Chomsky's Minimalism

Chomsky's Minimalism

Chomsky's Minimalism

Chomsky's Minimalism

Synopsis

Noam Chomsky's current theory, published in 1995, is known asThe Minimalist Programand has been presented as his crowning achievement. It argues, familiarly, that there exists a universal grammar that is hardwired, and that, like an efficient machine, this grammar will tend to use the least possible number of constraints (phonetically and syntactically) to produce an utterance. Minimalism has spawned in linguistics an entire research program, despite being fundamentally misguided, according to distinguished linguist and philosopher of language Pieter Seuren.

Seuren's accessible and spirited attack argues that the Minimalist Program is deeply flawed. He proposes that it fails to satisfy the basic criteria for sound scientific work, such as respect for data, unambiguous formulations, and falsifiability. Seuren points to the original acrimonious split in the 1960s and 1970s between Chomsky's generative grammar and the alternative generative semantics proposed by his followers, and argues that the latter theory was sounder and unfairly suppressed. Seuren maintains that this suppression--and the cult surrounding Chomsky and Minimalism more generally--has done great damage to linguistics by impairing open discussion of empirical issues and excluding valid alternatives. Chomsky's Minimalismwill generate controversy among linguists in its attack on the fundamental assumptions used by an entire generation of researchers.

Excerpt

This book has a history that goes back to about 1970, when I began to feel dissatisfied with the direction taken by Chomsky and his followers toward what was called “autonomous syntax” at the time, away from “generative semantics,” the form of grammar I favored. That feeling of dissatisfaction has increased considerably over the years. I wrote against autonomous syntax in 1972 and could, of course, have written against it again, were it not that the quick succession of different versions in which this program of grammar writing kept being presented made it impossible to keep up with the most recent developments at any given time, unless one was prepared to make that one's main occupation, which I was not.

Now, however, with the publication of Chomsky's The Minimalist Program in 1995, the situation appears to have stabilized and the focus of attention has shifted from theorizing about grammar writing to the loftier level of methodological reflection. Besides being the presentation of yet another version of Chomsky's ideas of what a grammar is, The Minimalist Program is also the statement of a program of research guided by what are described as “minimalist principles.” This shift to methodology makes it possible to transcend discussions on the value of specific details of grammatical analysis, which, though valuable and necessary, tend to fail to affect wider issues of how human language as a whole is to be viewed and analyzed. Chomsky's recent statements on these wider . . .

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