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Peter Kipka

Published onApr 19, 2019
Peter Kipka

Just last week, a student stopped by my office inquiring about enrolling in an introductory linguistics-related subject, interest in which was sparked by hearing a recording of Noam Chomsky. In terms of continuing influence, need one say more?

Actually, it probably is worth adding a little more, given that the way Chomskyan ideas continue to be received by much of the professoriate differs noticeably from the reaction of the undergraduate mentioned above. Books purporting to demolish the Chomskyan paradigm continue to be published, while even Mark Seidenberg’s notable 2018 volume on literacy, Language at the Speed of Sight, includes in a footnote (p. 319) the words “Chomsky was wrong.” Interestingly, Seidenberg’s critique goes all the way back to the 1950s, with colourless green ideas sleeping furiously. One cannot but be struck by continuing influence cropping up again.

Yet perhaps one of the most enduring of Noam Chomsky’s legacies is continued debate—a hallmark of any cutting-edge scientific enterprise. Former students will no doubt recall instances of Noam revising his own earlier stance (another hallmark of scientific progress). My personal recollections include an answer to a question in the late 1980s, along the lines of sets being “much too abstract” (or words to that effect) to constitute objects of linguistic reality. When in the 21st century the Merge of a and b was defined set-theoretically as {a,b}, my eyebrows were raised only momentarily. Witnessing hypotheses being evaluated and re-evaluated has, in fact, been a constant source of intellectual pleasure for decades. Including linguistics among the cognitive sciences was arguably a turning point in human history. It turns out that chapter 11 of Seidenberg’s above mentioned book is devoted to contrasting (rather forcefully) the two cultures of science and education. Thus the struggle to disseminate a scientific approach to linguistic matters continues, surely a Chomskyan legacy worth celebrating—ad multos annos!

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