Grasshoppers and women on horseback as frogs

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At's Evolving Thoughts, the philosopher of biology John S. Wilkins recently referenced a couple of Language Log posts ("Queensland grammar brouhaha", 6/13/2008; "How the Romans invented grammar", 6/14/2008), and added his own ruminations ("Grammar wars in Queensland", 10/14/2008):

Now grammar wars and grammar nazis go back a long time, and the fight seems to this outsider to be between those who follow Chomskyian transformational grammars and those who follow traditional grammars.

To this insider, John's comment seems to be yet another indictment of my profession, which has evidently failed to provide, to one of the more intellectually accomplished members of the general public, even the faintest hint of a clue. Closer to home, in this case, even reading two Language Log posts didn't make a dent. So let me try again.

As Geoff Pullum explained, the problem in Queensland (Australia) was that

Last year the English Teachers' Association of Queensland … published in its newsletter Words'Worth a series of articles for teachers on basic English grammar, under the title 'Grammar at the Coalface'; and the articles were terrible. Not just a little bit ropey, but absolutely incompetent, full of utter howlers.

One small example: the boldface words in the examples below were identified as "adverbs":

The small boy won't eat his lunch.
The small boy is capable of eating his lunch.

Continuing with Geoff's history:

Rodney Huddleston, professor emeritus of the University of Queensland and a thirty-year veteran of trying to improve the level of understanding of grammar in Queensland and more widely, noticed the howlers, and began cautiously to work with ETAQ to try and negotiate a measured response pointing out the errors in as gentle a way as possible. For nearly a year he was repeatedly blocked. His suggestion that he should publish an article reviewing and correcting the errors was initially accepted, but the article and two subsequent shortened versions of it were rejected. He was finally permitted to publish a very watered-down statement under the title 'Aspects of Grammar', with the majority of his critique consigned to the ETAQ website.

I guess that you might call this dispute a "grammar war", though it's really more of a "competence war". But it has nothing to do with National Socialism, nor even with the extended sense of nazi in which "X nazi" has come to mean "someone who is serious about X in an unfriendly way", so that a "grammar nazi" is a person who insists on correcting (or incorrecting) other people's usage. None of the parties to the Queensland argument is a "grammar nazi" in that sense — everyone involved has the goal of providing teachers with the concepts and skills needed to analyze the ways that English words are put together into sentences.

Nor does this dispute have anything whatever to do with Noam Chomsky or transformational grammar. The article in The Australian (Justine Ferrari, "Grammar errors 'out of context'", 6/14/2008) didn't mention Chomsky or transformational grammar; Geoff Pullum's Language Log post didn't mention Chomsky or transformational grammar; Rodney Huddleston's article ("Problems with the Coalface Grammar") didn't mention Chomsky or transformational grammar.

The reason for this silence is simple — neither the Coalface Grammar's confusions, nor Huddleston's attempts to unravel them, have any connections with Chomsky's theories. Noam Chomsky has never asserted that won't and capable of are adverbs — nor has he ever denied this. Rather, he shares with all other linguists — until now — the property of never having considered the question. A good comparison would be John S. Wilkins' views on the question of whether or not grasshoppers and women on horseback are frogs. Even without having read his forthcoming Sourcebook on Species Definitions, I'm willing to bet that he has not felt the need to take a position on this issue.

The dispute over the "Coalface grammar" does deal in a limited way with "traditional grammar", because its author raised the issue in defending herself to The Australian:

"They weren't all mistakes as he described but differences of opinion and that's the way of the world," she said. Dr Ferguson said Professor Huddleston did not follow traditional grammar but had invented his own type, called the Cambridge grammar, which was unique and had reclassified terms, such as calling prepositions conjunctions.

Again, this is like defending the view that grasshoppers are frogs by invoking Linnaeus against the ICZN, while accusing modern biologists of calling rodents lizards — I'm quite confident that none of the many traditional grammars of English, from Lindley Murray to Otto Jespersen, has ever asserted that won't and capable of are adverbs. Nor can you find this idea in Michael Halliday's "functional grammar", which has also been mentioned in the discussion. As Geoff put it, "These are huge, crashing, indefensible errors, unjustified under any theory or framework of terminology."

