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February 25, 2005



Nowadays linguistics degree courses treat Chomsky's work, if they bother with it at all, as naive and outmoded. There has been a huge change now that most academic perspectives on linguistics are grounded in real data and lots of it. Chomsky wasn't interested in data collection and his theories are based on examples he made up. No way is his model now the dominant paradigm. It's been totally superseded and much evidence has shown he was simply wrong.


It is simply not true that 'linguistics degree courses treat Chomsky's work, if they bother with it at all, as naive and outmoded'. A look at linguistics degree schemes in the UK and in also in the States will show that he continues to enjoy considerable influence. It is probably true, however, that his influence is less than ten years ago. One aspect of this is the way his ideas are coming under criticism from researchers who were once very close to him such as Pinker and Jackendoff.


It's great seeing Skinner's Verbal Behavior mentioned again. Is there any chance that this book will be rediscovered? I always felt that Chomsky was the new Lysenko, forbidding others to read Skinner for completely hairbrained reasons.

I think it is safe to say the Chomsky has only a legacy value in Linguistics. Important for historical reasons, bu no one takes him very seriously.


It is not true that 'no one takes him [Chomsky] very seriously'. I could name numerous linguists who take his work very seriously. The most that can be said is that his influence is less strong than 10 or 15 years ago. One might wish it were oterwise, but there is no point in ignoring reality.


There is a good, well detailed at least, account of the infighting over Chomsky in the 70's and the 80's in "The Linguistics Wars" http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/search-handle-form/002-4432485-7212830.

Chomsky may still have adherents on university staffs, but he is a laughingstock among other linguists (Source: gossip from atrain buddy who is mid-way up in Microsoft.) Linguistics is to software engineering what physics is to civil
engineering - you can only be so wrong so many
times before everyone starts to ignore you.

Denawardah sums it up - why waste time reading the Chomskey's philosophical speculations in mathemathical-equation drag when you can read real research? Case grammar is a prime example. There is a lot of new work with actually occurring systems if that field interests you. Why bother with Chomsky's solipsisms or his disciples?


The term "Linguistic Wars" is applied to debates in the late 1960s and early 1970s in which Chomsky prevailed. He expanded his influence in the 1980s (with something called Government-Binding theory) but since the early 1990s (when he began to advocate something called Minimalism) his influence has declined somewhat. It is not true that 'Linguistics is to software engineering what physics is to civil engineering'. Most linguistics is of no relevance at all to software engineering and none the worse for that. It is true, however, that Chomsky's work has no influence in computational linguistics, which is an important branch of linguistics. Case Grammar was an approach developed in the late 1960s which enjoyed some influence until the mid 1970s. It is a thing of the past.


"Most linguistics is of no relevance at all to software engineering and none the worse for that." And most physics is of no relevance to civil engineering. The dependency runs the other way. The analogy holds. I remember software types in my linguistics classes back in the 70's. I understand that software design owes a lot to linguistics.



You are right about Case Grammar being out-dated, but I really meant that whole area of syntax, not a specific theory. Case still seemsot be a prety active area of interest.




One of Chomsky's blind spots was his near total reliance on "data" from English - not real observed dtata, but intuitional data from his own non-native knowledge of English. That is not to blame him for using English; he have used Hebrew, but Yiddish examples might have been a little obscure.


In 1950s Chomsky did work in a branch of mathematics called formal language theory. That is relevant to software engineering. Pure linguistics isn't.


Thanks for the update. I had always wondered what interest the software people had in pronominal systems and such. Not much, apparently.

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