Transformational Generative Grammar

Viewed as a Cult

Copyright: Peter Zohrab (2002)

There is a strong sense in which Generative Grammar transcends the rigours of mere empirical research and rational argumentation, and reaches the dizzy heights of the status of a religion, or cult.

I wrote this fresh from seeing TV commentators commenting on the superficial way in which (other) commentators and media people have been covering the 2002 New Zealand general election campaign, and it occurred to me also to suggest looking at academic theories as a marketing "package".

In that context, what does Chomskyism have to offer ? I think the Chomskyism package functions on at least two levels:

1) Intellectual Snobbery: It is undoubted that the details of Chomskyism's rules and metarules are very complicated, and are ever-changing. This has three results:

1a) Academics who don't know much about it are impressed -- I experienced this reaction from a friend of a friend at Cambridge. This makes students of Chomskyism feel good, and affirms them in their choice of courses, and it gives Linguistics a better competitive position vis-a-vis other fields in the competition for jobs and resources, which adds to the bandwagon effect;

1b) Non-academic people admire students of Chomskyism for similar reasons, and with similar results;

1c) It is impossible to devote enough time to mastering the ever-changing details of Chomskyism without being oneself a Chomskyist -- which means that Chomskyists can always claim that non-Chomskyists just don't understand, and imply that that is because they're too dumb.

2) Vast Scope and Territorial Ambitions: The Big Lie is always more attractive than the piddling little lie, which is why messianic cults that promise eternal life are so attractive -- or used to be. As I say in my book (, Chomsky claims that Linguistics can contribute to Cognitive Psychology, and then he ring-fences Linguistics with the so-called Competence-Performance distinction (which is actually several, mutually independent distinctions), so as to make sure that this claim does not allow Cognitive Psychologists to claim that they can make contributions to Linguistics.

I owe to Professor Keith Percival the observation (personal communication) that, before Chomsky, Linguistics had been for some time a bit of an intellectual wasteland. Deservedly so, I would have to conclude, on the basis of the above observations. If, indeed, it has taken the so-called Competence-Performance Distinction to allow Linguistics to make the grandiose claims that were the main factor that made it "sexy" -- while keeping the Psychologists from messing up its turf -- then perhaps Linguistics is intrinsically rather boring and mundane, and those of us who are really more interested in Psychology and Philosophy had best return to those fields !


Webmaster Peter Douglas Zohrab
Last Update

9 July 2006