So, once more with feeling: this controversy is not about prescriptivism vs. descriptivism, nor is it about traditional grammar vs. any flavor of modern grammar. It's about rationality vs. irrationality, systematic analysis vs. random whims, competence vs. incompetence.

I'll quote Geoff one last time:

As ever, this stonewalling and denial led to worse effects than would have resulted from an open admission of incompetence […] [T]he incident has turned (as one might have anticipated) into a full-scale assault on the credentials and mental acumen of all Queensland's hard-working teachers. It might have been better for ETAQ to openly and honestly admit that it had unfortunately published a grammar article that was a complete crock. Memo to all: when you make a mistake, just admit it.


  1. HP said,

    June 15, 2008 @ 12:04 pm

    Quick clarification: John Wilkins is not a biologist; he is a philosopher of science, and his primary area of expertise is species concepts.

  2. RPM said,

    June 15, 2008 @ 12:21 pm

    So, what's the absurdist's parallel for referring to the philosopher John Wilkins as a "biologist"?

    And if the previous sentence can't be parsed: Wilkins is a philosopher, not a biologist.

  3. Blake Stacey said,

    June 15, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

    John S. Wilkins is a philosopher of biology, not a biologist.

  4. Moira Less said,

    June 15, 2008 @ 1:06 pm

    The misunderstanding may arise from what Pullum said about "left-wing teachers, Marxist literary critics, deconstructionists, and post-modernists wittering on about diversity of Englishes and marginalized discourses of the oppressed, and the Coalface author is taken to be on that side — as if there was something leftist or subversive about being unable to tell an adjective from a modal auxiliary." Not that it's difficult to understand what Pullum meant, but someone might infer that all the good guys are on the other side of this argument.

    As a non-linguist I must admit to having been surprised at how infrequently Chomsky is mentioned here (almost never?). I think he's only linguist who is world famous,.

  5. Mark Liberman said,

    June 15, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

    Blake Stacey: John S. Wilkins is a philosopher of biology, not a biologist.

    Then I'm even more ashamed of my profession: I've been deluding myself that we've explained ourselves reasonably well to philosophers.

    Anyhow, I've corrected the reference.

  6. Ellen K. said,

    June 15, 2008 @ 2:06 pm

    It seems to me to be the same sort of incorrect logic that would call nouns that denote actions verbs. Like folks saying "God is a verb" (because they believe God is action, not a thing) and not seeing it as a metaphor. Except those folks aren't attempting to teach grammar.

  7. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    June 15, 2008 @ 2:59 pm

    I often run into people who believe Chomsky is the center of the linguistic world. Just recently, on a linguistics forum I frequent, someone essentially proposed that since Chomsky's theories are being questioned, the entire field of linguistics is in trouble. Needless to say I found this patently ridiculous.

  8. Mark Liberman said,

    June 15, 2008 @ 3:13 pm

    Moira Less: As a non-linguist I must admit to having been surprised at how infrequently Chomsky is mentioned here (almost never?).

    Actually, three times in the past month, and roughly 120 times in the past five years, which works out to about twice a month on average.

  9. Mateo Crawford said,

    June 15, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

    I think he's only linguist who is world famous,.

    Mark Okrand probably doesn't count, but it would be amusing if he did.

  10. Moira Less said,

    June 15, 2008 @ 4:32 pm

    <I<twice a month on average.

    And, say there's an average of nearly 2 posts/day, that would be about once in every fifty posts. As I thought, almost never.

  11. Moira Less said,

    June 15, 2008 @ 4:53 pm

    that would be about once in every fifty posts.

    Duh. Sorry. I've been moving large rocks in the garden. One in 30?

  12. Terrence Enger said,

    June 15, 2008 @ 6:48 pm

    "Memo to all: when you make a mistake, just admit it."

