Aspects at 50

Geoff Pullum’s column in the Lingua Franca blog (of the Chronicle of High Education) on the 22nd, “Revolutionary Methodological Preliminaries”, went back 50 years to a signal event in linguistics publishing. Geoff begins:

It is rather surprising that more has not been done this year (thus far, anyway) to commemorate a significant semicentenary: the 50th anniversary of what could reasonably be called the most influential linguistics book of the 20th century. [Aspects of the Theory of Syntax] was published by MIT Press in 1965 as “Special Technical Report 11” of the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT, and has recently been re-released with a new preface, but it doesn’t seem to have inspired any major conferences or other celebrations. Yet it gets more than 25,000 citations, according to Google Scholar, and it laid the foundation for 50 years of interdisciplinary research on how human minds could possibly create and manage the extraordinary complexity of language.

I was there for the occasion.

Geoff’s column went on with close discussion of the early part of the book — read it! — and concluded:

The technical proposals about transformations advanced in the book have melted away and been forgotten. No linguists today think Aspects presents the right way to design grammars for human languages. The book did not present discoveries about language that have since been confirmed as correct by subsequent scientific work. I’m skeptical even of its general approach in some respects. Yet it was truly a wonder. Not for what it claimed in detail, but for what it led to.

Today I work in a school of philosophy, psychology, and language sciences where philosophers organize conferences on syntax and semantics, where psychologists teach courses on language, and where linguists collaborate with computer scientists in the school of informatics next door. The work takes very different directions from Chomsky’s own current ideas, but I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that the whole interdisciplinary milieu owes its origin to the first 62 pages of a single book.

I came to graduate school at MIT in the fall of 1962, and the first syntax course I took was taught by Noam; it was Aspects, in development, and it was exhilarating. The framework for syntactic description that Noam developed there was directly applicable to my work at the MITRE Corporation in those years and, for a while, guided my research and teaching in syntax (and inspired my thinking about linguistics in general). Yes, I came fairly fast to taking a different tack in syntax and to diverging far from Noam’s ideas at almost every level. I was an early apostate, but I nevertheless am indebted to his early work for helping me clarify my own ideas. And for many people (not just those of us at MIT) his work created an excitement in doing linguistics that had been largely missing from the field. Oh, and set off the interdisciplinary research programs that Geoff talks about.

One Response to “Aspects at 50”

  1. Yorick Wilks Says:

    I think there is a rosy haze over the history of that time that I hesitate to criticise, but the two comments above both seem to say that the ideas in Aspects didnt pan out for people or computers but were still terribly important. I dont think that follows: the people who did create the machine and people grammars often did not believe what Chomsky said but, more relevantly to the comments on interdisciplinary studies, Chomsky was famously not interested in these. I was at the founding meetings of the journal Cognitive Science and I do not think his interests and views were represented much at them.

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