Toward a history of American Linguistics

Journal Article (Review)

Toward a history of American linguistics. By E. F. K. KOERNER. (Routledge studies in the history of linguistics.) London: Routledge, 2002. Pp. x, 315. ISBN 0415300606. $155 (Hb). Reviewed by JULIE TETELANDRESEN, Duke University E. F. K. (Konrad) Koerner is not only one of the premier linguistic historiographers in the world, but he has also been one of the prime movers in helping to establish over the past thirtyfive years an international community of scholars devoted to the practice of reading the historical record of linguistics. Because the present volume gathers together mostly previously published and now updated articles on one (but not the only) of K’s long-standing interests, those who are interested either in the development of K’s thought or in the history of American linguistics will be greatly satisfied. The subject matter ranges from ‘American structuralist linguistics and the “problem of meaning” ’ (Ch. 5, first published in 1970) to ‘On the sources of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis’ (Ch. 3, first published in 1992), as well as to ‘William Labov and the origins of socio - linguistics in America’ (Ch. 10, first published in 1991). K also covers quite a bit of territory in between, meaning that much attention is given to the work and influence of Noam Chomsky. The ten chapters are well selected and well organized to give readers a solid narrative of American linguistics with an emphasis on the twentieth century. The volume’s coherence is further assured by the addition of two chapters with no published predecessors, namely ‘On the rise and fall of generative semantics’ (Ch. 6) and ‘On the origins of morphophonemics in American linguistics’ (Ch. 9), and by an appropriate introductory chapter, ‘The historiography of American linguistics’. The last chapter, ‘In lieu of a conclusion: On the importance of the history of linguistics’, should be read by all students of linguistics if only to learn where the concepts of ‘mark’ and ‘markedness’ and of ‘drag chain’ and ‘push chain’ come from (hint: not from Chomsky for the former pair and not from Labov for the latter; see p. 289). In always gentle and gentlemanly terms, K encourages linguists to know something about the history of their discipline in order to give their work depth and perspective, not to mention accuracy. K’s work can best be described as thorough and meticulous. When K is interested to investigate Chomsky’s reading of Ferdinand de Saussure (Ch. 7, first published in 1994), he reads everything, and I do mean everything, including the mimeographed version of Chomsky’s The logical structure of linguistic theory (1955/1956) and his eighty-five-page contribution to the Handbook of mathematical psychology entitled ‘Formal properties of grammars’ (1963), hardly a commonplace reference. Similarly, in ‘The “Chomskyan revolution” and its historiography’ (Ch. 8, first published in 1983), K does not overlook Chomsky’s unpublished M.A. thesis, ‘Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew’ (1951; see n. 5 on p. 215 where K describes his failed attempt to track down Chomsky’s undergraduate essay that Chomsky has evidently claimed to be the source of his M.A. thesis). This is to point out that, for whatever subject he is working on, K comprehensively reads the primary works both published and unpublished, tracks down sources, sifts through footnotes, compares varying versions and editions of published work, reads the relevant correspondence and other archival materials, and generally dots the i’s. One such (almost throwaway) example is his remark to the effect that the mistaken date of 1915 given for Saussure’s Cours by Leonard Bloomfield in his 1933 Language has served as the source for later, usually North American, copyists (70–71). K’s thoroughness and meticulousness serve him well in achieving the goal of his historiography, which is, as he says at the beginning, a return to ‘(mere) history writing’, as opposed to the more recent use of the term to mean a ‘principled accounting of past developments and activities’ (2). That is to say that, for K, the historian should stand at a certain distance from his subject, should have no personal stake in the outcome of his research, and should be motivated ‘by a desire to set the record straight’ (154). He identifies one of his guiding lights to be the nineteenthcentury historian Leopold von Ranke, who is well known to have written that ‘history is neither