Book Review: Tomalin; Linguistics and the formal sciences

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Review: Tomalin, Marcus (2006). Linguistics and the formal sciences : the origins of generative grammar. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (ISBN: 978-0-521-85481-8), 233 pp.

This well-written book covers a — self-professed — neglected area in linguistics historiography: the theoretical and academic backdrop to the development of generative grammar. This task is performed well, and Tomalin provides a surprisingly entertaining account of what influences — as attested in the literature — were present in the formative days of generative grammar.

Tomalin avoids off-topic digression — discussing only the earliest period of generative grammar’s development; he also avoids the polemic that often characterizes this kind of work, settling on a tone that presents an even-handed appraisal of Chomsky’s early work and influences.

Focussing primarily on how developments in formal sciences in the twentieth century influenced linguistics, Tomalin provides insight into how and why generative grammar developed in the way it did. These insights are based on what literature Chomsky can be proved to have been using, and those that he himself has claimed as influential for the theory.

Of particular interest to linguists is the fact that a large portion of this book treats foundational issues in mathematics (i.e. how simple functions are derived, and how complex functions derive in turn from these). The reasoning behind this extensive discussion is that the formal sciences — and especially mathematics — underwent a period of turmoil in the early twentieth century, and it is from these sciences that generative grammar takes much of its form. Naturally, the turmoil that affected the formal sciences also affect those sciences that are formed in the mould of these sciences. Foundational issues and weaknesses arising from accepted foundations of mathematics — for example in relation to the derivation of recursion — are especially relevant to syntactic theory. Tomalin shows that an understanding of such weaknesses made Chomsky change the way he viewed the study of language, at the same time as bringing these issues back to life as the cause of some of the problems experienced in syntactic theory today.

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2 Responses to “Book Review: Tomalin; Linguistics and the formal sciences”

  1. Bahrom Says:

    Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I am an electronics engineer turned software engineer turned linguist- so I’m interested in reading about the relationship between linguistics and mathematics. I’m studying linguistics at the University of Oregon where Chomsky is viewed a bit like Darth Vader, and formal generative linguistics like the evil Empire. So, it would do me good to read a bit more about his theory. Even if we (at the UO) think he is wrong, we certainly can’t ignore his work since it has had such a prfound impact on the field of linguistics.

  2. brinxmat Says:

    I really cannot recommend this book too highly for people who are technically oriented — so this book would certainly suit someone with your background very well.

    You’re right, of course, Chomsky is often viewed in a very polarized way — either hero or villain — but Tomalin’s book, as I say in the review — puts a rather different swing on things. I believe that the only real mistake you can make is to ignore Chomsky’s influence; the whole of linguistics is thoroughly permeated by his thinking.

    For further reading on ‘non-Chomskian perspectives’, another good book is Fred C. C. Peng’s Language in the Brain: critical assessments. Although filled with polemic and not as well written as Tomalin’s book, it is equally entertaining and thought provoking. It also tries to debunk the myth that we actually have a clue about anything, which can only be good.

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