A question for Fritz

Tom Givon tgivon at uoregon.edu
Sat Oct 23 19:52:01 UTC 2010

Dear John,

First, Shannon is a  he, not a she.

Second, I checked the first three refs he gave, nothing there about 
linguistics, tho Murray Gell-Man claims to be doing joint work with 
Mwerritt Ruhlen (I know their work).

Third, I did give Fritz the ref. of Frans de Waal's article in the NY 
Times (and On The Human), in which "some linguists"  (= Chomsky) are 
explicitly criticized for their anti-evolutionary perspective.

One could of course go on, tho I must confess I find the stated purpose 
of Fritz's endeavor somewhat baffling.  In 1992 Walter Kintch, a 
well-known  psycho-linguist, wrote an article with roughly the following 
quote "so now finally we discover that grammar does have a reason for 
being there". This is after reading my work on grammar as an automated 
discourse processor. The clear inference was "until now the Chomskians 
gave us a formal device with no cognitive function whatever". Most 
psycho-linguists know only of Chomsky, and tho they have found him 
totally useless ("makes no behavioral/empirical  predictions"), they are 
reluctant to criticize him in print. What happened to Roger Schank (who 
was neither a psychologist nor a linguist) was a sharp caution. The 
entire Generative propaganda machinery went after him, crunched his 
tail, his poor ego never recovered. The reason they bothered with him 
was that at the time Cog. Sci. was still dominated by computational 
types, and  Roger, a computer guy, was perceived as a real threat. This 
has radically changed now, with neuro-science dominating the agenda. The 
best practitioners there either ignore Generativism (= minimalism) 
altogether, or (as in the case of Angela Friederici, via Yosef 
Grodzionsky) go back to the Aspects (1965) model, the last one that had 
some concrete foundations (constructions, morphology).

All in all, it is a complex picture with lots of convoluted history. And 
it is not ameliorated by self-proclaimed functionalists developing 
"purely linguistic" descriptive models that are "a-theoretical" and 
disclaim interest in explanation (and are really pure formalisms, from 
my humble perspective). All this means is that the allied disciplines 
(cognitive neuro-science, evolutionary anthropology/psychology, 
primatology, developmental psychology), who desperately need some 
substantive/empirical input from linguistics, don't get it from 'our' 
side of the field either.

Best,  TG


john at research.haifa.ac.il wrote:
> Fritz,
> Hmm. So you seem to be in a difficult position, that is, that you don't
> agree with the premise but you are perhaps expected to agree? You obviously
> haven't had too much luck getting support for the premise from funknet (the
> only person who gave you anything was Shannon and none of her references
> were about generative grammar)--have you gotten much from other sources? Have
> you considered simply going with your immediate reaction, that is,
> contradicting the premise of the article?
> I would generally agree with your assessment that linguistics hasn't enjoyed
> great prestige in the US for a while, but I think I might put the date a little
> later, maybe the mid-to-late-70s. I have the impression that for a while there
> was a lot of hope and expectation in other disciplines that the Chomskyan
> paradigm would lead to much more than it has. Another factor is, I think, that
> whereas during the days of structural linguistics there was a lot of admiration
> for linguistics in the other social sciences in the sense that there was a
> general feeling that social sciences should be more scientific and that
> linguistics was doing a much better job of this than the other social sciences
> (with the possible exception of economics), by the early 1980s at the latest
> the other social sciences either gave up trying to be scientific or else
> managed to do it in ways not modeled on linguistics. In that sense I think that
> even the early prestige of the generative paradigm was in a certain sense a
> continuation of the earlier admiration for structural linguistics.
> What seems to have happened is that the methodology for scientific linguistics 
> a la structuralism and generative grammar has turned out to simply not be
> applicable to other disciplines. But generative grammarians seem to be either
> not aware of this, or to assume that this is a temporary state of affairs, or
> not to care, and thus to radically overestimate the general importance of their
> program to academic research in general. This would seem to be the only
> explanation for people like the author of this articles making premises which
> aren't consistent with what's really going on.
> Best wishes,
> John
> Quoting Frederick J Newmeyer <fjn at u.washington.edu>:
>> John,
>> That's a fair enough question. I was asked to provide commentary on a target
>> article whose basic premise is that the field of linguistics enjoys
>> 'tremendous prestige' among those in the humanities, social sciences, and
>> cognitive sciences. My immediate reaction was that such has not been true
>> since the 1960s. Since everything in the target article follows from the
>> premise, I thought that I might wrap my commentary around whether linguistics
>> really does enjoy 'tremendous prestige'. Hence my question to the List. And
>> then I decided to expand my commentary to a separate survey article.
>> --fritz
>> ps: The authors of the target article tacitly equate linguistics with
>> generative grammar, though I am not aware of other approaches to linguistics
>> enjoying tremendous prestige among those in the humanities, social sciences,
>> and cognitive sciences.
>> Frederick J. Newmeyer
>> Professor Emeritus, University of Washington
>> Adjunct Professor, University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University
>> [for my postal address, please contact me by e-mail]
>> On Sat, 23 Oct 2010, john at research.haifa.ac.il wrote:
>>> Particularly in view of the response which Fritz' posting has generated,
>> I'd
>>> like to ask him: Why are you looking particular for quotes from people in
>>> theoretical rather than applied fields? What sort of a survey article is
>> this?
>>> Was this distinction made by the person who asked you to write the article
>> or
>>> is it your own idea?
>>> Best wishes,
>>> John
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