Toward a History of American Linguistics

By E. F.K. Koerner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6

ON THE RISE AND FALL OF GENERATIVE SEMANTICS

1.

Introductory remarks

In the previous chapter, an account was provided of how linguists working within the so-called Bloomfieldian tradition treated the aspect of 'meaning' in their analyses, how they tried either to bypass the problem altogether or put forward ideas on how the semantic part of language could be captured in some way. In general terms, their approach was inductive, starting with the smallest, empirically identifiable linguistic units, trying to build from the ground up, as it were, aiming at the highest level, i.e., that of syntax. While the post-Bloomfieldians could pretend, on the level of phonology, that they could do without reference to semantic content by simply asking (themselves or an informant) whether a phonic structure was the 'same' or 'different', the trouble with meaning began to surface on the level of morphology, not to mention syntax (which few of them were concerned with at the time). As we have seen, in his early work Noam Chomsky, in particular his Syntactic Structures of 1957, continued to operate within the (post-) Bloomfieldian tradition, 1 especially that line which held that semantic considerations weren't really needed when analyzing language in a 'rigorous' manner. 2 This was evident when attention was diverted to the level of syntax as against the levels of phonology and mor

1 As C.H.van Schooneveld (b.1921), the editor Janua Linguarum, in which Syntactic Structures was published, recalls (after recounting that Morris Halle had handed him the typescript in August 1956, urging him to publish it): "I read it at that time and came to the conclusion that it was based on distributionalism. I had been a distributionalist myself but had abandoned that approach because I think it creates a circular argument" (Historicgraphia Linguistica 28:3.470 [2001]). As the correspondence between van Schooneveld, like Halle a student of Roman Jakobson, and the director of Mouton, Peter de Ridder, reveals, it was due to the latter that Chomsky's book was accepted for publication (p.c., 30 January 2002, of Dr Jan Paul Hinrichs, who has catalogued the van Schooneveld papers, deposited since early 2001 at the University of Leiden Library [cf. Historicgraphia Linguistica 28:3.474 (2001)].)

2 What else could one make of his remarks in chap.9, "Syntax and Semantics", of his book:

A great deal of effort has been expended in attempting to answer the question: "How can you construct a grammar with no appeal to meaning?" The question itself is wrongly put, since the implication that obviously one can construct a grammar with appeal to meaning is totally unsupported. One might with equal justification ask: "How can you construct a grammar with no knowledge of the hair color of the speakers?" (Chomsky 1957:93; italics in the original).

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