Sydney M. Lamb: Autobiographical Sketch


"Linguistics to the Beat of a Different Drummer"

A Chapter in: Konrad Koerner (ed), First Person Singular III
A collection of autobiographical sketches of linguists, the third volume of a series

Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1998.

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Opening paragraphs:

"This above all: to thine own self be true" (Hamlet I, iii)

1. Background.
    Maybe there is a bit of appetite for risk and adventure in my genes. My grandfather moved with his young wife and baby boy (my father) from Illinois to Denver, then a little frontier town, in about 1889. His father as a young man had moved from England to Illinois. My mother's father moved with his wife and four children from Scotland to Colorado in about 1910. From Scotland to Colorado? Well, he had a second cousin who had moved to Colorado and had said it was a nice place. My parents, on the other hand, didn't move --- they stayed in Denver. But, hey, why go somewhere else if you're already in paradise? (But then I did leave: there is no Yale in Colorado.)
     Douglas Chretien, one of my teachers at the University of California, who adopted a fatherly role toward me and gave me advice from time to time, told me one day that I had a problem I needed to work on --- I was always "doing something else". He was right; but I kept on doing "something else" despite his advice. As a graduate student in linguistics, I was always auditing courses in other departments. During the seventies I got interested in electronics, in the possibility of devising an electronic implementation of my relational networks, as a means of making computers more like the human brain; and I left my job as a tenured professor at Yale to start my own electronics firm, Semionics Associates, to develop my invention. I was brought back into linguistics by Jim Copeland of Rice in 1980 just at the right time, as I was then in negotiations to sell the invention to another company. The period from 1992 to 1995 was my singer-songwriter period. I wrote about thirty songs, two or three of them actually pretty good ones, and did a little semi-professional performing.
     I mention the roving and adventurous side of my mentality (further examples below) because it has been an important factor in my explorations of Language. My view of Language and my way of examining it differ from those of just about everybody else. But that doesn't make them wildly distorted. On the contrary, I have uncovered some secrets of language and how it works that have remained hidden to those marching to the beats of more readily audible drums --- so well hidden that they remain so even after my repeated attempts to explain. I am inclined to conclude that a mind with a penchant for adventure can be helpful in theoretical investigation. Mine has enhanced my creativity and my ability to see patterns not visible from conventional viewing platforms.
     That I was marching in the linguistics parade to the beat of a different drummer has been clear all along. In the fifties I was the only one among the graduate students and faculty at Berkeley who defended Morris Swadesh against the ubiquitous criticism that he was proposing genetic relationships among groups of American Indian languages without first subjecting them to the rigors of the comparative method (shocking!), and while most were still using the Powell classification, I conjectured that all the native North American languages except Na-Dene and Eskimo-Aleut were probably genetically related (Lamb 1959). In the sixties, when linguists were flocking to the bandwagon of transformational grammar, I criticized it (Lamb 1967, 1968) and proposed an alternative theory (see below). In the seventies I plunged doggedly ahead with my relational network theory of linguistic structure even though its major manifesto (Lamb 1966d) had been denounced by critics and I was no longer receiving invitations to give lectures. In the eighties I defended Joseph Greenberg (Lamb 1987) against the multitudes rallying to the cry that the classification presented in his Language in the Americas "must be shouted down". Now in the nineties I am part of a tiny minority proposing that linguistics needs to get in touch with biological reality by testing theories against what is known about the brain from neuroscience (Lamb in press).
     My views on linguistic issues often turn out differently from others not out of impudence or depravity but out of honesty. Given a choice between adopting the views of the group and being true to my own mind, I always opt for the latter. To me it is unfortunate that there are so many in academic life who take the other path when they encounter that fork in the road, but I do understand it. I have talked with graduate students and younger colleagues about it, and they say that in order to get the Ph.D. they have to go along with what their professors are teaching; then in order to get a job they have to go along with the prevailing views of the influential people in the profession, and to get promoted they have to go along with the views of the senior faculty. That's okay for those who feel they have to do that, I guess. I don't condemn them. But I could never do that.
     So it is these days, for example, in historical linguistics. The in-group says you can't accept any proposal of a genetic relationship among languages unless it has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt; and this just about precludes accepting any proposal of a distant relationship. These are people, I guess, who don't take their umbrellas or rain coats to work when the weatherman says there is a 70% chance of rain; it would have to be 100%. I defended Swadesh and I now defend Greenberg because to me, perhaps under the influence of my knowledge of physical science, it makes more sense to operate at any time with the most likely working hypothesis, even though that hypothesis may turn out to need revising when further evidence comes in. If biologists and physicists held out for 100% proof before adopting a working hypothesis (in which case it would not be a working hypothesis after all, would it?), they would never have made the progress we have seen during the past two hundred years (see also Lamb 1991).
     In short, I believe what I believe because I really believe it, not because I am trying to be different, and I assure you that it's not because I am some kind of bad guy. On the contrary, I am as gentle a soul as you are likely to find anywhere.
     A characteristic of those who opt for going along with the group instead of thinking for themselves is that they tend to convince themselves that they actually agree with the party line, and then they feel that those who disagree are not just in honest disagreement but somehow immoral or evil. One sees such feelings among historical linguists when they talk about Greenberg. Similarly, back in the sixties after I pointed out some mistakes in Chomsky's thinking (Lamb 1967, 1968), I became a bad guy. Students of that period were discouraged from paying attention to my work (so I have heard from the lips of one of them, now a leading professor in the field). Later, after obtaining a safe tenured position, when they came to the conclusion on their own that Chomsky had indeed been mistaken, they nevertheless retained the belief that I was a bad guy, whose writings should be disregarded.

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