Tahir Wood twood at
Mon Oct 25 14:40:36 UTC 2010

I think it is important to bear in mind what preceded the 'Chomskyan revolution' against empiricism. For one thing it was the bias against 'mentalism' that originated in American structuralism aligned with behaviourist psychology. As far as I recall that was the main target of Chomsky's critiques. 

Recently I was reminded of just how problematic extreme empiricism can still be when I attended a conference in Italy dominated by a certain school of corpus linguistics. I was shocked at the level of bias against theory and in favour of counting numbers of occurrences in particular pieces of discourse. The number of times a word, say 'do', occurs in a text, say Othello, tells you how 'important' this word is in that text. Then the number of times that it occurs in the company of some other word(s) tells you all about 'phraseology'. I told some of the people I met there that this reminded me more of Bloomfield and structuralist type 'slot filling' than anything else, which didn't go down well. 

But I think this kind of empiricism, which is an anti-intellectualism in favour of some notion of 'authenticity,' is highly repellant and if it ever became the dominant paradigm then we would surely need a new Chomsky to destroy it again. I had trouble recognising it as linguistics at all.


>>> <john at> 10/25/2010 10:44 am >>>
(1) Chomsky's descriptive observations about nominalizations were not at all
original--Jespersen made the same observations.
(2) The observations about island constraints were from Haj Ross' thesis.
(3) The competence/performance distinction is basically Saussure's
(4) At Penn (where I studied) it was commonly acknowledged that the idea
of generative grammar was lifted from Zelig Harris (Chomsky's mentor there),
although I'm not sure that I believe this.

Quoting Richard Hudson <dick at>:

> Thanks Aya, Alex and Mark for your views. It's very odd for me to be
> defending Chomsky, since I've spent most of my life criticising him, but
> he's an ordinary human being just like the rest of us, with good points
> and bad points. When I said he couldn't be all wrong, I actually meant
> he wasn't all wrong - I can easily think of plenty of things that he did
> that were right, and inspired good work.
> My personal list of achievements by Chomsky:
> - His 1970 article on nominalisation, with its clear distinction between
> gerunds and nominalisations.
> - His insights into the structure of the English auxiliary system (but
> not his morpheme-based analysis).
> - His observations on island constraints in syntax - but not his
> conclusions.
> - His contrast between knowledge (competence) and behaviour
> (performance) - but not his catch-all use of 'performance'.
> - His idea of formal 'generative' grammar - but not his later
> abandonment of the substance.
> I dare say I could add some more if I thought a bit longer. These are
> all things that he did which influenced my own (generally non-Chomskyan)
> work, and which I know have influenced plenty of other non-Chomskyans.
> And I don't agree that the whole field is so dominated by his doctrines
> that other views can't be heard - just think of all the books and
> articles and university departments oriented towards other approaches,
> from non-Chomskyan formal theories such as HPSG and LFG, to
> non-Chomskyan informal work on discourse and the like. I'm sure some
> people on this list both disagree with Chomsky and have tenure.
> Dick Hudson
> --
> Richard Hudson 

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