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The Linguistics Wars

8 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0195098341
ISBN-10: 019509834X
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this evenhanded, trenchant and witty academic chronicle, Harris looks at the fierce, acrimonious controversies that have rocked linguistics since the 1950s. At center stage is Noam Chomsky whose search for the innate structures underlying language revolutionized what had been primarily a descriptive, behavioristic science. Chomsky's followers, notably George Lakoff, James McCawley, Paul Postal and Haj Ross, came to view Chomskyan "deep structure" as a barrier to forging a link between sound and meaning. Their work, known as generative semantics, has been denounced by Chomsky as a heresy, but Harris, an English professor in Britain, credits generative semantics with making linguistics a vibrant, pluralistic field by introducing a crop of phenomena and methods which Chomsky had ignored. At the moment "things don't look especially bright" for Chomsky's model of language and mind, opines Harris, who asserts that the embattled, isolated Chomsky has borrowed ideas from his rivals and erstwhile followers.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"I enjoyed The Linguistics Wars immensely. Randy Harris writes with erudition and wit and always succeeds in presenting a balanced view of the controversies that have raged in the history of generative grammar. He made me reconsider a number of positions that I have argued for in my own work; typically, even where I remained in disagreement with him, he made me appreciate a complexity to the issues that I had overlooked."--Frederick J. Newmeyer, author of The Politics of Linguistics and Linguistic Theory of America

"In this evenhanded, trenchant and witty academic chronicle, Harris looks at the fierce, acrimonious controversies that have rocked linguistics since the 1950s."--Publishers Weekly

"Through his deep and extensive research, Randy Allen Harris has managed to throw new light on the schism in generative linguistics which indelibly colored the period from the late sixties to the late seventies. His insightful account of this period and the major figures involved reveals many new aspects of the disagreements and disputes at issue and the features of fact, theory and personality which underlay them. Future study of this period in linguistics will surely be shaped by this excellent work, which captures very closely the feel of what went on. I am inclined to say that the level of scholarship which the author manifests on nearly every page in many ways puts to shame that of much of the material he deals with."--Paul M. Postal [Note: no affiliation, per author request]

"Highly informative and entertaining....Highly recommended for all libraries, essential for academic libraries."--Choice

"Harris has captured the flavour and fervour of the [linguistic] debates to perfection....[He] has achieved the near impossible: being fair to both sides in a civil war."--Nature

"This is intellectual drama crossed with a Shakespearean history play."--The Sciences


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (March 9, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 019509834X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195098341
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 1.1 x 6.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,292,242 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Randy Harris was born in the new hospital in Kitimat, BC, Canada, in 1956. After some time there, and some more time in Campbell River, BC, he spent an inexcusably long time moving around the continent, from university to university, getting an education. He attended the University of Lethbridge, in Southern Alberta, mostly studying philosophy. He transferred to Queen's University, in Southern Ontario, where he earned an Honours B.A. in English Literature. He went to Dalhousie University, in Halifax, where he earned an M.A. in English Literature, specializing in Henry Fielding. Next came the University of Alberta, where he earned an M.Sc. in Experimental Linguistics, specializing in aphasia. To round things off, he went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, NY, where he earned an M.Sc. in Technical Communication, specializing in graphics, and a Ph.D. in Communication and Rhetoric, specializing in scientific argumentation and Chomskyan linguistics. Whew.

