Linguistics Historian Frederick Newmeyer

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UW linguistics professor Frederick J. Newmeyer "has made a name for himself as the leading historian of modern linguistics," notes Ellen Kaisse, acting chair of the UW linguistics department. His first of three books on the topic, Linguistic Theory in America: The First Quarter-Century of Transformational Generative Grammar, is widely consulted and cited by researchers in fields as diverse as computer science, literary semiotics, anthropology, and the philosophy of science.

Newmeyer's research and writings pertain to the linguistics revolution that began in 1957 with the seminal work of Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who presented an entirely new way of looking at linguistics and syntax. In essence, Chomsky gave the field a truly scientific perspective. He defined a grammar as an axiomatized system generating an infinite set of sentences; grammars are evaluated by their ability to handle the judgments that native speakers make about aspects of their language. Later, Chomsky suggested that every individual possessed structures in the brain that are "hard wired" for generating languages and grammar.

Newmeyer's Linguistic Theory in America, published in 1980, traces the history and the impacts of Chomsky's ideas in the field of linguistics. "It was the first book to give a critical history of modern developments in the field of linguistics in such a way that workers in other disciplines could understand the relevance of our results to their interest," reflects Newmeyer. "It filled a gap between introductory textbooks and technical monographs." But the book didn't merely report on what linguists were doing, it initiated and promoted a multidisciplinary dialogue about the results and implications of current linguistic theory.

Until recently, tangible evidence for Chomsky's theories remained elusive. But in another book, Grammatical Theory: Its Limits and Possibilities, Newmeyer offers empirical proof of these theories. The book documents the accumulation of evidence gathered over several years that supports the Chomskian view of the human mind.

Newmeyer recounts how neurologists studying the brain have discovered physical structures designed specifically for generating human grammar. Studies of patients presenting communication disorders have revealed that the ability to communicate and the ability to generate the proper rules of syntax are housed in separate locations within the brain. Furthermore, Newmeyer cites studies of children who can create complex rules of grammar at an early age. For example, children of the Kuna Indians, a preliterate tribe in Panama, have created their own play language, which has a complex set of rules. "In order to explain the Kuna children's language," says Newmeyer, "you have to explain their ability to manipulate a series of abstract, formal rules of grammar. Their play language seems to me to be strong evidence for an ability in humans for generating abstractions describing the structure of language." footnote 1

In a more recent book, Newmeyer discusses the politics of linguistics, disputing a common criticism--that you can't say anything important about a language unless you know something about the society. "We can cite many, many examples demonstrating that that's not true," says Newmeyer. Modern linguistic theory holds that language is rooted in the human mind; the central properties of grammar are autonomous, he says, having little to do with the society in which they're found. Other researchers contend that although neurological structures are important, the development of grammatical rules depends on the development of perception, memory, and other cognitive abilities in children. For the meanwhile, at least, it appears that the multidisciplinary dialogue about linguistics will continue.

  1. "Linguist writes words around word theory," University Week, Dec. 8, 1983.

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