Has the LSA Been a Generativist-Dominated Organisation?

Frederick J. Newmeyer
University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, and University of Washington

There are two stories about how the field of linguistics (at least in the United States) reacted sociologically to the advent of generative grammar. I call them the ‘historiographers’ story’ and the ‘official MIT story’. According to the historiographers’ story, Chomsky and Halle succeeded because they were able to capture the organs of power in the field, in particular, the Linguistic Society of America (LSA). Starting in the mid 1970s, quotations like the following became commonplace:

An increasing number of linguists, have realized that this allegedly linguistic revolution was a social coup d’état. (Anttila 1975: 171)

[…] as all admit, transformationalists have succeeded in capturing the organs of power. (Gray 1976: 49)

Chomsky did not make a revolution […] Rather he and his associates engineered a ‘palace coup’ in the early 1960s. (Murray 1980: 81-82)

[…] ‘organizational linguistics’ (which is largely controlled by people associated with Chomsky’s views) […] (Koerner 1989: 135)

Among historiographers of linguistics, ideas like these have become part of the accepted canon. At the Fourteenth International Conference on the History of the Language Sciences, held in Paris in August 2017, several presenters mentioned in passing (without feeling the need to document their statements) the idea of a generative-dominated field of linguistics, where Chomsky and his supporters set the standard for hiring and publication, often ruthlessly abusing their power.

Call for a Linguistic Society 1924

Leonard Bloomfield, Edgar Sturtevant, and George Melville Bolling, who issued the ‘Call for a Linguistic Society’ in 1924.

The official MIT story is the polar opposite and is a spin on one of Chomsky’s many quotes about his relation to the field. The following statement from Chomsky is typical:

As I look back over my own relation to the field, at every point it has been completely isolated, or almost completely isolated. I do not see that the situation is very different now […] But I cannot think of any time when the kind of work that I was doing was of any interest to any more than a very tiny fraction of people in the field. (Chomsky 1982: 42-43)

My feeling is that Chomsky actually believes what he writes here. Indeed such a belief is part of what sustains him. Unfortunately, Chomsky’s view of his relation to the field has rubbed off on many (but certainly not all) of his closest supporters. I was Secretary-Treasurer of the LSA from 1989 to 1994. When I took office, I was shocked by the number of leading generative grammarians who were not members. Over the next few years, I made it a point to contact them personally to encourage them to join (or, in many cases, to rejoin). James Higginbotham’s reply to my email was typical:

Why should I join the LSA? If you look at who the officers are, what gets presented at meetings, and what’s published in Language, I don’t see much connection with what we are trying to accomplish at MIT. (personal communication, 17 February 1992)

Twenty-some years later, things had not changed very much. Norbert Hornstein edits a popular blog dealing with a wide range of linguistic themes, focussing on the foundations of linguistic theory. He expressed outrage that the journal Language (the organ of the LSA) would organize a discussion around Vyvyan Evans’ cognitive linguistics manifesto The Language Myth and he went on to write:

            Generativists have always considered Language the place you publish when you can’t get your stuff into LI or NLLT, or Lingua or … It is far down the list of desirable publishing venues. […] Maybe it’s time for Generativists to either leave the LSA or the LSA should consider replacing the editors [of Language]. (Norbert Hornstein, blog posting 17 April 2015)

The ellipsis after ‘Lingua or’ is Hornstein’s, not mine.

So what then is my story? Do I side with the historiographers or with Chomsky and his supporters? As much as I like punchy conclusions, mine will seem pretty wishy-washy. I would say that there is little or no evidence that generative grammarians have seized power in the LSA in any reasonable interpretation of ‘seize power’. At the same time, there is no evidence that Chomskyan linguists have in any sense been ‘isolated’ from whatever decision-making power exists in the field.

Let’s try to unravel the brute facts about generative predominance or not in the LSA. Such is not an easy task. By what standards should we describe someone as a ‘generative grammarian’ or a publication or presentation as ‘generative’? Many subfields of linguistics, such as formal semantics, pragmatics, phonetics, and even sociolinguistics, have been influenced to one degree or another by generative grammar. Yet one would be loath to describe, say, Kai von Fintel, Laurence Horn, Patricia Keating, and John Rickford as ‘generative grammarians’ on the basis of some of their work being compatible with basic generative notions or even on the basis of its assuming certain features of that model. Then there are linguists who work in formal frameworks like HPSG or LFG, which are only ‘Chomskyan’ in the broadest sense of the term. Where do they fit in? And finally, any facile characterization of a person as a generative grammarian or not has to face the fact that people’s positions change over time. Take George Lakoff and Ronald Langacker. In 1968 they were clearly generative grammarians and in 1988 they clearly were not. What about 1978? I have no idea.

