Revolutionary Methodological Preliminaries

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It is rather surprising that more has not been done this year (thus far, anyway) to commemorate a significant semicentenary: the 50th anniversary of what could reasonably be called the most influential linguistics book of the 20th century. It was published by MIT Press in 1965 as “Special Technical Report 11” of the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT, and has recently been re-released with a new preface, but it doesn’t seem to have inspired any major conferences or other celebrations. Yet it gets more than 25,000 citations, according to Google Scholar, and it laid the foundation for 50 years of interdisciplinary research on how human minds could possibly create and manage the extraordinary complexity of language.

The book carried a bland and uninformative title: Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. It’s the sort of title you might put on a mathematics dissertation that pulls together a few scattered theorems without any unified theme or message. It certainly doesn’t sound like the seeds of a revolution in a whole cluster of subjects. The opening chapter is “Methodological Preliminaries”: You can feel your eyes glazing over. Dull prefatory remarks about how linguistics should to be done, rather than any interesting contribution to doing it? Yet with that electrifying first chapter, the 37-year-old Noam Chomsky set three or four disciplines alight.

The chapter has nine sections, not tightly linked. It opens with some faux-modest throat-clearing (“I shall survey briefly some of the main background assumptions, making no serious attempt here to justify them but only to sketch them clearly” and so on). Then it drops the bombshell of the ideal user and the separation of competence from performance (discussed here a few weeks ago), and quotes approvingly from various 18th-century French thinkers who Chomsky claims were similarly mentalist in their approaches to the study of language.

§2 lays the groundwork for decades of work on the psychology of linguistic performance. Citing just five English examples, it illustrates many of the topics that have occupied psycholinguists ever since, like the way grammatical complexity is at its worst for our brains when it piles up in the middle of a sentence, and is much easier to handle when it spreads things out toward the end. We’re still discovering things about how and why.

§3 sets out a radically revised structure for transformational grammars, quietly abandoning the notion of “kernel sentence” from Chomsky’s first book, Syntactic Structures, and introducing the term “deep structure,” which in a sense replaces it. The notion of deep structure caught the imagination of thousands of scholars in half a dozen disciplines. Over the years it has been wildly, disastrously misunderstood. Chomsky eventually disowned it. But it changed the whole mood of language study: Linguistics wasn’t a matter of classifying parts of sentences anymore; it was about discovering something deep, surprising, and hidden.

§4 talks about justifying one grammar formulation over another; §5 floats the fascinating idea that in studying any language deeply we are studying all of them because we uncover universals of grammar; §6 discusses how the phenomenon of language acquisition in infants might be given a rigorous explanation; §7 presents some ideas about metrics for precise evaluation of alternative grammars; §8 tackles various philosophical concerns related to the learning of languages; §9 briefly introduces the issues that were to be the focus of work in mathematical analysis of syntactic theories for years thereafter.

Every page presents bold new ideas and strikingly original insights; every section inspired new research programs. And the same is true to a lesser extent for various parts of the rest of the book.

The technical proposals about transformations advanced in the book have melted away and been forgotten. No linguists today think Aspects presents the right way to design grammars for human languages. The book did not present discoveries about language that have since been confirmed as correct by subsequent scientific work. I’m skeptical even of its general approach in some respects. Yet it was truly a wonder. Not for what it claimed in detail, but for what it led to.

Today I work in a school of philosophy, psychology, and language sciences where philosophers organize conferences on syntax and semantics, where psychologists teach courses on language, and where linguists collaborate with computer scientists in the school of informatics next door. The work takes very different directions from Chomsky’s own current ideas, but I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that the whole interdisciplinary milieu owes its origin to the first 62 pages of a single book. If the late David A. Reibel had not directed my tutorial group to read Chapter 1 of Aspects when I was a first-year undergraduate at the University of York, I might never have become a linguist; and if the chapter had never been written, the intellectual ecosystem in which I work today might never have evolved.

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