Geoff Nunberg, the leftwing political activist and linguist who wrote Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show, is upset with me for connecting George Lakoff with his former professor, Noam Chomsky:
Many people assume that there’s some connection between Chomsky’s politics and his linguistics, and a lot of them go on to conclude that linguistics itself is constituitively a leftish discipline. So when Lakoff emerged as an influential political figure, it seemed natural to blur both his politics and his linguistics with Chomsky’s, particularly if for those who didn’t know jack about linguistics. Whatever your political views, it’s a depressing reminder of how widespread the ignorance about the field of linguistics is (not that we exactly needed another one). But then it’s probably asking too much to expect people who find it expedient to conflate Lakoff’s garden-variety liberalism with Chomsky’s anarcho-syndicalism to take the trouble to learn the difference between Chomsky’s minimalism and Lakoff’s cognitive linguistics. Oh well, they have the sense they were born with.
Please. I called Lakoff a “protege” of Chomsky’s because one of the meanings of that word is “pupil”. I’m aware that Lakoff went on to develop his own school of linguistics and a set of political beliefs that differ from Chomsky’s at the margins. But it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Chomsky was the prototype of linguist-cum-lefty-activist, and Lakoff was a student who follows in the master’s footsteps along the broad program while differing in some of the details. Nunberg follows the same (by now) well-worn path, so (naturally) he sees distinctions that don’t matter to civilians. For the record, Lakoff’s linguistics are much less loony than Chomsky’s, but that never was the issue. I’m concerned about the use of the science of linguistics to mislead voters, and on that front Chomsky and Lakoff are strongly aligned.
UPDATE: A more accurate description of Lakoff is “Chomsky wannabe.” When you criticize linguists, be very careful about your terminology as they’ll pick you to death with meaningless distinctions.