    Agreed. Crow is a dish best eaten while it is young and tender.

  13. John S. Wilkins said,

    June 15, 2008 @ 8:14 pm

    One ought not denigrate an entire profession – philosophy – on the basis of the ignorance of one member of it. I was reflecting on my own experience of grammar, or trying to. We were taught transformational grammar, although I didn't know that was what I was being taught, in high school back in the 70s. I have learned almost no grammar since, except when a very unhappy Latin teacher at Monash University tried to explain it to us in order to teach us Latin (and similar things happened when different people tried to teach me German, and Hebrew, and classical Greek).

    It is my error to have confused Chomskyan linguistics with the issue at hand, but then as I say on my blog, it's for whatever happens to be passing through my forebrain at the moment, and so there will be errors, especially when I step outside my area of expertise. In short, some have taken me way too seriously.

    And women on horseback are fish, cladistically.

  14. john riemann soong said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 1:41 am

    One of the problems, I suppose, is the multiple definitions of "grammar" being thrown about that make many think they are interchangeable, such as when the idea behind "a model of grammar" gets conflated with "a certain attitude towards grammar".

  15. Nathan Myers said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 2:30 am

    > And women on horseback are fish, cladistically.

    So, not frogs, anyway. That's a relief.

  16. Stephen Jones said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 2:58 am

    —–"And, say there's an average of nearly 2 posts/day, that would be about once in every fifty posts. As I thought, almost never."——

    And how about a little comparative research. How often is Einstein cited in the pages of Scientific American? Once every thirty articles?

  17. Tearlach said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 3:25 am

    Wether or not twice a month on average is equal to almost never, I'm curious what Moira Less thinks is the cause of what she thinks the disparity is. Or more simply, what are you trying to say?

  18. Moira Less said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 3:56 am

    How often is Einstein …

    Well for one thing, apart from his having died nearly sixty years ago, Einstein isn't the only physisist well known to the general public.

    I suppose it is slightly unfair since Chomsky is nowadays best known for his political writing. But I think it's fair to say that in the early 60s, before Viet-nam, he was a quite well-known linguist, and presumeably you linguists have all heard of him in that context.

    I'm just guessing that, in my own subject, an architecture blog wouldn't go for thirty posts without mentioning Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Rem Koolhaas, or any other well-known living architects. And architecture, I think, is a less introspective field than linguistics. I mean it's no big deal, but can't any of you explain this, or is Mark's semi-denying my premise the only possibility? Isn't it more likely something like: 'oh, nobody reads him any more, he's too old fashioned', or 'oh, he's too esoteric and specialized'? Of course, if that were the feeling perhaps there would be something to discuss about him here. Did he just fade away?

    Is there some other linguist who should be much better known to the general public? If that's the case I've missed the posts about that person too.

    Come on linguists! I remember reading in The Guardian that one of the premises of Language Log was that it was meant to encourage public interest in your subject. So what's the deal?

  19. Coppe said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 3:59 am

    Chomsky is not mentioned often on this blog. That is not to say that there is anything wrong that. It is certainly not because his work is disregarded or ignored. Non-linguists who point out that Chomsky doesn't receive much attention here are essentially right, though.

    If this were a blog with a focus on Chomskian linguistics, it would look vastly different.

  20. Coppe said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 4:05 am

    Chomsky definitely did not fade away. He still writes very influential stuff on linguistics (for some linguists anyway). In 2005, for instance, he co-wrote a very interesting article on the evolution of language.

    The world of Chomskian linguistics is still very much alive. If anything, under the Minimalist Program, it is more vibrant and exciting than ever.

    For me, anyway.

  21. Jangari said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 4:49 am

    Is there some other linguist who should be much better known to the general public?

    Edward Sapir, Ken Hale and Terry Crowley!

