Lamb's "non-linearity" vs. Chomsky's "loss of generality"

Response by Sydney Lamb to a post by me asking about Chomsky's objections to the abstraction of phonemes from language data. Funknet discussion list (

> The particular analysis which interests me is one I found in a historical
> retrospective by Fritz Newmeyer and others "Chomsky's 1962 programme for
> linguistics" (in Newmeyer's "Generative Linguistics -- A Historical
> Perspective", Routledge, 1996, and apparently also published in "Proc. of the
> XVth International Congress of Linguists".)
> Newmeyer is talking mostly about Chomsky's "Logical basis of linguistic
> theory" paper (presented at the Ninth Int. Congress of Linguists?) Chomsky's
> argument as he presents it focused largely on phonology, and was
> controversial because it attacked what was at the time "considered a
> fundamental scientific insight: the centrality of the contrastive function of
> linguistic elements." ...According to Newmeyer "part of the
> discussion of phonology in 'LBLT' is directed towards showing that the
> conditions that were supposed to define a phonemic representation (including
> complementary distribution, locally determined biuniqueness, linearity, etc.)
> were inconsistent or incoherent in some cases and led to (or at least
> allowed) absurd analyses in others." Most importantly the interposition of
> such a "phonemic level ... led to a loss of generality in the formulation of
> the rule-governed regularities of the language."
> ...

Chomsky was correct in pointing out that some of the criteria in
use at that time for defining phonemic representations were less
than airtight, but his alternative phonological proposals were
even more faulty. I analyzed every one of his arguments against
the "classical phonemic level" (e.g. the Russian obstruents, the
English vowel length difference before voiced vs. voiceless
syllable-final consonants) and found flaws in every one, some of
them rather eqregious. Conclusion: His arguments about "loss of
generality" are wrong -- every one of them.

For example, perhaps his most celebrated argument concerns the
Russian obstruents. He correctly pointed out that the usual
solution incorporates a loss of generality, but he misdiagnosed
the problem. The problem was the criterion of linearity. He
stubbornly holds on to this criterion, although it really is
faulty, and comes up with a solution for the Russian obstruents
that obscures the phonological structure. I showed (in accounts
cited below) that by relaxing the linearity requirement we get
an elegant solution while preserving "centrality of contrastive
function of linguistic elements".

The errors in Chomsky's arguments (together with defense of
"centrality of contrastive function of linguistic elements")
have been pointed out it a number of publications, including:

Lamb, review of Chomsky .... American Anthropologist
69.411-415 (1967).

Lamb, Prolegomena to a theory of phonology. Language
42.536-573 (1966) (includes analysis of the Russian obstruents
question, as well as a more reasonable critique of the criteria
of classical phonemics).

Lamb and Vanderslice, On thrashing classical phonemics. LACUS
Forum 2.154-163 (1976).

See also the discussion in Lamb, Linguistics to the beat of a
different drummer. First Person Singular III. Benjamins, 1998
(reprinted in Language and Reality, Continuum, 2004).