The Linguistics Wars is a colloquial term for a protracted academic dispute in American generative linguistics, stemming from a falling-out between Noam Chomsky and some of his early students and colleagues, which took place mostly in the 1960s and 1970s.
The debate began when linguists such as Paul Postal, "Haj" Ross, George Lakoff, and James McCawley—self-dubbed the "four horsemen of the Apocalypse"—proposed an alternative theory of generative semantics, which essentially flipped Chomsky's theory on its head by focusing on semantics rather than grammar as the basis of Chomsky's concept of deep structure. While Chomsky and other generative grammarians argued that meaning was derived from the underlying order of the words being used, the generative semanticists cited the meaning of the words as giving rise to their order.
Eventually, generative semantics spawned an alternative linguistic paradigm, known as cognitive linguistics, which attempts to correlate the understanding of language with the biological function of specific neural structures. While generative semanticists 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. Much of this work is published today under neurolinguistics.
The Linguistics Wars is also the title of a 1993 book by Randy Allen Harris on the topic (ISBN 9780195098341).
It touches on the issues of the dispute involving Chomsky and other significant individuals (Lakoff, Postal, etc.) and also highlights how certain theories have been evolved with important features influencing modern-day linguistics theories.
- Harris, Randy Allen (1995). The Linguistics Wars. Oxford University Press. p. 105. ISBN 978-0195098341.
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