At a tearful news conference during the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, Allen Prince confessed that Optimality Theory was a hoax. “I just can’t live with the lies any longer,” he said.
The admission follows years of accusations by linguists who doubted that OT actually existed. The drumbeat of suspicions grew louder, but both Prince and his collaborator Paul Smolensky steadfastly maintained not only that they had created OT but that in fact a large number of practicing linguists were employing the theory in their professional work.
OT, Prince explained, was originally intended to be a practical joke on some phonologist colleagues. “Someone took it seriously, and it just snowballed,” he said. “We never imagined people would believe there was an actual theory.”
Within a few years, most practicing phonologists claimed to be OT disciples, even though it now turns out that there was no actual theory for them to follow.
“Eventually it just became too implausible, and I had to speak out,” said John McCarthy, who in 2007 became the first supposed OT user to admit publicly that OT did not exist. Other linguists followed suit, but Prince and Smolensky responded to each public announcement with firm assertions that it was not fiction.
Prince, however, found the burden increasingly difficult to bear. “By the end of 2011, Paul and I could see that the end was in sight,” he said. “Too many people had spoken out, and it was becoming impossible to keep up the façade. This past year has been intolerable, but I couldn’t bring myself to go public until now.”
Ellen Kaisse, co-editor of the specialist journal Phonology, issued a statement at the news conference: “We at Phonology are taking this situation very seriously. We are currently studying back issues of our journal to determine whether any elements of the so-called ‘Optimality Theory’ may have inadvertently been included by our contributors.”
Smolensky, who did not attend the news conference and did not return multiple phone calls, finally responded to SpecGram inquiries only with an e-mail: “Just leave me alone.”
Keren Rice, outgoing president of the Linguistic Society of America, said in a statement “The LSA deeply regrets the ‘OT’ hoax which has been perpetrated on the linguistic community. We are working diligently to assure that nothing of this nature will happen in the future.”
“I’m sorry,” Prince said at the news conference, “very, very sorry.”