Letter: Feeling physics envy?

February 22, 2002

Roy Harris writes in his review of Ray Jackendoff's The Foundations of Language (Books, THES , February 15) that "the generativist horse never bolted: it was found dead in its stall".

I agree with Harris's sentiments about the Chomskyan approach to language and think that soon it will be universally agreed to be discredi-ted. Chomsky himself has practically disowned most of his earlier ideas.

When I studied linguistics 30 years ago, anti-Chomskyan arguments were practically heretical. You still find adverts for lecturers in "generativist syntax", which sounds like a post in flat-earth studies.

It is not as if there has been no opposition. Of many works, I could cite Ian Robinson's The New Grammarians' Funeral of 1975. I have also published articles on this topic.

The attraction of the generative approach may have been a case of "physics envy", where academics try to give their subject authority by applying sci-entific methods to human acti-vities not suited to them. An inexperienced person opening a book on generative syntax might think it was an objective phenomenon that could not be altered by imagination. Language is something that can even be changed by wrong ideas about it. The generativist "revolution" was not only wrong but harmful to its topic.

Michael Bulley
Head of classics
Highworth School Ashford, Kent

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