  22. mmm said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 4:55 am

    Isocrates 436-338 BCE: Against the Sophists
    "If all who are engaged in the profession of education were willing to state the facts instead of making greater promises than they can possibly fulfill, they would not be in such bad repute with the lay-public."
    Taking "education" in a broad sense, this probably applies to both Wilkins (leave linguistics alone) and Chomsky (leave politics alone)…

  23. Mark Liberman said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 6:23 am

    @mmm: I would certainly not encourage people like John Wilkins to "leave linguistics alone" — on the contrary!

    With respect to the discussion of Noam Chomsky, I'm genuinely puzzled. Our last ten posts were about the rhetoric of public nakedness; prosody and language identification; the new word "glanceability"; the name of a brand of Chinese chili-garlic sauce; the Fox News "terrorist fist jab" incident; the question of by-topicalization; the odd inclusion of a British railway train in Swedish cyberspace; the history of grammar from Sumer to Rome; the phenomenon of biospam; and the Queensland grammar fuss. I'm fairly sure that Noam has never publicly expressed an opinion about any of these topics, and I'm entirely sure that neither his ideas nor his personality came up naturally in our thoughts or our background researches on these topics.

    Similarly, the world's most famous people this morning, as judged by Microsoft xRank's counting of mentions in the news, are Tiger Woods, Miley Cyrus, Angelina Jolie, and Britney Spears. And yet, many news stories do fail to mention these celebrities. A quick check on Google News turns up about 20K mentions of Tiger, among several million stories indexed, so he is only in one or two stories out of a hundred, at most. Go figure.

  24. mark said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 7:12 am

    The moral, for Moira Less: being a world-famous linguist doesn't necessarily mean that your work has covered everything there is to say about human language. That's why.

  25. Moira Less said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 7:27 am

    …many news stories do fail to mention these celebrities…

    Funny you should mention chili-garlic sauce, the last time I ate chinese with Noam, he told a hilarious story about…Ok, I understand that you don't want to drag him into everything, and that linguistics is interesting without dragging Miley Cyrus, whoever he or she is, into the blog.

    But don't be puzzled. It's not either you talk about the interesting stuff, or you mention celebrity. You can do both, even simultaneously. Oh, and in case you think celebrity is stupid, try telling that to a young person who's obsessed with it, but who might also be intrigued by Language Log. Don't you want to make linguistics more accessible at no cost? Ok Noam Chomsky isn't Angelina Jolie–for one thing, I think he wears glasses–but he was in a terrific film in 1993 or 94 and he seemed very smart. You've got to work with what you've got.

    @Jangari Edward Sapir, Ken Hale and Terry Crowley Thank you. Finally someone who can give a straight answer.

  26. outeast said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 7:34 am

    I'm just guessing that, in my own subject, an architecture blog wouldn't go for thirty posts without mentioning Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Rem Koolhaas, or any other well-known living architects.

    I think there's a bit of disciplinary parochialism here. Chomsky is one of a very few linguists whose names would be recognized by the average reader of a serious blog. The same cannot – I would guess – be said of Hadid et al (Gehry's is the only name I recognized immediately, and even then I would not have said 'architect' without the helpful prompting).

    I'm sure that many of the linguists mentioned by the LLers are as well-known to those that know linguists as Hadid et al are well-known to those that know architects. In terms of household-naminess, perhaps Frank Lloyd Wright would be a better yardstick in this case?

  27. Moira Less said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 7:55 am

    Outeast said, I think there's a bit of disciplinary parochialism here…

    Google hits:
    Zaha: 764.000
    Gehry: 2,19 million
    Meier: 568.000
    Rem: 1,06 million

    Chomsky: 4,6 million (includes political stuff)

    Frank Lloyd Wright: 3,82 million

    Chomsky gets more hits than Frank Lloyd Wright, for God's sake!Maybe Paul Simon will write a song about him. By the way, Frank died in about 1959.

  28. Janice Huth Byer said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 12:45 pm

    Schools everywhere should stop pretending to teach grammar to native speakers. Instead, teachers should give subject papers extra points for clarity and offer nonprescriptive ad hoc suggestions on a how to achieve clarity though style.

