The ascendancy of generative phonology


By the late 1950s, American structuralism were seriously weaken, and the alternative presented by a developing theory of generative grammar was beginning to make an impression on the field.

Noam Chomsky was well placed to expose the weakness of American structural linguistics. Born in 1928, his interest in language was developed as early as the age of ten, when he read the proofs of a book by his father ( the Hebrew philologist William Chomsky) on Hebrew grammar. At the University of Pennsylvania, Chomsky met Zellig Harris. It was through reading the proofs of Harris¡¦s(1951a) Methods in structural linguistics that Chomsky first learned linguistics. At Penn, he wrote an undergraduate thesis and subsequently a master¡¦s thesis on the morphophonemics of modern Hebrew. This work has the goals of a generative grammar, and deals not only morphonemics but with the entire grammar of the language from syntax through phonology. In its form a system of ordered rules intended to characterize the range of grammatical sentences in the language, it more nearly resembled the historical studies of his father than it did the sort of work Harris was doing. Through the recommendation of the philosopher Nelson Goodman, Chomsky was appointed a junior fellow at Harvard from 1951 to 1955. This position gave him essential complete freedom to work on whatever he wanted, and at first he pursued the development of the procedural methods he had learned from Harris. In Cambridge, he met Morris Halle(then a graduate student at Harvard) with whom he spent a great deal of time in discussion. By 1953, both Chomsky and Halle had become thoroughly disillusioned with the refinement of structuralist procedures as a theory of language; and, with Halle¡¦s encouragement, Chomsky began to work out the ideas underlying his master¡¦s thesis. The result was a volume of about a thousand pages, The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory in which most of the fundamental ideas of generative grammar are laid out and explored.

Though the book was rejected by the only publisher to whom he sent it , Chomsky also submitted one chapter of it as a dissertation at the university of Pennsylvania.

Thanks to the influence of Halle and Jakobson, he had a research position at MIT. More importantly, he had the freedom to continue developing his ideas about the foundations of linguistics in a stimulating and unrestricted atmosphere, with the collaboration of Halle and others at Harvard and MIT.

In 1957, a volume of Chomsky¡¦s notes for an undergraduate course at MIT was published in a new series which had been strated with Jakobson and Halle¡¦s Fundamentals of Language. This was Syntactic structures, a work which might have gone essentially unnoticed if it had not been for a review by Rober Lees that was published by Bloch in Language. Lee¡¦s review forcefully brought generative grammar to the attention of the American linguistic community and can be said to have intiated the process of change that eventually led to the replacement of structuralism by generative grammar in American linguistics.

As a result of his training with Harris, and the amount of attention he had himself given to the task of defining linguistic structure in the form of a set of rigorously Explicit procedures, Chomsky well understood the fundamental problems that plagued this approach. On the other hand, his own education had been thoroughly independent, and his first substantial results( in The Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew) were achieved without substantial reference to structuralist assumptions. When he became convinced that the effort was necessary, he was in a better position to strike out in a radically different direction than were those with a personal commitment to structuralism.

One of the strongest points of American structuralism was its concern for formal analysis and explicit statement. Thanks in large part to Chomsky, this continued to play a central role in generative grammar, even though most of the substance of the structuralist position was replaced . However, given his talent for devastatingly rigorous argument and analysis, the effect when he did attack the established view was dramatic.

Chomsky¡¦s proposals quickly became the center of syntactic discussion, after the appearance of syntactic Structures and Lee¡¦s review of this book. Some linguistics were quite ready to see transformational syntax as an approach that could be directly Incorporated into structuralist descriptions in the form of a new analytic technique requiring only minimal modifications in the basic assumptions of the theory.

The situation was completely different in phonology. Chomsky, Halle and Lukoff¡¦s paper had seriouly questioned the tenability of the basic proposition that phonological structure was independent of grammar, but the Texas conferences of the following two years showed that the established figures in field were largely unwilling to accept this result- even in the absence of a genuine alternative in the description of English stress.

At the 1959 Texas conference, Chomsky was again invited and this time presented a paper on English phonology which extended the arguments of Chomsky, Halle, and Lukoff; it is probably significant that the proceeding of this conference were never published. In 1959, Halle¡¦s Sound Pattern of Russian extended the attack to bases of the biuniqueness condition, but again acceptance of this critique by the main stream of American linguistics was anything but immediate.

In 1962, the International Congress of Linguists was held in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Zellig Harris had been asked to give one of five plenary session papers but turned down the invitation; the organizers of the Congress (including Morris Halle) then asked Chomsky instead. Chomsky devoted a large portion of his paper ¡§The Logical Basis of Linguistic Theory¡¨ to an extended criticism of the assumptions of structuralist phonemics. The aggressive tone and forceful argumentation of this paper were set in a context which made it clear that the problems it raised were by no means matters of mechanics, to be solved by a further refinement of structuralist procedures, but rested on the same basic issues that were being challenged by transformational theories in syntax. Such a linking of the two was essential if the philosophical impact of generative grammar was not to be trivialized by being restricted to those parts of language that structuralists just hadn¡¦t gotten around to yet. Those who would attempt to treat transformational syntax as a technique to be grafted onto a structuralist phonology and morphology were forced to face the fact that those areas were equally challenged-which many were unwilling to do.

Two other short papers by Halle further presented the case for a generative approach to phonology; but while many younger scholars had become convinced of the importance of the theory by this time, the field continued to be dominated by structuralist studies. Nonetheless, generative grammarians were increasing on the attack, at meetings and in articles and reviews in the principal journals.

The climax of this confrontation can probably be marked as 1965. In that year, Fred Householder published a long , strongly worded attack on generative phonology in the first number of the new Journal of Linguistics, an article which summarized virtually all of the objections and grievances against the new theory that were current in the field. The editor of the journal, John Lyons, ,asked Chomsky and Halle in Advance of the appearance of Householder¡¦s paper whether they would like to reply. Chomsky and Halle were then at work on The Sound Pattern of English; and Lyon¡¦s invitation presented them with an opportunity to deal with the polemic issues surrounding generative phonology in isolation from the positive statement that the book would make. They therefore agreed, and the resulting reply , which appeared in the immediately following issue, provided a detailed and conclusive response to the structuralist criticisms.

After 1965 there were still attacks from the structuralist side, but with the exception of a vigorous counterattack by Postal , generative phonologists simply failed to pursue the question after that. As far as the determination of the major direction of subsequent research was concerned, the issue was settled. Chomsky¡¦s effective lectures on phonology and syntax formed the primary focus of the 1966 Linguistic Institute at UCLA, and consolidate the central position of generative grammar(including phonology) in American linguistics. A number of new departments were created more or less ex nihilo during the 1960s, largely as a result of the tremendously increased interest in the field which the new theory of generative grammar brought about. With the exception of these(and MIT), it would be difficult to find a major linguistics department in the United States (at least through the early 1970s) without a certain core of structuralist opponents of the new trend , but these figures found themselves increasingly isolated and unattended to by the great majority.