With these caveats in mind, in the remainder of this note I will attempt to ascertain to what extent generative grammar has dominated the LSA over the past few decades. Let’s start with LSA presidents. For each, I will try to pigeon-hole them according to where they belong in terms of their intellectual orientation at the time of their presidency.

LSA presidents from 1968 to the present:

  • Generative phonologists and morphologists (6): Morris Halle, Mark Aronoff, Stephen Anderson, Keren Rice, Ellen Kaisse, Larry Hyman
  • MIT-style syntacticians (3): Kenneth Hale, David Lightfoot, Sandra Chung
  • Generative non-MIT-style syntacticians (10): Charles Fillmore, Arnold Zwicky, Emmon Bach, James McCawley, Terrence Langendoen, Joan Bresnan, David Perlmutter, Frederick Newmeyer, Ray Jackendoff, Joan Maling
  • Clearly non-generativists (10): Eugene Nida, Archibald Hill, Dwight Bolinger, Thomas Sebeok, Rulon Wells, Joseph Greenberg, Fred Householder, Elizabeth Traugott, Robert Austerlitz, Joan Bybee
  • Psycholinguists and neurolinguists (3): Victoria Fromkin, Lila Gleitman, Janet Fodor
  • Sociolinguists (7): Charles Ferguson, William Labov, Dell Hymes, William Bright, Walt Wolfram, John Rickford, Penelope Eckert
  • Pragmaticists and discourse analysts (1): Ellen Prince
  • Historical linguists (7): Eric Hamp, Winfred Lehmann, Henry Kahane, Calvert Watkins, Sarah Thomason, Alice Harris, Brian Joseph
  • Phoneticians (3): Peter Ladefoged, Ilse Lehiste, Arthur Abramson
  • Semanticists (2): Barbara Partee, Sally McConnell-Ginet

The two biggest groups, with ten each, are those who are clearly non-generativists and — interestingly! — generative non-MIT-style syntacticians. Most of the former are from the earlier period, though well after people started talking about a ‘Chomskyan revolution’. It should also be mentioned that the three individuals in the ‘Psycholinguists and neurolinguists’ group are quite generative-oriented (though they have disagreed with each other on many specific issues). The only recent LSA president who is outspokenly anti-generative is Joan Bybee. To balance that fact, on the list there are only three MIT-style syntacticians, none of whom graduated from MIT and only one of whom taught there. Do we see here a successful Chomsky-directed power grab? I would say not, though no doubt the list leaves open more than one interpretation. It is worth pointing out, by the way, that the next two presidents will be Marianne Mithun, a functionalist linguist, followed by Laurence Horn, a pragmaticist.

One might object that, given that the presidency of the LSA is essentially honorary and that presidents tend to be chosen for their accomplishments in the distant past, it would be more appropriate to examine the individuals who have occupied the positions of Secretary-Treasurer and Editor of Language. These two posts involve day-to-day responsibilities and a certain amount of influence (if not power):

Secretary-Treasurers of the LSA and their orientations:

  • 1952-1968      Archibald Hill, a post-Bloomfieldian structuralist
  • 1968-1974      Thomas Sebeok, a Prague-school-oriented structuralist and semiotician
  • 1974-1979      Arthur Abramson, a phonetician
  • 1979-1984      Victoria Fromkin, a neurolinguist and phonetician and an advocate of generative grammar
  • 1984-1989      D. Terence Langendoen, an MIT Ph. D. whose dissertation was on the London School of Linguistics and who in the 1980s published in a dozen different subfields, from computational linguistics to discourse analysis
  • 1989-1994      Frederick Newmeyer, at the time an MIT-style syntactician, and who had published two books on the history of linguistics
  • 1994-1999      Elizabeth Traugott, a functionalist linguist known for her work on grammaticalisation
  • 1999-2004      Sally McConnell-Ginet, a semanticist known for her work on language and gender
  • 2004-2008      Gregory Ward, a discourse analyst
  • 2008-2013      Paul Chapin, an MIT Ph. D. who for decades was Program Director in Linguistics for the National Science Foundation and who had published very sparsely in any approach to linguistics after the early 1970s
  • 2013-2018      Patrick Farrell, who has worked on language and the law and has published in several non-Chomskyan formal approaches to grammar
  • 2019-present  Lenore Grenoble, a specialist in language contact and language policy

