Broadening questions at MIT

Dear Colleagues,

We write to invite you to the celebration of an upcoming anniversary.

50 years ago, in the fall of 1960, Jerome Wiesner, director of the Research Laboratory of Electronics, and William N. Locke, head of the Department of Modern Languages, proposed to MIT the formation of a graduate program in linguistics whose faculty was to include Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle. At the time, Noam and Morris were affiliated with both RLE and Modern Languages.

Wiesner and Locke’s proposal was approved and the new program was slated to begin the following fall. No efforts were made to recruit students. Nonetheless, a group of at least six graduate students arrived in September 1961 and seven or more joined the following year. Four years later, many of the dissertations of these first two classes became landmark studies in the fields of phonology (synchronic and diachronic), morphology, and syntax (theoretical and computational), with semantics and phonetics added later(1). So have many of the over 300 theses completed in the following 46 years of the program, and those of the students, and the students’ students, of that first generation and following ones.

To celebrate the first 50 years of MIT’s graduate program in Linguistics, we are writing to all alumni, former faculty and postdoctoral scholars. We invite all to mark this occasion by revisiting the department and participating in a discussion of some of the foundational questions investigated by its past and present members. We will do this in a book (printed or electronic, to be determined) to which all are invited to contribute; and in a scientific reunion, on the weekend of 12/9/2011. All past and present members of the program are invited to attend the event and to contribute to the discussions.

As a first step in preparing the book and in planning the reunion, we invite everybody to send us their thoughts on the following two points:
1) What was the broad question that you most wanted to get an answer to during your time in the program?

2) 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.

We will post your answers on the anniversary website and we hope to discuss them during the December 9-10 meeting at MIT, and to include them in an anniversary book. The responses we receive by February 15 2011 will determine how we plan the meeting in December 2011. Right now we see the meeting as consisting of talks and panel discussions on questions that will emerge from the alumni’s responses as central, or as ripe for an answer, or as likely to engage the largest number of participants. Morris and Noam will speak. There will be celebratory parties. For the benefit of those not able to attend we are looking into videotaping and perhaps live streaming of portions of the event.

Please send your answers to the two questions above, preferably by February 15, 2011, or any further feedback on the format of this anniversary event, to Responses will be posted at, along with photos, footage, anecdotes and reminiscences that we hope you will also contribute. The website will contain details on the event as our plans take shape.

We look forward to hearing from all of you and to seeing you here next year.

Irene Heim
Michael Kenstowicz
Donca Steriade

(1) The list of theses completed in 1965: J.Foley, Spanish Morphology; B.Fraser, An Examination of the Verb-Particle
Construction in English; J. Gruber Studies in Lexical Relations; B.Hall Subject and Object in Modern English;
P.Kiparsky Phonological Change; Y.Kuroda Generative Grammatical Studies in the Japanese Language;
T.Langendoen, Modern British Linguistics; T.Lightner, Segmental Phonology of Modern Standard Russian;
S.Petrick, A Recognition Procedure for Transformational Grammars; J.McCawley, Accentual System of Standard
Japanese; P.Rosenbaum, Grammar of English Predicate Complement Constructions; S.Schane, Phonological and
Morphological Structure of French; A.Zwicky, Topics in Sanskrit Phonology

Hi all – February 5, 2011.

“As a mathematical discipline travels far from its empirical source, or still more, if it is a second and third generation only indirectly inspired from ideas coming from ‘reality,’ it is beset with very grave dangers. It becomes more and more purely aestheticizing, more and more purely l’art pour l’art. This need not be bad, if the field is surrounded by correlated subjects, which still have closer empirical connections, or if the discipline is under the influence of men with an exceptionally well-developed taste.

“But there is a grave danger that the subject will develop along the line of least resistance, that the stream, so far from its source, will separate into a multitude of insignificant branches, and that the discipline will become a disorganized mass of details and complexities.

“In other words, at a great distance from its empirical source, or after much ‘abstract’ inbreeding, a mathematical subject is in danger of degeneration. At the inception the style is usually classical; when it shows signs of becoming baroque the danger signal is up. It would be easy to give examples, to trace specific evolutions into the baroque and the very high baroque, but this would be too technical.

“In any event, whenever this stage is reached, the only remedy seems to me to be the rejuvenating return to the source: the reinjection of more or less directly empirical ideas. I am convinced that this is a necessary condition to conserve the freshness and the vitality of the subject, and that this will remain so in the future.”

John von Neumann

On his biography:

A present from John Lawler

As I remember my January 1964 mind, which I had when I left Penn, (my Penn MA thesis, which I was supposed to have written before leaving, a long thing on superlatives, which I finally did finish at MIT in May or June of 1964), was filled with wonder at how beautifully everything grammatical worked! Clockwork! Affix Hopping happened magically, and word boundaries were cleverly inserted where they would do the most good, and I was thrilled.
Phonology was like that too – the first course I took when I got to MIT was 23.762 – Phonology, with Morris. There were insanely clever things going on back then, I remember – like the e/o ablaut in PIE being determined by how many cycles there were internally to a word, all spooky stuff which I had no way of evaluating, knowing nothing of PIE. But that it all worked mechanically, that was the goal, the shining Grail.

