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The Linguistics Wars

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  120 ratings  ·  16 reviews
When it was first published in 1957, Noam Chomsky's Syntactic Structure seemed to be just a logical expansion of the reigning approach to linguistics. Soon, however, there was talk from Chomsky and his associates about plumbing mental structure; then there was a new phonology; and then there was a new set of goals for the field, cutting it off completely from its anthropol ...more
Paperback, 368 pages
Published March 9th 1995 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published July 22nd 1993)
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Jul 29, 2007 rated it it was amazing
A great history of war in academia, with emotional betrayals, highly abstract argumentation and many nasty words. And as a truly great academic clash, most people have never heard about it, and it probably affected them very little. As a non-linguist, this book also served as a serviceable introduction to some of the field's basic ideas, and it was interesting to read about Chomsky in his original role. I was only familiar with him through philosophy and politics. Seeing how he fought in this in ...more
Jan 04, 2012 rated it it was ok
I wonder who this book was targeted at. It is not a fun pop-science book, if names like Lakoff, Ross or Chomsky-the-linguist do not ring a bell then you'll probably read less than twenty pages (out of 400), it is too boring. However, if you know what these people are famous for, you probably also know something about linguistics and would like to see more technical substance which the book is short of. So who would appreciate it other than a student in linguistics writing a semester essay about ...more
Nov 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
I read this book as an undergrad who studied linguistics. The book is certainly not suitable for people outside the field because it involves too much linguistic theory, so in a sense the book fails to do what it wants to do. But I'd disagree with people who claim that it's good only for students trying to finish their essay--it's not. In fact, it's useless to those students, because assignments in linguistics aren't like that. It's a book on history of linguistics, not on linguistic theories pe ...more
Apr 06, 2007 rated it really liked it
This is a very readable intellectual history of 20th century linguistics. The most enjoyable part of the book is the account of the revolt against Chomsky in the late 60s and early 1970s by the Generative Semanticists.

The Generative Semanticists thought Chomsky's use of examples was too stodgy. Chomsky's famous examples involve John:

'John is eager to please'
'John is easy to please'

Whereas the Generative Semanticists introduce a whole bunch of crazy countercultural names, like "Norbert the Nark
Jul 30, 2015 rated it it was ok
What can I say about this book. It's approximately 300 pages long and it took me 2 years to read it. I'm not even sure whether I finished it. I just stopped reading and didn't care enough about the ending to continue.

It's not exactly bad. The scholarship is good and it's funny, at times. Maybe it's just not engaging, too theoretical. It seems unfair to call it too theoretical, it's a book about theory, but the author does seem to recognise this at times, diverting his digressions to the notes in
Jul 11, 2010 rated it liked it
This book manages to describe academic battles without making it very clear what the substance is.

Admittedly, some of the work in this field is rather dense, but the book could have been a lot clearer and more sprightly. I did not care enough to get more than halfway thorugh.
Sep 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: linguistics
This book chronicles both sides of the Generative Semantics vs. Interpretative Semantics debate and its aftermath. Highly recommended if you're into some semi-recent history lessons of the field of linguistics. It's also written in a pleasing and comprehensive style.
Jan 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: math-and-science
Excellent Backgrounder to the Field
Eminently suitable reading if you are embarking on a modern study of the field of linguistics or are writing an essay on the people and personalities involved or just like reading about the history and evolution of a science. Reads like a good novel. There are a few spots where the uninitiated might be intimidated by the technical treatments but they can be skimmed over. One gets a good sense of how, because of Chomsky, a Kuhnian style paradigm shift occured.
Dan Slimmon
Oct 27, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This tale of the generative/interpretive semantics debate manages to illuminate a very abstract, dry topic through thrilling narrative. I love Harris's wit and even handedness (the latter despite his clear affinity for Chomsky-pedestaling).

Despite reading Aspects twice, I've only got only a very superficial picture of what it's arguing and why. Armed with the context presented so vividly and thoroughly in The Linguistics Wars, I think I can make my next reading stick on a much deeper level.
Jun 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing
very informative.

As the title indicates, Harris gives the readers a well-rounded view of the heated debates that have taken place during the early days of generative grammar. I don't normally read books more than once unless they are worth the time, and this is one of the very few that I have read twice from cover to cover. I am sure I will come back to it in the future to read it again. it is a worthwhile read.
A wonderful history of the development of generative grammar and the intellectual developments which led to the rise and fall of generative semantics. It's both engaging and, in my opinion, fair-minded; it presents a very nice overall view of the debate.

It also, of course, brings up the question of the primacy of meaning in grammar---excellent food for thought on that level.
People say my name should be Jeff
This isn't about "Linguistics" so much as it is about semantics.
Aug 18, 2007 added it
Shelves: philosophy
too much historical over-view and hard logic based examples.
Feb 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: linguistics
I just really enjoyed this in the page-turner way. Recommend to linguists and philosophers of language for a good time.
Aug 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
This is a really fascinating book on the sociology of science. It is also a really good background read on contemporary linguistics.
Feb 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Really enjoyable discussion of the progression of linguistics and the personalities of the field's players.
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13 likes · 4 comments
“Noam Chomsky, in particular, says flatly and often that he has very little concern for language in and of itself; never has, never will. His driving concern is with mental structure, and language is the most revealing tool he has for getting at the mind. Most linguists these days follow Chomsky's lead here.” 3 likes
“Language was just that thing that happened when you opened your mouth at the table, squeezed a few noises out of your vocal chords, and induced Socrates thereby to pass the salt.” 2 likes
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