Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Linguistics Wars!

What year would it be if you read a new piece by George Lakoff skewering Ray Jackendoff? Try 2008, in a preprint for a book review for American Scientist, here. It's got some of that old-time religion, like this:
The time was ripe for Noam Chomsky to adapt the symbol-manipulation paradigm to linguistics. Chomsky's metaphor was simple: A sentence was a string of symbols. A language was a set of such strings. … Meaning and communication could play no role in the structure of language. The brain was irrelevant. This approach was called generative linguistics, and it continues to have adherents in many linguistics departments in the United States.
Of course, the "continues to have adherents" tells you that the 'cognitive revolution' is coming in the next paragraph. Lakoff ends on a more positive note, happily:
For a cognitive linguist like myself, reading Jackendoff's book is both painful and hopeful—painful because he keeps trying to do interesting and important intellectual work while being stuck in a paradigm that won't allow it, and hopeful because he may help the transition from a brain-ignoring symbol-manipulation paradigm to a brain-based neural theory of thought and language. I wish that other linguists, both generative and cognitive, had his scope and intellectual ambition.
It sure seems like about all of us are wrestling with this fundamental question these days, that is, how to reconcile evidence from these two long-warring traditions. And the best members of the newer generation seem to be doing it pretty collegially, at least in the circles I move in.

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