Upon escaping university, he worked for several years at Bell-Northern Research, in Ottawa, but somehow ended up back in university: he now teaches linguistics, rhetoric, and communication design in the English department at the University of Waterloo. He also researches and writes about a range of things, most of which sound terribly pompous, but are really an awful lot of fun.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Kevin B. Cohen on July 6, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This really is one of the best books about linguistics ever written--maybe the best. As a linguist, it brought me to a whole new level of insight about my field. I wish I'd read it before I ever started graduate school, instead of afterwards--every graduate student should read this before taking their first syntax course. I managed to make it through six years of graduate school without ever understanding why people found syntax and semantics interesting; this book helped me to understand why they did. That's not really the best thing about this book, though; the best thing about it is the story that it tells about an exciting and turbulent time in the scientific field that's more interesting (to me, at any rate) than any other.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Christopher Schroen on July 19, 2004
Format: Paperback
This book does a fantastic job of explaining the ever-shifting scope of linguistics, especially in the second half of the twentieth century. Even better, it puts the field of linguistics into a larger context, so you can see where the influential thinkers were coming from.
What do linguists think the study of human language should entail? What does a linguist consider important, interesting, relevant, and/or worth examining and studying? The answers to these questions have changed over the years, and sometimes radically so. You'll read a lot, of course, about Chomsky's ideas and theories, and the disagreements he had with many linguists who considered themselves his disciples, but you'll also come away with an appreciation of the influence that 20th-century philosophy (Wittgenstein, the Vienna Circle, Logical Positivism) had on the field of linguistics, and a realization that the age-old empiricism/rationalism debate is still going on, and is still important, today.
"The Linguistics Wars" is a great read, an excellent history of linguistics, a decent intro to Chomsky, and a good reminder of the importance of philosophy as well. If you're at all interested in linguistics, or curious about what kind of work linguists actually do, or want to know why everybody thinks Chomsky is such a big deal, you'll probably enjoy this book.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By L. King on August 6, 2008
Format: Paperback
Eminently suitable reading if you are embarking on a modern study of the field of linguistics or are writing an essay on the people and personalities involved or just like reading about the history and evolution of a science. Reads like a good novel. There are a few spots where the uninitiated might be intimidated by the technical treatments but they can be skimmed over. One gets a good sense of how, because of Chomsky, a Kuhnian style paradigm shift occured. What's missing perhaps is some insight that transformational grammar found a fertile ground because Chomsky was at MIT which did not have a deeply established linguistics department but did have a bias towards mathematical and notational models.

The author warns you that the personalities, esp. Chomsky, come off a little abrassively. I got a sense of Chomsky as exceptionally brilliant, revolutionary but a man seduced into creating his own orthodoxy - and quite mean about it too. One wonders what might have happened had Chomsky not been dismissive of the study of semantics.

I enjoyed it a lot. Prof. Harris writes extremely well. ;-)
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Librum VINE VOICE on February 23, 2012
Format: Paperback
Kudos to the author for attempting the impossible (in the first half of the book, at least): to offer a concise overview of the long history of linguistics as well as the much briefer -- yet enormously complex -- history of modern linguistics, peppered with just enough linguistic theory to serve as a creditable (and highly intelligible) introduction (of sorts) to the discipline. As a non-specialist reader, I found the first half of TLW especially satisfying, and learned an enormous amount about the field as it is practiced in its many bifurcating subfields. Besides being a terrific guide to this highly abstruse subject matter, Harris is also a terrific writer. What could otherwise have been a completely dry academic account sparkles, instead, with fascinating observations and the author's oft- and effectively-deployed wry humor. As a non-specialist reader, I found the going increasingly difficult in the second half of the book, which revolves principally about a several years' war between the interpretivists (Chomsky et al) and the generative semanticists (Lakoff et al). The chapters dealing with the meat of this conflict were a little less transparent on the substance of the ideas at stake, and seemed (to this reader) to presuppose some (if not considerable) expertise on the part of the reader. I don't fault the author, though. It's hard to imagine TLW was intended for a non-specialist readership. I'm delighted to have made it through from cover to cover with a general understanding of the linguistics wars, and the different aims of the interpretivists v. the semanticists. If there were parts of TLW I had a tougher time grasping than others, the entire book still gave me worlds to chew on. TLW is a brilliant history, a fascinating sociology of the field of modern linguistics, an incisive introduction to current (at least roughly current) thinking in the field, and a very entertaining read to boot. It is a model study of its kind, a truly outstanding book.
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