[lit-ideas] Re: Gossip from the Forest

  • From: John McCreery <john.mccreery@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: Lit-Ideas <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Fri, 15 May 2015 11:25:44 +0900

I am no linguist, and was only briefly a language teacher earning a few yen
by teaching English to Japanese business men before finding more lucrative
employment in corporate communications and advertising. My experience of
language teaching is mostly on the receiving end: Latin and German in high
school; German, French and my first year of Chinese (Putonghua) in college;
Taiwanese doing fieldwork in Taiwan; Japanese two summers at the Middlebury
College and a few private lessons after we moved to Japan. Based on that
experience I agree completely that Chomskian transformational grammar has
little practical usefulness. I have found theoretical value in the little I
learned about it in (1) the argument against Skinnerian behaviorism as a
model of language learning and the posing of the problem how do languages
allow us to say an infinite number of things we have never said or heard
before and (2) an attempt to construct an answer based on the properties of
formal systems that generate infinite numbers of possibilities from a
small, finite set of axioms, e.g., the real numbers and the Peano axioms


On Fri, May 15, 2015 at 11:10 AM, Omar Kusturica <omarkusto@xxxxxxxxx>

As a a language teacher with some experience, I submit that Chomskian
transformational grammar has little practical usefulness in classroom. If
it has any theoretical usefulness, it might be nice to see some argument to
that effect.



On Fri, May 15, 2015 at 4:04 AM, John McCreery <john.mccreery@xxxxxxxxx>

How is this question to be decided? Is natural language grammar the
servant of
the conceptual/logical or is the converse the case?

Neither. The conceptual/logical is an abstraction from natural language
grammar, a Protestant rebellion against what are perceived as the
corruptions of whatever natural language the philosopher is trying to

I recall a talk given by an historical linguist at Berkeley, the year was
1972, the topic was Noam Chomsky's transformational grammar. In what I took
to be a brilliant metaphor, the historical linguist compared Chomsky's
account of language to a brand new erector set found under a Christmas
tree. Natural language, he said, is more like an erector set found in the
attic years later. Some parts and screws are missing. Others have been
replaced with hairpins, bits of duct tape or bubble gum. To expect the
logic of the latter to be as clear and simple as the former is foolish.

Does this mean that analyses of syntactic structures have nothing to
teach us? No. We just need to remember the maxim articulated by the
statistician George E. P. Box.
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_E._P._Box> "essentially, all models
are wrong, but some are useful." In this case, the syntactic analysis
becomes the background against which history becomes visible.


John McCreery
The Word Works, Ltd., Yokohama, JAPAN
Tel. +81-45-314-9324

John McCreery
The Word Works, Ltd., Yokohama, JAPAN
Tel. +81-45-314-9324

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