Katharine Kerr March 14th, 2007
One of the things I’ve done recently is look at a few introductory books on linguistics in order to mention them here for those readers who might be interested in the modern approach to grammar, ie, transformational or generative grammar. The book I learned out of, John Lyon’s THEORETICAL LINGUISTICS, is probably o.p. and gads, I wouldn’t wish it on any one but another fanatic for the subject like myself. Fortunately, there are newer and more readable texts out. Andrew Radford’s TRANSFORMATIONAL GRAMMAR: A FIRST COURSE, published by Cambridge UP, is about the best I’ve seen for a hardcore but very carefully arranged study of grammar itself. He’s tried to make it usable for home study and as far as I can tell, he’s suceeded.
LINGUISTICS: AN INTRODUCTION by Akmajian, Demers, Farmer, and Harnish, pub. by MIT, is a very good introduction to the entire field, with introductory chapters on grammar among many other subjects. I decided to recco this one because it’s arranged so that the casual reader/student can understand the rest of the book without memorizing the material on phonetics and phonology. Most linguistic ovreviews start, logically enough, with phonetics, but this is a hideously detail and technical subject. People such as writers of fiction who simply want to know a little about linguistics in general really don’t need it, and believe me, memorizing the details is the only way to really understand phonology. The foursome who collaborated on this book have thoughtfully circumvented the problem, though the material’s there for those who want it.
Howsomever, both the books I’m recommending and a lot of the others I looked through contain a really odd error, concerning the history of their subject. They all seem to think that Noam Chomsky created or invented transformational grammar in the 1960s. In actuality, the baskc concepts were laid down by Leonard Bloomfield in the early 1930s and developed further by Zelig Harris in the 1940s. Chomsky most certainly added much new material and expanded the discussion into the field of psycholinguistics, but he sure didn’t invent it!
Chomsky has been controversial in his life because of his far-leftist politics, which should not have influenced discussions of his work but inevitably did. He was roundly attacked in the early days by the more craven species of academics. His defenders seem to have inflated his work as a kind of compensation, or so I’d guess — I don’t know why for certain, but he seems to have gone beyond lionization to deification, never a good fate for any original thinker.
Be that as it may, Chomsky’s early work in the structure of language is immensely valuable. (His later work, particularly his “minimalist program”, looks flawed to me but that needn’t concern us here, really.) Just remember that he’s not the Font and Wellspring, no matter who assumes he is.