  29. T. Cullen said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 5:13 pm

    Chomsky has been out of the mainstream of linguistics for years. Transformational grammar hasn't been accepted as plausible for decades, except, for some reason, in English departments. Chomsky had some good ideas, but he is what is known as an "armchair linguist." Instead of gathering data on what people are actually saying, he just thought up sentences that illustrated his theories. He even said that his ideas of transformational grammar and the black box in the brain that predisposes people to learning languages are just useful metaphors that would be replaced when better theories and more evidence came along.

    As for the suggestion that schools should stop pretending to teach grammar, I have found that most schools already have (at least in my experience). However, knowing what a noun or a verb is might help students, and their teachers, write clearly. It would end the need for freshman comp teachers to spend hours explaining what a fragment is (i.e., in case you don't know, it has to do with verbs and nouns).

    I taught composition for four years and frequently had to deal with teachers from other classes (usually from creative writing or lit backgrounds) telling their students not to write passive sentences. However, when I asked these teachers what a passive sentence was, none of them could explain it correctly. A passive sentence is a grammatical construction. It has nothing to do with the "activeness" of certain verbs.

    I am ranting because I am tired and quite ill, but it is keeping my mind off the nausea I have been experiencing for the past three days.

    In any event, the whole point of the original article was about grammar, in the sense of defining verbs, nouns, etc. It was not about theoretical linguistics, which is what Chomsky studies and writes about, when he is not writing about politics.

  30. T. Cullen said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 5:15 pm

    Also, unless I am mistaken, when I filled out the "Leave a comment" form, it asked me for a "URI". Is this something new I don't know about, or is it supposed to be "URL"?

    [Answer: try Google or wikipedia, for goodness' sake.]

  31. T. Cullen said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 5:23 pm

    Also, just to be annoying, how many of the 4.6 million hits on Chomsky were about his linguistics theories, or about his political theories? I am sure most of the hits would probably mention he is a world-famous linguist at MIT, they might even mention "transformational grammar," but they are most likely about his political views, as expressed in any number of movies or publications.

    One more annoying note: Chomsky gave up on transformation grammar years ago.

  32. Jangari said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 8:57 pm

    Chomsky gave up on transformation grammar years ago.

    Arguably. But it's also arguable that Chomsky every year gives up on the previous year's grand theory, reformulates the same theory in another way, gives it a different name and publishes another book.

    Note that I never said I would take that line of argument…

  33. Dan T. said,

    June 16, 2008 @ 11:43 pm

    URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) is the current technically-correct term for Web addresses, superceding the deprecated term URL (Uniform Resource Locator), in order to encompass the whole range of types of identifiers for use in the Web (including experimental extensions like the Semantic Web, which expresses relationships among things) which might or might not give a specific "location".

    On an unrelated point, God may not be a verb, but "friend" is… at least on "social networking" sites like MySpace and Facebook, where they encourage you to "friend" other users.

  34. Jangari said,

    June 17, 2008 @ 12:36 am

    Dan, another example of the lamentable loss of the verbalising nominal prefix be-.

  35. Tearlach said,

    June 17, 2008 @ 1:51 am

    How about a post about WHY Chomsky gave up on transformational grammar?

    You know, because after he gave Ken Hale a terrorist fist jab while eating mad hot garlic chili sauce, they were very glanceable because they were publicly nude.

  36. Dan T. said,

    June 17, 2008 @ 9:10 am

    I can't see those social networking sites having a button to "befriend" somebody… that would sound too archaic, not the hip, modern image they're looking for. Perhaps if the Society for Creative Anachronism has a social networking feature in their Web site, it would use such language, along with saying "Hie thee over to…" in its navigation menus. But the SCA having a Web site seems itself anachronistic.

    However, "Friend Me" might be seen as similar to the old, familiar checkers phrase, "King Me!"