Editors of Language and their orientations

  • 1966-1987      William Bright, a sociolinguist
  • 1988-1994      Sarah Thomason, a historical linguist
  • 1995-2001      Mark Aronoff, a generative morphologist and specialist in lexical semantics
  • 2002-2008      Brian Joseph, a historical linguist
  • 2009-2016      Gregory Carlson, a semanticist
  • 2017-present  Andries Coetzee, a phonetician and generative phonologist

While committed generative grammarians have served both as secretary-treasurers and editors, I see no way to read into the two above lists the effects of a power grab by Chomsky supporters.

Let us move now to the present. Here is the composition of the current (2019) LSA Executive Committee:

  • Marlyse Baptista, a creole specialist at Michigan with a Harvard Ph. D.
  • Anne Charity Hudley, a sociolinguist at William and Mary with a Pennsylvania Ph.D.
  • Norma Mendoza-Denton, a sociolinguist and anthropological linguist at UCLA in the Anthropology Department with a Stanford Ph. D.
  • Arthur Spears, a sociolinguist at CUNY with a UC San Diego Ph. D.
  • Rebecca Scarborough, a phonetician at Colorado with a UCLA Ph. D.
  • Alan Yu, a generative phonologist at Chicago with a UC Berkeley Ph. D.

One can interpret this list as one wishes, but I don’t see how anybody could conclude from it an MIT — or even a generative — take-over of the field. The current LSA Executive Committee does not include a single syntactician or formal semanticist.

Consider now the most recent LSA meeting, held in January 2019. Of the 36 regular sessions at the meeting, here is the breakdown by topic:

  • MIT-style syntax                                                  9
  • Sociolinguistics                                                    5
  • Semantics and pragmatics                                 4
  • Language acquisition & psycholinguistics     4
  • Phonology (all varieties)                                    3
  • Historical linguistics                                           2
  • Phonetics                                                               2
  • Morphology                                                          2
  • Misc.                                                                       5

These figures seem surprising, given that MIT-style syntacticians have not been well represented in LSA offices. One also notes the absence of sessions devoted to non-MIT-style syntax and to functional and cognitive linguistics, though papers assuming these latter two approaches were sprinkled here and there in other sessions. One cannot always be sure from reading a short abstract, but I would estimate that about a third of the presented papers assumed a generative approach to grammar. The invited plenary address was by Diane Lillo-Martin and entitled ‘Tap Your Head and Rub Your Tummy: How Complex Can Simultaneous Production of Two Languages Get?’ It was a study of bimodal (signed and spoken) bilingual speakers and incorporated various assumptions from generative grammar.

         There were fourteen symposia at the meeting, as follows:

  • ‘Advances in Categorial Grammar and its Application: In Memory of Richard T. Oehrle’
  • ‘The Nature of Childrens’ Representations of Subject-Verb Agreement in the Context of Variation: Insights from Production, Comprehension and Brain Imaging’
  • ‘Linguistic Discrimination on the University Campus’
  • ‘”The,” 100 Years after Russell: Developments in Data, Methods, Theory, and Empirical Scope’
  • ‘Datablitz: The Teachers Are Here: Promoting Linguistics in High Schools’
  • ‘Linguistics and the City: Reflections on New York City and the History of Linguistics’
  • ‘Natives4Linguistics 2018 – Sharing Our Findings’
  • ‘Parallels between Verbal and Nominal Number’
  • ‘Exploring Social Approaches to Meaning: Issues at the Socio-pragmatic Interface’
  • ‘Global Ethnolinguistic Conflict: An Internet Encyclopedia Project’
  • ‘Datablitz: Experimental Approaches to Cross-linguistic Variation in Island Phenomena’
  • ‘New Directions in LGBTQ+ Linguistics: Commemorating the LSA Special Interest Group on LGBTQ+ Issues in Linguistics’
  • ‘Inside Segments’
  • ‘Exploring Nanosyntax’

Of the fourteen, only four could be considered ‘generative’ by any criteria: The second ‘Datablitz’ and the ‘Nanosyntax’ symposia were informed by MIT-style syntax and the ‘Segments’ symposium by generative phonology. As the title indicates, the first symposium on the list focussed on the framework of categorial grammar.

