The “linguistic wars”

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In the last two decades a debate developed about the historiography of the so-called “linguistic wars” of the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the fight between “generative semantics” (GS) and “extended standard theory” (EST). This historiographical debate looks as rough as the original “wars” themselves: according to Newmeyer (1986; 1996), the collapse of generative semantics was mainly due to its intrinsic weaknesses, while several other scholars (e.g., Huck & Goldsmith 1995; R.T. Lakoff 1989; Murray 1994) stress sociological reasons for the victory of EST, notably the rhetorical ability and the academic strength of Chomsky and his staunch followers. The aim of this article is to offer an external assessment of the “linguistics wars” based on the evidence provided by an outside observatory: the community of Italian linguists during the 1970s. The article first reviews the recent debate about the “linguistic wars”. Then the Italian reception of both GS and EST is sketched: it is shown that GS was initially preferred, but later abandoned. Since every kind of generative linguistics had very little space in Italian universities at that time (Italian academic linguistics was almost exclusively historically-oriented), sociological factors cannot be assumed to have played any role in this abandonment. Therefore, a not merely sociological explanation for the “victory” of EST over GS has to be found.


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