supposed to judge the past nor instruct the present on how to act for the benefit of the future, but to depict how things really happened’ (155; with characteristic thoroughness K adds a footnote to give the full context of Ranke’s quote in German and the proper reference). With regard to the last 86110.qxd:LSA 1/2/10 4:18 PM Page 1 fifty years and the assessment of Chomsky’s place in the overall context of American linguistics, K certainly has his work cut out for him, given the amount and kind of commentary about that place that has come from within Chomsky’s own circle of admirers and supporters. K is more than up to the job of pinning down who said what when and where and of providing linguists interested in the historical record with a whistle-clean version of ‘what did X, Y, or Z know and when did (t)he(y) know it?’. Beyond that, K lets the record speak for itself, deeming it ‘safer to let the reader reach his own conclusions, rather than trying to impose a particular interpretation’ (153). An interesting case in point is K’s Ch. 9, ‘On the origins of morphophonemics in American linguistics’, which, among other things, traces the concept of ordered rules. One of K’s goals is to determine to what extent Chomsky’s 1951 M.A. thesis and then his subsequent work was—or was not—influenced by Bloomfield’s ten-page ‘Menomini morphophonemics’, which appeared in Travaux du cercle linguistique de Prague 8 in 1939. The story crucially involves Chomsky’s supervisor Zellig Harris, whose Methods in structural linguistics (1951), which had been circulating in manuscript form since 1946, contains a section entitled ‘Morphophonemics’. That Chomsky knew of Harris’s Methods before 1951 is clear, since K notes at the outset that Harris thanks Chomsky in his preface for helping with the proofs (210). K’s story may start there (case closed: even if Chomsky never read Bloomfield’s paper, he would have absorbed the essentials of Bloomfield’s ideas about rule ordering through Harris’s work), but it does not end there. K’s main goal in Ch. 9 is to unravel what he calls the counter-history that has been woven over the decades about Chomsky’s supposed originality with respect to rule ordering, and which includes Chomsky’s repeated assertions about his ignorance of Bloomfield’s article. For instance: ‘It is rather astonishing’, K quotes Chomsky as saying in a letter to Frederick Newmeyer in 1988, ‘that no one at Penn suggested to me that I look at the Bloomfield article’ (241). Another instance: a pair of Chomsky’s supporters writing in 1989 claim that Bloomfield’s ‘article was so unknown in America that Chomsky tells us that he had not read “Menomini morphophonemics” until his attention was drawn to it by Halle in the late 1950s’ (237; in a footnote K notes that the claim emanates from Chomsky himself and does not appear to be based on the writers’ independent research). K identifies the 9th International Congress of Linguistics held in Cambridge, MA, in August 1962 as the decisive event, ‘ably prepared and effectively run’ by Morris Halle, where the strategy had become ‘to sell Chomsky’s ideas as having little to do with the linguistics of his American teachers and predecessors … [such that] … connections with the work of Chomsky’s immediate predecessors had to be minimized, if not erased’ (234). It was after this event that the story of the noncumulative, that is, so-called revolutionary, nature of generative linguistics took shape and took hold and has now been reproduced in textbooks and historical accounts to such an extent that ‘this concoction has become accepted as historical fact by many followers’ (235). The way K sees it, by contrast, American linguistics during the 1940s and 1950s involved more evolution than revolution. His point, however, is not to chastize Chomsky—or anyone else—for distorting the historical record. In fact, he goes so far as to say that ‘it appears to me that Chomsky is at least doing what most of us do, and more often than not unconsciously, namely to reinterpret our own past as we grow older, while at the same time our memory of this past has become much less reliable than we may believe it to be’ (244). This is the point of K’s historiography: to let the record speak for itself rather than any one individual (or group of individuals) at any particular stage in a career or a theoretical moment, so that the reader may draw his own conclusions. One of the conclusions I draw from this episode is that Chomsky, in disavowing influences from immediate