What was the broad question that you most wanted to get an answer to during your time in the program?
I was preoccupied to know what should be the correct relationship between linguistic theory and language description.
There is of course an easy answer to this, namely that good descriptions let the theory develop, and (“most importantly”) theory informs the questions that we ask when describing a language; while this is obviously true, I don’t feel that grammars have changed significantly thanks to the theoretical developments of the generative age. In part this might be sociological, but I believe it is as much the case because theoretical linguistics seems unable to bend itself to characterize each language in its own terms.
What is the current status of this question? Has it been answered? Did it turn out to be an ill-conceived question? If it’s a meaningful question as yet unanswered, please tell us what you think the path to an answer might be, or what obstacles make it a hard question.
I thought it was ill-conceived during most of my time at MIT, but since then I’ve again started to feel that it is a relevant question. I think Ken Hale was absolutely right in proposing that the way forward was to train native linguists; this hasn’t happened broadly enough to convince the majority of theoretical linguists of the importance of being truly immersed in the language one wishes to describe.