Chomskyan linguistics and its competitors

Chomskyan linguistics and its competitors. By Pius ten Hacken. London: Equinox, 2007. Pp. 366. ISBN 9781845535544. $ 35.

Reviewed by Roberta D’AlessandroLeiden University

This volume is at the same time a thorough introduction and a detailed discussion of Chomskyan generative linguistics. It outlines the main ideas and comments on the common objections to generative linguistics, while introducing a comparison between this framework and other contemporary frameworks such as lexical functional grammar (LFG), generalized phrase structure grammar (GPSG), head-driven phrase structure grammar (HPSG), and Ray Jackendoff’s model. Each subpart is conveniently summarized by means of an itemized list reporting the main concepts introduced.

After a very brief introduction, the first chapter presents a general discussion on what a research program should look like and how linguistic theories are meant to develop. This chapter has little to do with the topic of the book, but it introduces the criteria used to ascertain which of the theories discussed in the rest of the volume is more convincing. Ch. 2 discusses the main lines of the Chomskyan approach to language. The author reports the difference between competence and performance, drawing a distinction between grammatical and pragmatic competence. The discussion then moves to the nature of linguistic data and the methodology of data collection of generative grammarians. The chapter briefly tackles language acquisition and the possible definitions of the language acquisition device (LAD). The author also discusses the different stages of generative grammar, from the early period up to the minimalist program, which is presented in detail.

Ch. 3 maintains a focus on Chomskyan linguistics, introducing it here as a term of comparison with post-Bloomfieldian linguistics. The chapter reflects on the effectiveness of the two research programs and closes by stating that Noam Chomsky launched a true revolution in linguistics.

Ch. 4 is dedicated to ‘the competitors’ It begins with a section on LFG, which is then compared to Chomskyan grammar, underlining the similarities between the two (e.g. that competence should be the focus of linguistic inquiry) as well as their differences (e.g. the role attributed to learnability and language processing). The author then introduces GPSG, which, like LFG, also emerged in response to Chomskyan generativism because of its lack of formalization. Once again, the similarities (e.g. rewrite rules) and the differences (e.g. role of explanation) are underlined. As for HPSG, the author explains how this theory emerged as a sociological, inner-circle response to Chomsky’s lack of consideration for the criticism against his theory. This alternative, very common in computational linguistics, does not have explanatory aims and as such lies outside the discussions on language which entertain the competing theories. Finally, the Jackendovian model of parallel architecture is discussed at length. The author concludes that this is the most incompatible of the theories competing with Chomsky’s generative grammar.

The final chapter is devoted to language acquisition (first and second) and learnability issues, as well as to language change.

This book is a must-read for philosophers of language, as well as for anyone desiring a thorough outline of the main contemporary syntactic theories.