  37. Patrick Dennis said,

    June 17, 2008 @ 9:15 am

    Why few mentions of Chomsky? Maybe because he is implicitly always nearby. He was after all most influential in promulgating the notions that linguists should be concerned with descriptive linguistics, that a (formal) grammar, since it must include embedding, must be more than a set of rules for stringing words together, and that humans are born with some sort of language facility. These notions every day illuminate LL.
    Pat Dennis

  38. Arnold Zwicky said,

    June 17, 2008 @ 10:26 am

    Patrick Dennis: "He was after all most influential in promulgating the notions that linguists should be concerned with descriptive linguistics, that a (formal) grammar, since it must include embedding, must be more than a set of rules for stringing words together, and that humans are born with some sort of language facility. These notions every day illuminate LL."

    Every one of these statements is at least somewhat off-target. Here's a very abbreviated response.

    The idea of linguistics as a *descriptive* enterprise (rather than a normative one or a primarily historical one or … ) flowered in the early 20th century. It is clear in the founding statement of the Linguistic Society of America (1924, five years before Chomsky was born) that linguistics is the scientific study of language. The most influential writers on the idea were surely Leonard Bloomfield and those influenced by him. By the time Chomsky came along, the idea was just a part of intellectual background of the field.

    The idea that a description of a language should be formalized was a prominent part of the post-Bloomfieldian program. Chomsky's contributions here were (a) to focus on the formalization itself and not on the methods by which rules can be discovered, and (b) to locate the issue of formalization within systems of formal logic and abstract automata.

    The idea that sentences are not just words strung together also pre-dates Chomsky. Another part of the post-Bloomfieldian program was its emphasis on *constituent structure* (with constituents embedded in larger constituents) in syntax. Chomsky did indeed accept the constituent structure proposal and, in Syntactic Structures, went to some trouble to argue in favor of it and against the words-strung-together proposal, but the ideas were not at all original. What *was* original was the claim that constituent structure alone ("phrase structure grammar") was inadequate as an account of syntactic organization; some other kinds of rules, transcending phrase structure grammar, were required. That's where we got transformational rules.

    (Even this idea is not entirely original with Chomsky. His teacher Zellig Harris developed his own framework of transform grammar.)

    And that's where some of us on LL eventually parted company with Chomsky. His work framed some very important questions, and opened up a series of research topics, but though we were much influenced by all of this, many of us rejected the specific proposals he made, in favor of various sorts of non-transformational alternatives.

    The idea that humans are born with some sort of language facility is also an old one (it comes up in the perennial arguments about what distinguishes human beings from other animals), but most writers assumed these were very general abilities. Chomsky's claims here were quite startling: innate knowledge is very extensive and very specific and shared by all human beings (as Steve Pinker put it, there is *a* human language). The bloggers here are generally dubious about this proposal in its stronger forms, and some of us reject it outright.

    The point is that most of the work that LLoggers do is not informed by Chomsky's most characteristic ideas or by his specific proposals, so he doesn't come up much here.

  39. H T Flaherty said,

    June 17, 2008 @ 10:26 am

    FYI – The websites that allow you to "friend" people don't actually spell that out as an option – on facebook, there is a link that allows you to "add [this user] as a friend" – the use of "friend" as a verb was developed entirely independently of wording on the site, and instead by the users themselves.

  40. Moira Less said,

    June 17, 2008 @ 11:46 am

    Thank you very much Arnold Zwicky for this: an informed, straightforward response to my original comment that Chomsky is only infrequently mentioned at Language Log.

  41. Arnold Zwicky said,

    June 17, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

    An addition to my comment about Chomsky's ideas: some years ago (oh dear, 23 years ago!) I inventoried the presumed defects of a particularly simple version of phrase structure grammar (including those that led Chomsky to propose a transformational alternative). The paper appeared in a fairly obscure place, but it's now available on my website:

  42. Coppe said,

    June 17, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

    I think Arnold Zwicky put it very well, although I would note that many linguists do still agree with Chomsky's basic assertions. In that light, I don't think his position that innate linguistic knowledge is quite specific and extensive is that "startling." Among many researchers, the truth of those claims is, in practice, held to be self-evident.