Volume 95, Number 2, June 2019

Finally, let us look at the full articles published in the most recent completed volume of Language, namely volume 94 from 2018:

  • Vol. 94, no. 1: ‘The lexicalist hypothesis: Both wrong and superfluous’ (MIT-style syntax); ‘Sound change and the structure of synchronic variability: Phonetic and phonological factors in Slavic palatalization’ (phonetics, historical linguistics); ‘Modification of indicating verbs in British Sign Language: A corpus-based study’ (Signed language, corpus linguistics); ‘Tone-tune association in Tommo So (Dogon) folk songs’ (prosody, language and music)
  • Vol. 94, no. 2: ‘Deriving verb-initial word order in Mayan’ (MIT-style syntax); ‘Towards a theory of modal-temporal interaction’ (semantics); ‘The acquisition of recursive modification in NPs’ (language acquisition); ‘Hearing r-sandhi: The role of past experience’ (sociophonetics); ‘Cleft sentences and reconstruction in child language’ (language acquisition with generative assumptions); ‘Negation as an exclusively nominal category’ (typology, critical of MIT-style syntax)
  • Vol. 94, no. 3: ‘Deponency in finite and nonfinite contexts’ (historical linguistics, morphosyntax); ‘Grammatical number and the scale of individuation’ (semantics, typology); ‘Inversion and finiteness in Spanish and English: Developmental evidence from the optional infinitive and optional inversion stages’ (language acquisition, MIT-style syntax); ‘Structure dependence and linear order: Clarifications and foundations’ (MIT-style syntax with a critical slant); ‘Evaluating S(c)illy voices: The effects of salience, stereotypes, and co-present language variables on real-time reactions to regional speech’ (sociolinguistics, speech perception); ‘Extraction and licensing in Toba Batak’ (MIT-style syntax); ‘What tone teaches us about language’ (generative phonology).
  • Vol. 94, no. 4: ‘From possessor agreement to object marking in the evolution of the Udmurt -jez suffix: A grammaticalization approach to morpheme syncretism’ (historical linguistics, grammaticalisation); ‘Subject prominence and processing dependencies in prenominal relative clauses: The comprehension of possessive relative clauses and adjunct relative clauses in Mandarin Chinese’ (language processing); On the order of demonstrative, numeral, adjective, and noun’ (typology); ‘Prenasalized and postoralized consonants: The diverse functions of enhancement’ (phonetics, historical linguistics); ‘The real-time dynamics of the individual and the community in grammaticalization’ (sociolinguistics, corpus linguistics, grammaticalisation); ‘Crosslinguistic structural priming as a mechanism of contact-induced language change: Evidence from Papiamento-Dutch bilinguals in Aruba and the Netherlands’ (language contact, historical linguistics); ‘The time course of individuals’ perception of coarticulatory information is linked to their production: Implications for sound change’ (sound change, speech production and perception).

Given this breakdown, one would be hard pressed to regard Language as an MIT ‘organ’. Indeed, my impression from this list of articles is that the journal is open to many diverse views and subfields.

It seems clear then that the LSA is not a generative-dominated society. At the same time, there is little prima facie evidence that generative grammarians are a persecuted group within the LSA. While a comprehensive analysis would require a look at the acceptance rate of generativist abstracts for LSA talks and generativist submissions to Language (information which is, unfortunately, not obtainable), I doubt that such data would lead me to change my mind.

To conclude, if the LSA has an overriding problem, it is one of public relations. It appears that whatever your interests are in linguistics, you believe that the organisation best represents interests opposed to yours. As a dramatic illustration of my point, I’ll end by quoting part of a message from Sarah Thomason, who was editor of Language from 1988 to 1994:

I may have told you about the memorable week when I got two letters from disgruntled authors whose papers I’d rejected. One said that obviously I would reject her paper since I was clearly biased against anything generative; the other said that obviously I would reject their paper since I only published generative articles. I resisted, with some difficulty, the urge to send each letter to the other letter-writer. It’s interesting how perception can blind a person to facts. (personal communication, 25 November 2019)


Anttila, Raimo. 1975. “Revelation as Linguistic Revolution”. The First LACUS Forum, ed. by A. Makkai, and V. Makkai, 171-76. Columbia, SC: Hornbeam Press.

Chomsky, Noam. 1982. The Generative Enterprise: A Discussion with Riny Huybregts and Henk Van Riemsdijk. Dordrecht: Foris.

Gray, Bennison. 1976. “Counter-Revolution in the Hierarchy”. Forum Linguisticum 1.38-50.

