Inarticulate mammals

Ideology and Linguistic Theory
April 12, 1996

In the late 1960s linguistics in America briefly looked more like the World Wrestling Federation than a serious academic discipline. The tone of the time is indicated by one of the central protagonists, John Ross, in an interview reproduced at the end of this book. Ross recounts how George Lakoff, a key firebrand from that era, gave a lecture in San Francisco after which someone started to ask hostile questions. "Finally George, from the podium, said to the questioner, who we'll call X, 'Well, **** you, X'. And X looked as if he'd been slapped in the face, and then said, 'Well **** you, George'. And that was the end of that."

Geoffrey Huck and John Goldsmith attempt to reassess the intellectual content of this dispute. Unfortunately, the book fails in just about every conceivable way. The title includes the word "debate", but this is hardly an appropriate description of the (not atypical) exchange between Lakoff and his questioner. The term "battle" would be more accurate; indeed, a comprehensive history of this period by Randy Harris was called The Linguistics Wars. Harris's book is only referred to once, in passing, by Huck and Goldsmith, a serious defect in their scholarship. Harris argued persuasively that the intellectual issues were a minor part of the dispute, a view reinforced in an important 1989 paper by Robin Lakoff, another key participant, which, amazingly, is not in Huck and Goldsmith's bibliography.

The authors say: "Of course, one may question whether the disputants in the Generative SemanticsInterpretive Semantics debate were engaging in a rational discussion". Well, yes indeed! The heat arose, in fact, because the two sides were not talking about the same issues. The leading figure of one faction, Noam Chomsky, has always concentrated on those properties of language which might shed light on "universal grammar", the innate mental structures which, he claims, are unique to the human brain. The opposing camp was interested in much broader questions about how language structure interacts with language use in real contexts.

Huck and Goldsmith miss this point completely. Their use of the term "interpretive semantics" to label Chomsky's camp also betrays a misunderstanding of the dispute. The disagreement was not about two different approaches to semantics. Only two people fought under the banner of "interpretive semantics": Jerrold Katz, who spent years arguing that both sides were wrong, and Ray Jackendoff, whose work on semantics has played only a minor part in mainstream developments since that time.

Ultimately, Chomsky's opposition to generative semantics was that it asked the wrong questions and diverted attention from the line of work that he found interesting. Some of the analyses proposed by Lakoff, Ross et al have lived on in modified and partial ways; the historically interesting question, however, is why so much heat was generated for so little light. Paul Postal, another key character in the drama, says in his interview in this book that the dispute is "of very marginal scientific relevance". He is right, and it is a pity that the authors did not heed his words.

The book is written in a heavy and pedestrian style. More importantly, Huck and Goldsmith miss the opportunity to discuss a much more significant challenge to Chomsky's views, known as "generalized phrase structure grammar" (GPSG), which arose in the early 1980s. Some attempt to draw parallels between the earlier and later battles would have been enlightening.

In short, this book discusses nonissues in an unhelpful way, and must be regarded as a major disappointment.

Raphael Salkie is principal lecturer in language studies, University of Brighton.

Ideology and Linguistic Theory: Noam Chomsky and the Deep Structure Debates

Author - Geoffrey J. Huck and John A. Goldsmith
ISBN - 0 415 11735 6
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £19.99
Pages - 186

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