consonant cluster /ml-/. Other languages do allow this sequence (the Czech for “speak” is ‘mluvit’), and it is not difficult for English native speakers to produce it, but the English language will never call on them to do so. One can debate whether a generalization like this is truly entitled to count as a “scientific law”. An equally valid generalization might seem to be that English words cannot end in “checked” vowels such as the DRESS vowel, but I recently learned that photographers nowadays use a Japanese loan “bokeh” which they treat as naturalized into English (it is not italicized in writing) and is spelled with an H specifically in order to ensure that it is pronounced with the DRESS vowel (Johnston 2009). Perhaps, even in phonology, one should speak only of tendencies rather than “rules” or “laws”. But there was at least a prima facie plausibility in calling linguistics “the scientific study of language” while linguistics was centred in phonology.

Things change once the focus shifts to grammar. Phonology is about unconscious, meaningless habits of vocal-organ activity, but grammar is about choosing wording to render conscious thought audible or visible. Consequently the study of grammar faces some of the same problems about lack of predictive laws that put the study of history on the non-science side of Popper’s demarcation line. It has often been noticed (e.g. Householder 1973: 371) how difficult it is to come up with cast-iron examples of unusable sequences of words. For many years I have argued (most fully, and most recently, in Sampson 2017) that such things do not exist: “starred sentences” are a linguistic myth. Once linguistics expands beyond phonology to focus on grammar and semantics, I believe it cannot claim to be a science: unless it is a mere pseudoscience, it must be reckoned among the humanities, and evaluated in the way that other humanities subjects are evaluated (which is not in terms of quantities of falsifiable predictions).

Kertész’s book does not bring this issue out explicitly. Since he is engaged on “historiography”, up to a point that is reasonable: the task he has set himself is to analyse what historians of linguistics have seen as significant developments in the subject – on the evidence Kertész quotes, most of them seem to have assumed that the only alternative to science is pseudoscience, while differing on which side of that line to place particular generative-linguistic theories, or generative linguistics as a whole. For some of these writers, that assumption seems unmistakable, for instance (according to Kertész) Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini and Cedric Boeckx both defend the Minimalist Programme from the charge that it lacks empirical substance by saying that while it is not yet mature and rigorous it nevertheless is “well on its way to becoming a full-blown natural science” (p. 109) and that Lakatos’s term “scientific research programme” applies to it (p. 112). However, at least one scholar discussed by Kertész, namely Robin Lakoff (1989), does explicitly discuss the science/humanities distinction and argues for treating the subject matter of generative linguistics among the humanities. I hoped that Kertész would use this as a prompt to discuss that issue at length – to me it seems much more fundamental than some of the issues his book does cover – and that he would perhaps examine reasons why other historians of linguistics have neglected it. However, after briefly quoting Robin Lakoff’s view, Kertész takes the matter no further. He never says that he shares the assumption that linguistic theories must be either science or pseudoscience, but that is the easiest way to explain his silence.

This is not the only way in which Kertész strikes me as imposing unduly narrow constraints on his historiography. Although Kertész avoids taking a position on the validity or otherwise of generative linguistics, he does make clear his views about the validity or otherwise of the historical accounts of generative linguistics put forward by the various scholars he considers. One factor which Kertész (p. 106) sees as “weakening the credibility” of various of these accounts is that they contain some discussion of the personalities of theorists, rather than exclusively analysis of the logical content of their theories. We can all agree, I expect, that a historian of linguistics would scarcely deserve to be taken seriously if he wrote something like “When I met X I found his manner abrasive, so I conclude that his theory about the syntax of Y must be wrong”. But some, at least, of the historians of linguistics considered by Kertész have used allusions to personal factors in a subtler and more reasonable way. According to Robin Lakoff (1989: 940), “theory alone does not make for linguistic schools, much less linguistics wars: To understand the theory itself as well as the history, we have to understand the people.” I believe that is a fair comment about the history of ideas in general (one with which many respected historians of ideas would concur), and that it applies more strongly to linguistics since the Second World War than to some other academic subjects. Kertész evidently disagrees, but he does not spell out his reasons for disagreeing.

K’s book contains a wealth of references to publications relevant to his topic, some of them far from well known, and as I have already suggested, I have found it valuable in stimulating thinking about the issues it aims to cover, even if my conclusions are sometimes different from K’s. Perhaps one should not expect much more than this from a book about fundamental issues in a discipline.

The book is well produced, with few misprints; and, unlike some books published on the Continent, it has an index. One typographical oddity is that inverted commas as quotation marks are substituted (even within quotations from normally-punctuated sources) by German marks like miniature greater-than and less-than symbols, points inward. Initially this is offputting, but one gets used to it.


Feyerabend, Paul, 1975. Against Method: outline of an anarchistic theory of knowledge. New Left Books (now Verso).

Householder, Frederick, 1973. “On arguments from asterisks”. Foundations of Language 10.365–76.

Johnston, Mike, 2009. “Bokeh in pictures”. <>, accessed 18 Nov 2017.

Kertész, András and Csilla Rákosi, 2012. Data and Evidence in Linguistics: a plausible argumentation model. Cambridge University Press.

Kuhn, Thomas, 1960. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press.

Lakatos, Imre, 1976. “Falsification and the methodology of scientific research programmes”. In I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave, eds, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. Cambridge University Press.

Lakoff, Robin, 1989. “The way we were; or; the real actual truth about generative semantics: a memoir”. Journal of Pragmatics 13.939–88.

Laudan, Larry, 1977. Progress and its Problems. University of California Press.

Newmeyer, Frederick, 1986. “Has there been a ‘Chomskyan revolution’ in linguistics?” Language 62.1–18.

Popper, Karl, 1959. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Hutchinson. (Translation of a German original published in 1935.)

Sampson, Geoffrey, 2017. The Linguistics Delusion. Equinox (Sheffield).
Geoffrey Sampson graduated in Oriental Studies at Cambridge University in 1965, and studied Linguistics and Computer Science as a graduate student at Yale University before teaching at the universities of Oxford, LSE, Lancaster, Leeds, and Sussex. After retiring from his Computing chair at Sussex he spent some years as a research fellow in Linguistics at the University of South Africa. Sampson has published in most areas of Linguistics and on a number of other subjects. His most recent book is ''The Linguistics Delusion'' (Equinox, 2017).