What Are The Linguistics Wars?

I’m currently working on a paper discussing the effects of the generativist universal grammar theory on linguistics and related fields. The UG theory is highly controversial and is still disputed to this day. In order to understand the complexity of the debate, one must first learn about where the debate originated: a falling out between Noam Chomsky, known by many as the father of modern-day linguistics, and four of his pupils.

For more information on Chomsky’s original theory, I encourage you to read my previous post titled “What is Generativism.” In short, Chomsky proposed a new way of thinking about grammar and syntax structure and theorized that language acquisition is hardwired into the human brain. Disagreeing with previous theories about language being acquired from a learner’s environments, Chomsky argued that because children seem to be able to acquire language without being thoroughly exposed to all of its aspects (an idea commonly referred to as ‘the poverty of stimulus’), there must be some genetic component in the human body that makes language acquisition possible.

In 1967, four of Chomsky’s pupils – Paul Postal, “Haj” Ross, George Lakoff, and James McCawley – proposed an approach to the relationship between syntax and semantics which completely differed from Chomsky’s generative ideas. The new hypothesis treated deep structures as meanings rather than syntactic structures. A deep structure theoretical construct that attempts to unify several related expressions (‘Jeff is Wanda’s friend’ and ‘Jeff is considered a friend by Wanda’ share the same deep structure). Under this new theory, syntax was derived from meaning instead of meaning being derived from syntax. Dubbing themselves the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the pupils became known as generative semanticists, marking the beginning of the linguistics wars.

In time, the generative semanticists established a new school of linguistic thought, known as cognitive linguistics, which tried to connect cognitive psychology with understanding of language. Instead of claiming that the human mind has a built-in function for language acquisition, cognitive linguists argue that the processing of language is informed by conceptual deep structures. They argue that the same cognitive abilities that are used in learning other skills are also used in learning language. For more information on the school, please see my previous post titled “What is Cognitivism.”

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