There was a slug in the jello, though. In the good old days (1964) grammaticality was yes or no. There were some suggestions from Noam about how some sentences could have sort of similar derivations to the pure and fully grammatical sentences – Noam had written about this in a part of LSLT, and there was another paper of his that I slogged through too. It was vastly clever – but I didn’t buy it. In particular, it seemed not to come even close to being of any help for the piles of messy data I had for superlatives.

There was also one sentence that Zellig Harris had said in the first syntax class I had ever had, when I had arrived at Penn in the fall of 1962. He remarked offhandedly that “some transforms of sentences are more nounlike than others.” That seemed so true, and when I got to MIT and started trying to crank through Peter Rosenbaum’s great dissertation and rules (mechanically, natch), I began to think that Peter’s Poss Ing complements were nounier than were his for to ones. That was really the kernel that launched my long paper on nouniness.

And the fascination with errorless, clockwork-like (ordered!) rules – that took some serious hits. I think that it was Morris who first began to wean me from the goal of making the equation

shorter rules = better rules

something like a credo. Morris would just chuckle at what some student or I would come up with – something tricky that would save one feature, or seven. It seemed heretical, but it WAS Morris, after all, who was laughing. Maybe I was missing a joke somewhere.

And then Morris and I started teaching 23.751 – the first syntax course. And we got together a list of around 50-60 rules, and tried to order them, and a lot of them seemed cool, but there were continual breakdowns – new types of rules (post-cyclic rules, anywhere rules, output conditions, etc.). “The” theory was in constant flux, and clockworkiness just seemed to a goal adherence to which would have to be put off for a while.

A very long while, as it turned out. The goal of a clocklike grammar came to seem to be completely out of reach, and to be receding faster and faster to boot.

Another broad question which surfaced in my first years at MIT was the Grail of Universal Grammar. At Penn, I hadn’t even tried to think along those lines. It was Paul Postal who most put these thoughts in my mind And Noam too – his famous Thursday afternoon class. And Noam’s A-over-A condition seemed incredibly cool and so right! But then I started poking it, and a misty understanding of what was eventually going to become my dissertation started emerging from the ooze . . .

So what I now see as the broad questions that I started with – the hope for a purely formal grammar, sharp grammaticality judgements, strong universals – these all crumbled, and I found myself trying to imagine something squishier, rubberier, something more like a poem than like a set of axioms. What I started with was fine but it had to give way pretty soon to an apparently aimless kind of ambling, sashaying towards poeticity.
I worked for around ten years at trying to articulate a non-discrete (= squishy) theory of grammar. What seemed to be necessary were rules that could decrement a sentence’s grammaticality, under certain circumstances. These rules would them output sentences with various degrees of grammaticality, say on a scale of 0–100, where 50 or better was grammatical, and 49 or less was bad, though there would have to be degrees of both goodness and badness. But I was doing this mostly on my own, and the idea that I could present something algorithmic, so that I could turn a crank and out would pop sentences with nice indices of grammaticality, all like clockwork, seemed infinitely far off. The idea of clockwork-like rules was still officially what I was striving for, but I knew it was out of reach. No – not quite. Better: whether someone would reach it someday or not, I myself stopped reaching for it.

I notice that I am leaving out that part of linguistics which drained huge amounts of my energy during these years (roughly the decade 1967-1976), namely the Linguistics Wars. Generative vs. Interpretive Semantics. Enough has been written about that to choke a horse (I like the perspective that Geoff Huck and John Goldsmith offer the best, in their Ideology and Linguistic Theory – Noam Chomsky and the Deep Structure Debates,) – there are other things that concern me more for our Fiftieth than this trampled ground.

As I muse backwards, I see two main issues. The first is squibs. These I started writing to myself probably around 1963. George Lakoff, who was then an assistant professor of linguistics at Harvard, starting around the fall of 1964, if memory serves (which would be a miracle), and I started trading them back and forth from that time on. Robby Lakoff too – she was finishing her Ph.D. at Harvard, on Latin syntax, and she was (and is) an amazing sharp-shooter of a squibber. I no longer remember this, but George tells me that it was me who came up with the name squib. I have since looked up the word in the OED, and it has a history, with many meanings, one of whom would fit pretty well with the way we understand the term now, so I may have come across it somewhere, and borrowed it into the syntax that George and I were trying to set up. Whatever.
What I would like to underline here, however, is not the history of the name of these creatures, but rather the change in syntacticians’ understanding of what they were as soon as Linguistic Inquiry started to be published, in 1970. Jay Keyser, the editor, had had the great idea to have a squibs section in LI, and had invited me and Dave Perlmutter to be squibs editors. I was pleased and flattered, probably Dave was too, off we went.
I remember perceiving vaguely that the squibs that we accepted (after they were reviewed and edited, comme il faut) had changed into something else than the sort of Post-it sized flashes that squibs had been before they had gotten institutionalized, and tamed. What came out in LI were short notes – great notes, notes with deep consequences, I am happy to have helped in any way to get them 0ut – but something was missing.
For me, that is. We published very few of what we came to call “mystery squibs.” One mystery squib of mine was a question: what is the source of that in this sentence: “The rules of Clouting and Dragoff apply in that order.”? I am very clear that not everyone feels that such mystery squibs have any right to be published. I remember Morris telling me that one indignant linguist had asked him why their money should be paid to read about what I didn’t know.
The indignation was contagious – I was indignant back, not because I view my ignorance as being more important than other people’s, but because I had come to the conclusion, at the end of my thesis, that what progress seemed to me to be was the ability to ask deeper questions. An unremitting search for higher forms of ignorance. I imagine that broadened questions are automatically also deepened ones, a fascinating inexplicability about the space in which question/insight lives.

