K. P. Mohanan

What was the broad question that you most wanted to get an answer to during your time in the program?

Following Chomsky, I assume that:

  1. generative linguistic theory is a theory of the biologically rooted mental linguistic system of the human species, and
  2. generative grammars are theories of individual mental linguistic systems that populate the space provided by the human brain-and-mind.

If we take these axioms seriously, what kind of evidence would shed light on the questions that theoretical linguistics investigates, and what kind of conclusions can we draw from them? Our data have traditionally come from speaker judgments on the acceptability/grammaticality of linguistic forms (in syntax and semantics) and the pronunciations in dictionaries, occasionally enhanced by speaker judgments on possible words (in phonology). Are these the best forms of evidence for what we wish to understand? If we expanded our evidence base to include what is (dismissively) labeled as “external evidence,” what kinds of conclusions would we draw?

Extending this further to the current state of theoretical linguistics, I would now like to ask: How would the conclusions from the expanded sets of data match the traditional conclusions, and the conclusions emerging from evidence from corpora (as in some versions of Optimality Phonology/Syntax)?

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.

It has not been answered. I still think it is an important question that lies at the foundations of generative linguistic theory: it is not an ill-conceived question, but I personally don’t think we have taken Chomsky seriously enough. As a community, I wonder if we have really understood the implications of his starting point.

If we really wish to take the starting point seriously, we need to abolish the boundaries between the so-called (generative) theoretical linguistics, psycholinguistics, neuro-linguistics, and bio-linguistics. We need a community of inquirers who have a broad understanding of this entire spectrum before they can specialize in their narrow pursuits. For that, the nature of graduate education needs to change. We need a new generation of linguists who are better than we are.

Perhaps the reason is more fundamental. And that has to do with the way we teachers imprison our students within the theories that we have either created or adopted. We do not teach them to identify and formulate novel questions that threaten our own theories. If they do ask novel questions and notice novel phenomena, the tendency is to answer the questions or explain the phenomena within their supervisors’ theories, perhaps with minor modifications that keep the brand name. We do not teach students to unpack competing linguistic theories, compare them, and evaluate them. And most importantly, we do not teach our students how to challenge their teachers and show that the teachers are wrong. As a student a MIT, I was taught to challenge my teachers; what I see now is reverence for teachers and the authorities of established theories. Until we get our act together in linguistics education, I don’t think the question that Noam and Morris guided me to pursue when I was a graduate student can be answered.