Koerner, E. F. K. 1989. “The Chomskyan ‘Revolution’ and Its Historiography: Observations of a Bystander”. Practicing Linguistic Historiography: Selected Essays, ed. by E. F. K. Koerner, 101-46. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Murray, Stephen O. 1980. “Gatekeepers and the ‘Chomskyan Revolution'”. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 16.73-88.

How to cite this post:

Newmeyer, Frederick J. 2020. Has the LSA Been a Generativist-Dominated Organisation? History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2020/01/22/lsa-generativist-dominated-organisation

Posted in 20th century, America, Linguistics, Uncategorized
3 comments on “Has the LSA Been a Generativist-Dominated Organisation?
  1. Omer Preminger says:

    Here’s a slightly different perspective: https://omer.lingsite.org/blogpost-two-problems-with-the-lsa/

    In a nutshell, I think the issue is not so much whether the different “factions” are represented proportionally – you do an admirable job, it seems to me, of showing that they probably are – but rather, that the LSA’s “big tent” approach is too big for its own good. Just like linguists formed the LSA because (presumably?) they felt that their interests as a field aren’t being particularly well-served by larger scientific organizations (e.g. AAAS), so do generativists – or at least this generativist – feel that their interests aren’t being particularly well-served (and are in many cases actively harmed) by the LSA.

    (Full disclosure: I am a (proud) colleague of Norbert Hornstein, he of the “Maybe it’s time for Generativists to either leave the LSA or …” quote, and there are more than a few connecting lines between what I have to say and the post from which that quote was taken. It’s here, btw: https://facultyoflanguage.blogspot.com/2015/04/does-lsa-and-its-flagship-journal.html)

  2. Frederick Newmeyer says:

    Omer, what you say about the formation of the LSA is essentially right. It was formed in 1924 because linguists did not feel that their interests were served well by the MLA, the American Philosophical Society, and so on. But from the beginning there were also specialist journals like IJAL, which catered to a small interest group of linguists. The number of such journals (LI, NLLT, Language in Society, Linguistics and Philosophy, and so on) started exploding in the 1970s. I know of absolutely nobody who feels that single-orientation journals should not exist and publish the most cutting-edge research in whatever subfield or approach.

    Now what about Language? At the very least, in order to serve its mission, it has to publish articles from a wide variety of subfields. Surely you don’t object to seeing articles on sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, pragmatics, historical linguistics, and other subfields you don’t work in? Personally, I love to see what is going on in linguistics broadly and I learn a lot from these articles. The hot issue, it seems, comes down to what Language should publish in grammatical theory, and in particular in syntax. Nobody believes in ‘affirmative action for theories’ nor believes that any conceivable approach to syntax deserves ipso facto to be represented in Language. That said, there is far from a consensus in the field about what a theory of grammar shoud look like. There is a long-standing ‘usage-based’ approach to grammar (essentially cognitive and functional linguistics) that has provided many useful generalisations and analyses which, if not correct in their fundamentals, present a challenge for mainstream generative assumptions. With the general acceptance of non-UG-based ‘third factor’ explanations, much of this usage-based work has become of more interest to generativists, not less. Functionalists for years have been saying ‘diminish UG and let other factors take over the explanatory burden.’ Personally, again, I feel that the best work in this tradition *should* be published in Language and that more people should be looking to see to what degree a synthesis is possible. Something like that has been going on in phonology for years, by the way.

    Having written the above, I agree with Norbert that the Evans book is crap and never should have been given so much attention in Language. It wasn’t my decision!

  3. haspelmath says:

    It seems to me that in some sense, the generativists “left the field of linguistics” in the 1970s, when they stopped making reference to work outside of their group. And Chomsky did suggest occasionally that the generative appoach is not one of several competing approaches in linguistics, but is its own subfield (like chemistry) – and if this is so, it is of course legitimate to ignore things going on in neighbouring fields. Now if Chomsky’s followers had been consistent with this and had gone on to set up “departments of generative studies”, journals of “generative studies” and so on, trying to become a fully independent field, I think that would have been perfectly OK. But they didn’t – they continued to refer to what they were doing as “linguistics”, and even suggested (on many occasions) that theirs was somehow the most scientific approach. But given the narrowness of the Chomskyan perspective on (a few aspects of) language, this couldn’t work, of course. So there is a strong tension here, which I think can be traced back directly to Chomsky’s contradictory attitude toward what he was doing: On the one hand, he was creating a completely new field, but on the other, the general rules of a field were not supposed to apply.

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