predecessors, is making a bid for originality that supports the further formalist tenet that utterances (and, by extension, entire theories) are unconditioned, in the behaviorist sense of the term, by immediate circumstance. This brings me to K’s longest and most thoughtful chapter, ‘The “Chomskyan revolution” and its historiography’, which, due to the preceding discussion, is easy to summarize as involving more evolution than revolution, depending on how one defines ‘revolution’. That there was a rhetorical revolution is not in doubt. But K puts in great doubt whether there was one in the Kuhnian sense of incommensurability of theoretical views about language, despite Chomsky’s repeated claims that he was not understood by his older colleagues during the 1950s (187). Given 2 LANGUAGE, VOLUME 86, NUMBER 1 (2010) 86110.qxd:LSA 1/2/10 4:18 PM Page 2 the vantage point of 2010, it does not seem particularly fruitful to me to wonder, as James Mc- Cawley did several decades ago already, whether, if indeed there was a paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense, then it was with Aspects of the theory of syntax (1965) rather than with Syntactic structures (1957) (see p. 190). Rather, it seems better now to historicize Kuhn, whose The structure of scientific revolutions (1962) was called a ‘sensationally successful book’ by Yakov Malkiel in 1969 (157–58). Forty years later, these post-Chomskyan times now call for a different historiographic model. Let me suggest Ludwik Fleck’s Genesis and development of a scientific fact (1979), first published in German in 1935 and with a foreword by Thomas Kuhn in the En - glish edition. Fleck’s understanding of the socially conditioned nature of cognition and his attention to the microdynamics of a developing science—particularly one as heterogeneous and interdisciplinary as linguistics has become—seems to me more of the moment than Kuhn; and please do note the differences between Kuhn’s title and Fleck’s. Unlike Kuhn, Fleck does not invoke radical discontinuities, so-called revolutions, in his accounts of intellectual history. Rather, he writes: ‘it is altogether unwise to proclaim any such stylized viewpoint [e.g. generative grammar— JTA], acknowledged and used to advantage by an entire thought collective as “truth or error”. Some views advanced knowledge and gave satisfaction. These were overtaken not because they were wrong but because thought develops’ (1979:64). So, thought developed from the Bloomfieldians to the Chomskyans, and now it has developed well beyond the Chomskyans. I think K would agree. And as we move on, it is good to know what we have moved on from. We have K to thank for setting the record straight. REFERENCES BLOOMFIELD, LEONARD. 1933. Language. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. BLOOMFIELD, LEONARD. 1939. Menomini morphophonemics. Études phonologiques dédiées à la mémoire de N. S. Trubetzkoy (Travaux du cercle linguistique de Prague 8), 105–15. Prague: Cercle Linguistique de Prague. CHOMSKY, NOAM. 1951. Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania M.A. thesis. [Facsimile printing of original typescript, New York: Garland, 1979.] CHOMSKY, NOAM. 1955/1956. The logical structure of linguistic theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [Parts revised during 1956.] CHOMSKY, NOAM. 1957. Syntactic structures. Berlin: Mouton. CHOMSKY, NOAM. 1963. Formal properties of grammars. Handbook of mathematical psychology, vol. 2, ed. by R. Duncan Luce, Robert R. Bush, and Eugene Galanter, 323–418. New York: John Wiley & Sons. CHOMSKY, NOAM. 1965. Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. FLECK, LUDWIK. 1979. Genesis and development of a scientific fact. Foreword by Thomas Kuhn, trans. by Fred Bradley and Thaddeus Trenn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [Originally published as Entstehung und Entwicklung einer wissenschaftlichen Tatsache: Einführung in die Lehre vom Denkstil und Denkkollektiv, Basel: Benno Schwabe & Co., 1935.] HARRIS, ZELLIG. 1951 [1947]. Methods of structural linguistics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. KUHN, THOMAS. 1962. The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Program in Linguistics Duke University 307 Allen Building Box 90015 Durham, NC 27708 []

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Tetel, JA

Published Date

  • 2010

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  • Language

Volume / Issue

  • 86 /


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