September 24, 2004

Role reversal

Reading Mark's response to Marc's phonoloblog post, I was reminded of an interesting example of the 'Old World' vs. 'New World' approach-dichotomy.

Around the time I spent a year at Harvard in 1998-1999, I had a conversation with someone (who would remain nameless even if I were able to recall who it was) who noted that my professional interactions with at least some folks at MIT would be particularly frustrating because (a) if you have the facts right, they'll take aim at the theory, and (b) if your theory is impeccable, they'll take aim at the facts. Old World or New World, you apparently can't win at MIT.

(I should note that my own interactions with MIT folks were not like this during my year in Cambridge, though my e-mail interactions with [famous Spanish phonologist X] -- all prior to that year -- certainly had that character.)

I did see one interesting example of this kind of interaction, however, between Chomsky and Anders Holmberg, at one of Chomsky's Thursday afternoon lectures. (I had to go to at least one -- when-in-Cambridge and all that). After discussing some facts from Icelandic (which he referred to as "the ebola of linguistics"), Chomsky was explaining an important empirical consequence of some minimalist assumption or other. While the rest of us are still processing it (or trying not to fall asleep too conspicuously), Holmberg raised his hand and Chomsky called on him.

Holmberg explained a set of facts from mainland Scandinavian that, by the time we had all processed everything, clearly contradicted the empirical consequence of Chomsky's minimalist assumptions. I wish I had a record of the actual wording that Chomsky used, but his reply was basically this:

You don't throw out all of chemistry just because you've thrown a couple of elements together and caused a beaker to explode.

True enough, but the analogy escaped me then and continues to escape me now.

Now, in this scenario, Holmberg was arguably the New World representative. But does the Old World really want to claim (this example of) Chomsky?

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at September 24, 2004 02:40 PM