A few weeks ago, Barbara Partee relayed a question to me. Russian linguists, in particular Olga Mitrenina and some of her colleagues, wanted to know in what month of 1957 precisely Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures was published. Barbara said that this was a little bit too long ago for even her to know the answer from being there – that was the year she finished high school and started college. Olga said that she wanted to use the anniversary to write an article on Chomsky for a popular Russian magazine. She reports that Chomsky was officially prohibited in the Soviet Union for many years (condemned as an “imperialist”). She tells of an old professor in St. Petersburg who was very enthusiastic about Chomsky’s works in the 1960s and introduced his ideas to students until he was invited to the KGB and was asked to stop “spreading these theories”. Olga now teaches generative grammar at the University of St. Petersburg and says that many people are still very hostile towards Chomsky’s ideas.
OK, so it was a good cause and Google is one’s friend and so here is what I found in an hour of research. Actually, most of what I found is contained in an article by Professor Jan Noordegraaf of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (thanks to Open Access, the article is freely available on the web):
- Noordegraaf, Jan: 2001. “On the Publication Date of Syntactic Structures: A Footnote to Murray (1999)”. Historiographia Linguistica, 28(1-2): 225228.
Noordegraaf cites two remarks by Chomsky on the publication of Syntactic Structures:
In 1956, at the suggestion of Morris Halle, I showed some of my lecture notes for an undergraduate course at MIT to Cornelis van Schooneveld, the editor of the Janua Linguarum series of Mouton and he offered to publish them. A slightly revised version appeared in 1957, under the title Syntactic Structures (SS). (Chomsky 1975 in the preface to LSLT)
At the time Mouton was publishing just about anything, so they decided theyd publish it along with a thousand other worthless things that were coming out. Thats the story of Syntactic Structures: course notes for undergraduate science students published by accident in Europe. (Chomsky in an 1999 interview in Brazil)
In an 1999 article, Stephen O. Murray had stated that Syntactic Structures “was published in November or December 1957”, partially because of information given to him by Cornelis van Schooneveld, the editor of the series. Noordegraaf proceeds to give various pieces of evidence to show that Murray (and van Schooneveld) were mistaken and that in fact, the book appeared in February 1957. The two crucial pieces of information are these:
- In issue 7 of Volume 124 of Nieuwsblad voor de boekhandel, the weekly newspaper for the Dutch booksellers (which in the absence of an official registry of published books is considered the most authoritative source for publication data in the Netherlands), Syntactic Structures is announced on page 129 in the rubric of recently published books; this issue is dated Thursday, February 14th, 1957.
- In a letter to Bernard Bloch (19071965), the editor of Language, on Friday, February 22nd, 1957, Robert B. Lees wrote that Syntactic Structures was “released […] just last week”.
In a reply, Cornelis van Schooneveld confirmed Noordegraaf’s findings:
I accept an earlier date than the one I suggested to Stephen O. Murray of the fall of 1957 and agree that it may have been even February 1957. [van Schooneveld, Cornelius H.: 2001. “A Brief Comment Re Jan Noordergraaf, ‘On the Publication Date of Syntactic Structures’ (HL28:1/2 ), p. 225.” Historiographia Linguistica, 28(3): 468.]
Cornelis van Schooneveld adds this account of the publication of Syntactic Structures:
I heard of the manuscript for the first time from Morris Halle in June 1956. The course of events, as I remember it, was as follows. I arrived from Holland in Cambridge, Mass. late on June 15, 1956 (I always flew to America from Amsterdam on June 14, the day after my father’s birthday, in order to keep my green card valid). The next day I went to see Roman Jakobson in his office on Massachusetts Avenue above the Cambridge (or Harvard?) Trust Bank. That afternoon there were three or four students with him, and Jakobson opened a bottle of very good Bordeaux. Morris Halle, an old friend, dropped by, and talked to me about Chomsky’s manuscript, saying that he thought it would create a revolution in linguistics. I agreed to look at it. I must have received it a few days later. It lay in the longroom of my family-in-law’s Cape Cod house for a month. I read it at that time and came to the conclusion that it was based on distributionalism. I had been a distributionalist myself but had abandoned that approach because I think it creates a circular argument. I had originally conceived the Janua Linguarum as a vehicle for Prague School doctrine, but when I returned to Holland a month later and discussed Syntactic Structures with Mouton’s Director of Publications, Peter de Ridder, the latter persuaded me to make the series into a panel for general discussion, and I agreed to the publishing of the manuscript. The acceptance of Syntactic Structures was a turning point in my editorial policy guiding the Janua Linguarum.
As a final tidbit, here’s a letter from Chomsky to van Schooneveld:
[This comes from an exhibit at the University Library in Leiden, made up of documents from the collection of van Schooneveld.]
So, this month marks the 50th anniversary of Syntactic Structures! And given the date of the relevant volume of the Dutch booksellers’ newsletter, why not declare February 14th, 1957 the official date of publication. Another thing to celebrate with your loved ones next Wednesday.
PS: Noam adds in an email to me just now:
Actually, was not paying that much attention.
I’d tend to trust Bob Lees’s letter to Bloch. He was quite careful. And it seems to accord with the other evidence.
My own recollection – which I don’t trust all that much – is that Cornelis found the course notes on my desk in the office I shared with Morris (who may remember more). And asked if I could write them up for publication in Janua Linguarum – which, in fact, was publishing just about anything in those days; for some reason Dutch publishing was extremely cheap.
So the conclusions look very plausible.