Mind your language 2

November 30, 2007

The problem with Michael Bulley's attack on linguistics ("Chomskyans chase down a blind alley", November 16) comes at the end of the second paragraph. It's the phrase "non-specialist". Linguistics has a perennial problem in this regard: everyone thinks they know how language works, just because they speak a language or two. It can sometimes be fun to see how non-specialists think your subject should be run, but Bulley's criticism seems to rely only on a reading of Wittgenstein, who may have been a fine philosopher but was not a renowned syntactician.

Bulley either doesn't understand what Chomsky, and others who share his basic approach to the investigation of language, believes or he wilfully misrepresents it. He also manages to miss the distinction between semantics and pragmatics in studying meaning, to believe that words are the only thing that linguists should worry about (rather than the syntax, phonology and morphology that many of us like to consider) and to propose a gloomily impoverished notion of what can be "real" (we're allowed neither concepts nor grammar).

Would The Times Higher publish my uninformed musings on what physics should investigate or on what notions literary theory should be allowed to consider?

Patrick Honeybone, Lecturer in linguistics and English language, Edinburgh University.

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