    I don't want to get into a language specific vs. language general or innatism vs. emergentism debate here, but I would like to point out that there is a split in the world of linguistics in that regard and that Language Log linguists for the most part represent only one side of it. So it seems to me, anyway.

  43. Anatoly Vorobey said,

    June 17, 2008 @ 3:09 pm

    Prof. Zwicky, thank you for such a clear explanation of LL's bloggers' attitude towards the Chomskean linguistics. Can I hope for a few words from you (or anyone else) on what you think about the status of Chomsky's school, if there can be an objective evaluation of such a status? Is there indeed a well-defined split between followers of Chomsky's ideas and all other linguists, and both camps regard one another as clearly mistaken, or are things not as clear-cut as that? If there is a split, does one of the sides seem to be "winning" as time goes on?

    I've read two of Chomsky's earlier books years ago, but haven't kept up with generative linguistics at all, and even less so with other approaches; I did form an impression that Chomsky's approach appeared to be more ambitious in terms of total systematization than others, it at least attempted to provide a comprehensive theory of how syntax and grammar "work" in the human mind, while other approaches are realistically speaking nowhere near such claims yet. It'd be great to understand whether this impression of mine is basically sound or mistaken.

    Finally, would it be at all fair to say that the field of linguistics as a whole is in a "crisis" of some sort, given that there's no agreed over-arching theoretical framework that would "explain" language in all its aspects (like there are frameworks in exact sciences, with which I'm more familiar)? Or is it the case that linguists wouldn't expect such a framework to show up by now and aren't worried because of its absence?

    (I apologize for flooding the thread with many questions, but maybe the answers won't be interesting to me alone. I honestly am not aiming to troll or cause any flaming, just in case it would appear that way. Also, if there are good book or review articles that treat these 'sociological' questions about linguistics today, I'd be very grateful for references).

  44. Moira Less said,

    June 17, 2008 @ 5:13 pm

    By the way, for Mark Liberman & Language Hat, just in case they are not yet convinced that Nietzsche was not anti-Semitic, John S. Wilkins in his delightfully forthright and interesting blog links (via another blog) to the following letter written by Nietzsche to his anti-Semitic brother-in-law:

    You have committed one of the greatest stupidities—for yourself and for me! Your association with an anti-Semitic chief expresses a foreignness to my whole way of life which fills me again and again with ire or melancholy. … It is a matter of honor with me to be absolutely clean and unequivocal in relation to anti-Semitism, namely, opposed to it, as I am in my writings. I have recently been persecuted with letters and Anti-Semitic Correspondence Sheets. My disgust with this party (which would like the benefit of my name only too well) is as pronounced as possible.

  45. john riemann soong said,

    June 17, 2008 @ 11:22 pm

    Btw, out of curiosity, what is "an anti-Semitic chief"? I was just curious how that factored in exactly, because an association with an anti-Semitic leader doesn't seem to imply association with anti-Semitism.

  46. Moira Less said,

    June 18, 2008 @ 4:01 am

    My point here, John was that Nietzsche wasn't anti-Semitic, not whether his brother-in-law was, but regarding your question: you would first of all have to read the original German to find the meaning of 'chief' in this context, and I must admit I haven't done that.

  47. Anatoly Vorobey said,

    June 18, 2008 @ 5:20 am


    Forgive me a few pedantic corrections, please. The letter was to his sister, not his brother-in-law; the "anti-Semitic chief" is his brother-in-law, Bernhard Foerster. The "association" is her being married to him. The German word translated as "chief" was "Chef", and the whole letter is available here.

  48. Moira Less said,

    June 18, 2008 @ 5:32 pm

    @ Anatoly Vorobey:
    Many thanks for your corrections, i had misconstrued the excerpt I read as having been written to Foerster, because of some ambiguous wording in the blog where I found it. And thanks especially for the Amazon version of the original letter which, i now see, is fairly different from the translation I had picked up. I think 'boss' is a more appropriate translation than 'chief'. The original German is a good deal more intimate than the translated version, in my opinion.

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