Chomsky - Bill Bright's opinion, and my two cents

Lise Menn lise.menn at Colorado.EDU
Tue Oct 26 17:02:12 UTC 2010

Sometime in the 1990s, I asked Bill Bright what he thought Chomsky's  
contributions to linguistics were - and remember, Bill was among those  
who felt more and more miserable at UCLA as the department became  
increasingly formalist in the 1970s and '80s. When he was editor of  
Language, he had been attacked -sometimes quite angrily - by both pro-  
and anti-Chomskyan folks - as he attempted to preserve the journal's  
neutrality.  He said he figured that if he was getting it from both  
sides, he was doing his job.

	Here's what Bill said, to the best of my recollection (yes, I should  
have written it down, but it was only a dinner-table conversation):
	First, Chomsky brought renewed attention to syntax; most of the major  
work on language structures {until Harris, who was a lot harder to  
read - LM] stopped at morphology and morphophonemics.
	Second, he worked on an extremely widely and well-known language,  
English. People could argue about it from their own knowledge, and  
test claims easily.  This really broke things open in a way we have  
forgotten; how many linguists were native speakers of Menomini?
	And third, he got a lot of people excited about linguistics; new  
departments were founded like crazy. We owe him a big debt of thanks  
for that.

My own two cents: Charismatic figures who open up fields (Freud,  
Schliemann, Levi-Strauss, Piaget...) do/say a lot of things that later  
generations of critical thinkers rightly deplore, or at least find to  
be oversimplified.  But there has to be a first approximation before  
there can be refinement.  I'm in my 40th year of explaining why  
Jakobson was wrong - Marilyn Vihman and I have a paper about the  
development of features in the forthcoming Benjamins volume edited by  
Clements & Ridouane - but if Roman Osipovitch hadn't made his grand  
theoretical claims, who today would even be interested in child  


Lise Menn                      Home Office: 303-444-4274
1625 Mariposa Ave	Fax: 303-413-0017
Boulder CO 80302
home page:

Professor Emerita of Linguistics
Fellow, Institute of Cognitive Science
University of  Colorado

Secretary, AAAS Section Z [Linguistics]
Fellow, Linguistic Society of America

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