At the very bottom of all the squibbing I have done is another unpopular conviction: that despite the immense and brilliant efforts of all of us OWG’s, the extent to which we have succeeded in staking out the basic lay of the land in syntax (or anywhere else), the degree with which we have “covered” syntax is less than vanishingly small. The best description of a stance that I applaud came from Paul Stoller, an anthropologist friend, who has been working with a Songhay shaman/healer for more than three decades. Paul visited an introductory class I was teaching at Georgetown in the summer of 1985 and told us something like:

There are two stances one can adopt with respect to the process of research. One is: the more I study, the more I know. The other is: the more I study, the more clearly I see how little I know.

The latter stance is of course the one that rhymes most deeply with my soul. I have kept somewhat track of most of the squibs that I started writing around 1964 – there are now 4700+ on the web ( Squibnet/), in handwritten form, which I want to electronify and index asap. The field of syntax is infinitely immenser than it was when I was a student at the ’Tute, and I am way out of touch with current research. But my (uninformed) opinion is that a tiny fraction of the problems which those squibs of mine thrust in your faces has been looked at in any depth.
And what is depth? I have tried to stay somewhat current in my research on pseudoclefts, and the mystery squibs pour in by the fistful, every time I mess around more with pseudos. Which I take as an encouraging sign. The clarity of my understanding of this huge domain has not kept up with the degree of confusion that I feel about things, the most very basic things. I might wish to escape this bind, but I believe that there is no such thing as a non-illusory escape. I think that any sufficiently deep/broad investigation, of this kind of phenomenon, will end up in the same place. This sort of brings me back to John von Neumann. The squibs are my tether – they keep me from getting lost in the beauty of my (many) pet theories.

I am all for explanations and theories, but I side with Gregory Bateson’s father, William Bateson, a great nineteenth-century biologist – the first to use the term “genetics.” He told Gregory to treasure his exceptions, a stance my blood approves. Bateson, who was one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, when talking of the way he held his mind in his research, says this:

“I want to emphasize that whenever we pride ourselves upon finding a newer, stricter way of thought or exposition; whenever we start insisting too hard upon ‘operationalism’ or symbolic logic or any other of those very essential systems of tramlines, we lose something of the ability to think new thoughts. And equally, of course, whenever we rebel against the sterile rigidity of formal thought and exposition, and let ourselves run wild, we likewise lose. As I see it, the advances in scientific thought come from a combination of loose and strict thinking, and this combination is the most precious tool of science.”

“Experiments in Thinking about Observed Ethnological Material,” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Ballantine Books, New York (1972), pp. 73–75.

I probably err more on the side of letting myself run wild than on that of being overly theoretical. I think that letting go, first of the dream to have clockwork-like rules, and second, of the hubris of thinking that I am getting closer and closer to having all of the basic ducks in a row – abandoning, however wistfully, both of those dreams (or is it really just one single dream?), has been the greatest change in my thinking since I started in the whitewater world of the linguistics department in dear old Building 20 in 1964.
I think that perhaps the most beautiful statement of the stance I wish I could cleave to comes from Thomas Huxley:

“Sit down before fact like a little child, and be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses Nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.”

T. H. Huxley,
quoted in Marilyn Ferguson,
”Karl Pribram’s Changing Reality,” in Ken Wilber (ed.).
The Holographic Paradigm and Other Paradoxes, (1982),
Shambhala, Boulder,
Colorado, p.15-16

The other thing which I have been working on, this time for a mere 33 years, is poetics. I contracted this disease from my great mentor and pal, Roman Jakobson, in around 1965, when I audited his class (which was always called “Crrooshal Prohblims in Leengveestics”). That year it was on Payeteeks. It seems to me that if we want to understand the deepest parts of a language, we should first go to its greatest writers, and look most carefully at all the pyrotechnics that they can pull out of their hat. If we don’t we run the lethal danger of not being able to escape Roman’s lance:

A linguist deaf to the poetic functions of language
and a literary scholar indifferent to linguistics are
equally flagrant anachronisms.

Roman Jakobson
“Closing Statement,”
Style in Language,
Thomas Sebeok (ed.),
MIT Press (1960). p. 377.

Of course we will fail miserably in our attempts to understand their densest writing. But it will be a generous failure, heroic, deep.

It will be great to see you all again!

Peace –


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