DHUMBADJI!

I recently stumbled on the archive of what began as Dhumbadji! but ended its career as the more sedate History of Language, a publication of the (Melbourne) Association for the History of Language whose history is briefly reviewed here. It was exciting enough to have all these abstracts (in most cases) about topics like (from the second issue) An Introduction to Oceanic Linguistic Prehistory and (from the last one) Developing The Comparative Study Of The Histories Of Chinese Linguistics And European Linguistics and The Position of Etruscan in the Western Mediterranean Ancient Linguistic Landscape, but what really thrilled me was finding the best discussion of the “Chomskyan revolution” I’ve seen, Konrad Koerner’s The Anatomy of a Revolution in the Social Sciences: Chomsky in 1962. He emphasizes an aspect to which I hadn’t given enough thought, the financial; here’s a very enlightening quote from James McCawley, one of the beneficiaries of the “revolution” and its lavish government funding:

I maintain that government subsidisation of research and education, regardless of how benevolently and fairly it is administered, increases the likelihood of scientific revolutions for the worse, since it makes it possible for a subcommunity to increase its membership drastically without demonstrating that its intellectual credit so warrants. The kind of development that I have in mind is illustrated by the rapid growth of American universities during the late 1950s and 1960s, stimulated by massive spending by the federal government. This spending made is possible for many universities to start linguistics programs that otherwise would not have been started or would not have been started so early, or to expand existing programs much further than they would otherwise have been expanded. Given the situation of the early 1960s, it was inevitable that a large proportion of the new teaching jobs in linguistics would go to transformational grammarians. In the case of new programs, since at that time transformational grammar was the kind of linguistics in which it was most obvious that new and interesting things were going on, many administrators would prefer to get a transformational grammarian to organise the new program; in the case of expansion of existing programs, even when those who had charge of the new funds would not speculate their personal intellectual capital on the new theory, it was to their advantage to speculate their newfound monetary capital on it, since if the new theory was going to become influential, a department would have to offer instruction in it if the department was to attract students in numbers that were in keeping with its newfound riches. And with the first couple of bunches of students turned out by the holders of these new jobs, the membership of the transformational subcommunity swelled greatly.

And here’s Chomsky himself, responding to a 1971 question about why Syntactic Structures and many other works of his contained acknowledgments of support from agencies of the U.S. Department of Defense:

Ever since the Second World War, the Defence Department has been the main channel for the support of the universities, because Congress and society as a whole have been unwilling to provide adequate public funds [...]. Luckily, Congress doesn’t look too closely at the Defence Department budget, and the Defence Department, which is a vast and complex organisation, doesn’t look closely at the projects it supports — its right hand doesn’t know what its left hand is doing. Until 1969, more than half the M.I.T. budget came from the Defence Department, but this funding at M.I.T. is a bookkeeping trick. Although I’m a full-time teacher, M.I.T. pays only thirty or forty per cent of my salary. The rest comes from other sources — most of it from the Defence Department. But I get the money through M.I.T.

But it wasn’t just about the money; here’s a description of tactics, again from a sympathetic observer, Frederick J. Newmeyer in his 1980 Linguistic Theory in American: The first quarter of transformational generative grammar:

The missionary zeal with which “the other guys” were attacked may have led some linguists, along with Wallace Chafe (1970), to be “repelled by the arrogance with which [the generativists'] ideas were propounded…,” but overall the effect was positive. Seeing the leaders or the field constantly on the defensive at every professional meeting helped recruit younger linguists far more successfully and rapidly than would have been the case if the debate had been confined to the journals. [Robert] Lees and [Paul] Postal, in particular, became legends as a result of their uncompromising attacks on every structuralist [i.e., non-Chomskyan]-oriented paper at every meeting.

