Monday, June 18, 2007

Israel Shenker and the history of linguistics

Yesterday's NYT carried a long obit for Israel Shenker, long-time reporter for Time magazine and then the NYT. The piece mentions some of the notable folks he interviewed over the years — Borges, M.C. Escher, Groucho Marx, Picasso, I.B. Singer — and has a few choice quotes, like this from 1976:
Insurance policies may be balm for the afflicted, but they are murder on the English language.
Hard to imagine now that just a third of a century ago, insurance companies actually paid out in the case of disaster, or at least were regarded as reliable enough to to count as a "balm".

But the author, Margalit Fox, gives some play to Shenker's interest in language. By coincidence, I just looked at an old article by Shenker, called "Former Chomsky Disciplines Hurl Harsh Words at the Master" from Sept 10, 1972. It was folded inside a copy of the first edition of John Lyons' book Noam Chomsky, in the Viking series Modern Masters. It provides a contemporary account of the Generative Semantics battles probably most familiar to younger linguists (= those who didn't live through them) from Randy Allen Harris's great Linguistics Wars.

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