Linguistics wars

The linguistics wars were a protracted academic dispute inside American generative linguistics which took place mostly in the 1960s and 1970s, stemming from an intellectual falling-out between Noam Chomsky and some of his early colleagues and doctoral students. The debate began when linguists Paul Postal, "Haj" Ross, George Lakoff, and James McCawley — self-dubbed the "four horsemen of the Apocalypse" (in reference to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse)" — proposed an alternative theory of generative semantics, which essentially flipped Chomsky's theory of generative grammar on its head by focusing on semantics rather than syntax as the basis of Chomsky's concept of deep structure. While Chomsky and other generative grammarians argued that the meaning of a sentence was derived from its structure, the generative semanticists argued that the structure of a sentence was derived from its meaning.

Eventually, generative semantics spawned an alternative linguistic paradigm, known as cognitive linguistics, which attempts to correlate the understanding of language with the concepts of cognitive psychology, such as memory, perception and categorization. While generative grammarians operate on the premise that the mind has a unique and independent module for language acquisition, cognitive linguists deny this. Instead, they assert that the processing of linguistic phenomena is informed by conceptual deep structures and — more significantly — that the cognitive abilities used to process this data are similar to those used in other non-linguistic tasks.


The Linguistics Wars is the title of a 1993 book by Randy Allen Harris on the topic.

It touches on the issues of the dispute involving Chomsky and other significant individuals (Lakoff, Postal, etc.) and also highlights how certain theories evolved and which of their important features have influenced modern-day linguistic theories.

See also


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