Lenin would have been proud! And speaking of Lees, here’s Koerner’s account of how his influential “review” (“coronation” would be a better term) of the Master’s Syntactic Structures was published:

That at least part of these funds was intended to convert young students to the new faith may be surmised from the acknowledgement printed at the bottom of Robert Lees’ widely acclaimed ‘review’ of Syntactic Structures (Lees 1957:375), which was written and published while Lees was a close associate and, for all practical purposes, still a doctoral student of Chomsky’s at M.I.T. … owing to the godfatherly attitude that Bernard Bloch displayed …, Lees’ propaganda piece for Chomsky’s ideas appeared in Language (still today the most widely circulated linguistics journal in the world) almost at the same time Syntactic Structures itself was published. (Under normal circumstances, a review would take two and more years to appear in print following the publication of a book; also one may wonder if Lees was indeed the sole author of the ‘review’, considering his employment situation at the time. But even if the arguments were all Lees’ own, as Chomsky emphatically maintained in a letter to the present writer commenting on Koerner (1984b), it can be at least assumed that Chomsky — and probably Halle too — had seen and approved the text before it was sent to Bloch.

Charming, as a former coworker of mine was wont to exclaim. If it hadn’t been for this gang, I might have been a linguist today.

Comments

  1. Whether you’re trying to sell Big Theory to Big Funding agencies or tiny pills to individual consumers, it’s hard to beat a well-crafted sales campaign that offers the chance to indulge in a little transgressive hipness on the way to solving real-world problems as challenging as machine translation during the Cold War or as disheartening as er*ctile dysfuncti*n.

  2. This makes Chomsky an order of magnitude weirder than he had been already. I’ve been studying similiar transformations in economics (neo-classical marginalism) and philosophy (analytic philosophy). Military funding of research and McCarthyism were an enormous factor in the 50s and 60s, and competing schools were driven out by various means.
    BTW, people oughta come over to “Unfogged”. You can find out what the Opposite of your favorite book is. For example, the opposite of “Atlas Shrugged” is “The Poor Mouth”. People who buy one don’t buy the other.

  3. Nick Nicholas is a personal friend of mine; he told me that the reason the journal existed was so that a couple of impoverished students could get the latest books for free.
    Paul sent me the entire run for a very reasonable price and right away, even though it took a whale of a long time for my check in US$ to clear. The best parts, to my mind, is Larry “Basque” Trask telling off the entire history of bogus Basque scholars with all their theories about Basque’s affiliations.

  4. Ugh. Yuck. No fuj.
    And there I was thinking I couldn’t hate those guys more…

  5. Paul Postal, I knew it sounded familiar – he’s the guy who wrote “Skeptical Linguistic Essays”. Funny, that. It appears he has seen the light and repented his sins…

  6. I’m shocked that everyone hasn’t admitted yet that Basque is a Dravidian language.

  7. the reason the journal existed was so that a couple of impoverished students could get the latest books for free.
    That’s the best reason I’ve ever heard for starting a journal. Please tell Nick from me that he’s a mensch.

  8. John: Why not start a journal, Basque-Dravidian Studies? That way you can spread the word and get free books at the same time.

  9. Please tell Nick from me that he’s a mensch.
    I think he already knows :o)
    Or it this some usage of this (I presume) Yiddish word previously unknown to me? Please tell me!

  10. Ah, sorry about that: a mensch is “a particularly good person, … with the qualities one would hope for in a dear friend or trusted colleague”; “someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character.” One of my favorite Yiddish-English words.

  11. Aaah. Thanks for the explanation, Steve.

  12. I will pass on your words, LH.
    For some reason, I forgot to link Nick’s anti-Chomsky rant, perhaps because he himself no longer links it, or indeed the section Heroes to his Web site, so perhaps he longer affirms its contents.
    Still, it’s worth reading.

  13. Oh, man, that did me good.
    Just about all of Northern America has had its consent manufactured by Chomskyan linguistics…
    Burn!

  14. These are the people who turned me off linguistics. I did Chomskyan linguistics at university, but when they started into the barren territory of generative semantics, trying to derive ‘kill’ from ’cause to die’, I realised it wasn’t for me. You could say they caused my interest in linguistics to die.

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