So I was reading about the academic careers of different linguists and I read about how Noam Chomsky wrote this incredibly impressive-sounding and fairly intellectually novel paper for his undergrad thesis, and I was just like…how did he do that?? Like, just come up with an original thing during your undergrad and have it not be completely stupid and wrong?
And I realized: Here I had a choice to either abdicate any sense of ambition and just throw up my hands and say “He’s just inherently a genius!” or I could view it in a different way - that Chomsky had this idea in his head, an interesting idea of the kind we all get at times, but instead of just sitting there and wondering about it he actually wrote it down and set out to tame it and systematize it. There is absolutely nothing stopping me from actually trying to formally articulate the various pet theories that pop into my head.
But, of course, Chomsky’s undergraduate thesis didn’t just leap fully-formed from his forehead - Chomsky was introduced to the notion of transformational structure in language by his advisor, Zellig Harris, and in order to write his undergrad thesis he read the works of Nelson Goodman, W.V.O. Quine, and Rudolf Carnap. It would seem that he did more in his undergrad than show up 5 minutes late to class, cram for exams, and meet with his advisor once a year. I could have closely studied the work of my advisor and read on my own time to to gain a thorough understanding of relevant theories - if I’d had a sense of where my intellectual passions lied, which I didn’t really then but I think I do now.
However, I also have this sense of doubt - is it really possible to do today the kind of groundbreaking work that Chomsky, or, say, Boas or Sapir did? Given how specialized, formalized, and saturated linguistics or any other scientific field is today? How can you come up with an original idea when it turns out probably 50 other people wrote about it and proved it wrong already? I have always been taught, and have always gotten the impression, that research is a painstakingly piecemeal process - a given paper will likely only cover one extremely tiny narrowly-tailored experiment or subject. Even a dissertation will be very highly specialized, for all its length. So how is it possible to write something both large and innovative all in one go, like Chomsky’s undergrad thesis - let alone his landmark work Syntactic Structures?
But then, I also realized - I myself did write a kind of undergrad thesis, my senior capstone. And it actually came about via the process I described above. This crazy idea popped into my head - I read that we know Basque was once spoken in the Val d’Aran because Aran comes from the Basque ‘haran’. So what if I mapped all the place names in the US that originate from Native American languages in order to make a more accurate picture of the historical distribution of those languages? And then I actually started working on it. I started working on it before it even became my senior capstone topic, in fact.
And, indeed, the process I went through looked rather like what Chomsky did. Or it would have looked more like it if I’d been in a better position. It was my senior capstone for my degree in Geographic Information Science, and nobody in the geography department knew anything about historical linguistics. Nonetheless I read relevant sources and literature - a couple of works by Lyle Campbell were most helpful to me; I also read some stuff by Ante Aikio and Hildegard Tristram. I had to use secondary and tertiary sources to obtain the place names; works by William Bright and Michael McCafferty were what I used.
But my use of existing literature was nonetheless very weak. I didn’t know where to look or who to read. I hardly knew anyone in the linguistics department and I don’t know if anyone could’ve helped me with that topic in any case. Lastly, my methodology sucked. I used a particular type of spatial analysis, but it was very unsophisticated, almost tautological, in fact. I did well in my GIS classes, getting all As and Bs, but by my senior year, I realized that I wasn’t really enjoying GIS and put in a perfunctory amount of effort. My familiarity with and ability to use relevant methods in my capstone consequently suffered.
And so I turned in my senior capstone, *ahem* Mapping Native American Toponyms in Ohio. As far as I know, there has still been no effort to map and analyze (spatially and otherwise) the overall distribution of English place names of Native American origin in the United States (props to William Bright for putting a ton of them all in one book, though). Thus, it’s certainly possible that had I known for sure that I wanted to go into linguistics, and put in tons of time reading relevant literature and theories more than just a couple months beforehand, I could have produced something as thorough and forward-thinking as Chomsky’s undergrad thesis.
So, while there may be greater limits on just how expansive a given work of literature can be due to the nature of modern academia, after thinking about this, I think I’ve realized that in many ways the only barrier preventing me from producing a large scholarly work is my own feeling of “How do you do that??” You do it by talking to people and listening to their ideas, writing your ideas down when you get them, seeking out literature relevant to your ideas when you think of them, and taking notes on any works that support, contradict, or otherwise speak to your idea. I.e. reading not just for fun, but with intention. And by making occasional attempts to codify your notes into something formal and coherent.