Document 5

History of linguistics II

Author(s): Prof Christian Kay

Copyright holder(s): University of Glasgow: Copyright © 2004 The University of Glasgow. All rights reserved.


As we heard last week, linguists in the 19thc were primarily concerned with historical linguistics and with the formulation of laws explaining sound changes and the connexions between languages. As we move towards the 20thc, we see interest shifting towards modern languages, and through that towards general theories of language. At the same time we see linguists turning towards other disciplines, most notably philosophy, for new ideas and ways of proceeding.

Who was the Father of Linguistics?

I thought of calling this lecture “Who was the Father of Linguistics?” There are several candidates for this position – the one you find may depend on which textbook you read.

Franz Boas (1858-1942) born and educated in Germany, but spent most of his professional life in the USA. He was primarily an anthropologist, who worked on American Indian languages (Amerindian). Saw anthropology as a human science. Language as one of the key factors which defines a community. He was motivated partly by interest and partly by a realisation that these languages were rapidly disappearing. Like many American linguists who came after him, he was primarily interested in descriptive linguistics - describing what goes on in a language. Practical rather than philosophical standpoint. What he needed was a set of linguistic tools with which he could describe and record the sounds, grammar and vocabulary of totally strange languages.

And the languages he encountered were certainly strange. European linguists had generally worked on relatively familiar languages like French, Spanish, German, where you always had some clues available from your own language. With the Amerindian languages there were no such clues. Several generations of US linguists worked on these languages, especially for PhD dissertations. Even when you had sussed out the basics of the language, you were still up against the fact that its categories might not match those of European languages. Early linguists were sometimes misled by this. They assumed that some things were so obvious and common to all humanity, that you must be able to translate them into any language. Everyone, surely, had a mother and a father, so those were words to look out for. But not so:

This led to various calumnies being spread around. If tribe x had no word for father, then perhaps they were so promiscuous that they didn’t know who their fathers were? Not so – they simply encoded the basic human relationships differently.

Boas’s lasting monument is his “Handbook of American Indian Languages” (1910). Many contributions organised by Boas. Introduction still worth reading - lasting quality not true of some modern linguistics.

However, he also had a memorial in the careers of his students. Linguists seem to form very strong bonds down the generations, often forming into schools based on the work of a founding father. Hence, perhaps, the competition to be the father of linguistics. Alternatively, they fall out and form factions, as later American linguists increasingly did. If you want to know how nasty academics can be to one another, read The Linguistics Wars by Randy Allen Harris.

Boas’s main heirs included his pupil Edward Sapir (1884-1939), who carried forward the interest in the relationship between language and culture. He wrote a textbook on linguistics which is still worth reading today, Language (1921). Sapir’s pupil was Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897 – 1941). He was almost a contemporary of Sapir’s but came into linguistics as a mature student after a blameless career as a fire-inspector, where he became interested in how people used language when making insurance claims - decided that their behaviour was actually influenced by language. For example ‘empty’ petrol drum, full of dangerous vapours, but classed as ‘empty’ therefore OK to throw cigarette butt into it. Moved on from there to study Amerindian languages especially a tribe called the Hopi in the mid-west.
Between them these two are responsible for what is nowadays called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which attempts to formulate the language-culture relationship.

Leonard Bloomfield (1887-1969), Language, 1933, 500+ pages

Also a candidate for the title, though a bit young for it. However, he more than anyone else set American linguistics on its course for the next 30 years or so. Vast and very influential book offering an exhaustive treatment of phonetics and phonology, morphology, grammar and syntax (but not semantics, where he only managed 19 pp, mainly on diachronic semantics). His approach is often referred to as American structuralism, as opposed to the European version which we’ll come to in a minute.

Believed strongly that linguistics was a science, a view which was very influential until quite recently. If it was a science, linguistics could only deal with data that could be observed objectively, and with experiments whose results could be verified by other scientists - cut out semantics pretty thoroughly.

Charles C. Fries, The Structure of English, 1952. A mention for a rather neglected figure: one of the first to use methods that have become associated with corpus linguistics. Collected a corpus of data and tried to work out the parts of speech from scratch.

Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913).

Course in General Linguistics (1916)

At around the same time, another candidate for the Fathership of Linguistics was starting up in Europe. Saussure was a Professor in Geneva, spent most of his life there. He trained as a historical linguist; most of his published work in this category. Towards the end of his life, began to give lectures on general linguistics. Was urged to publish, but kept saying he was too busy. After his death, his students put together the book from his and their lecture notes - you may be writing for posterity!

Saussure had a knack for oppositions. We owe to him the formulation of contrasts such as synchronic/diachronic, paradigmatic/syntagmatic, langue/parole. We also owe to him the notion of language as structure, and indeed structuralism as a model in all sorts of areas such as criticism and film can be traced back to Saussure.

From the point of view of linguistics, the key distinction is that between langue and parole: loosely translated as language and speech. In this a contrast is made between langue, the idealised form of language which we all know and refer to but do not necessarily produce, and parole, the actual imperfect utterances of a language. This contrast between real and ideal, perfect and imperfect has formed a working model for a good deal of linguistic work.

The Prague School
Vilém Mathesius (1882-1945)

Another possible candidate for the title, though less well known. Worked in the Caroline University of Prague. In 1926, started the Prague Linguistic Circle, which met regularly to discuss matters linguistic. Their main theoretical thrust is usually described as functionalism – they were interested not so much in the actual structures of language but in its purpose – what is language doing. This notion ought to be familiar to you, since a functionalist approach has influenced work in Britain and is prevalent in this department. Its influence can be seen not only in the study of grammar but in more recent fields such as Stylistics and Discourse Analysis, where we are always asking the question “Why is this form used”? (invented theme/rheme, functional sentence perspective).

His most romantic pupil: Prince Nikolai Sergeyevick Trubetskoy (1890 – 1938), the only member of a royal family as a far as I know to take up linguistics. He escaped from the Russian Revolution, and ended up in Vienna, where he corresponded with the Prague Circle and wrote Principles of Phonology, in which he elaborated distinctive feature analysis, e.g. /f, v/ distinguished by the feature of voicing. He was less long-lived than most of the others – died young as a result of interrogation by the Gestapo.

The London School
So far I haven’t said much about what was happening here in Britain – it has to be admitted that the British contribution to theoretical linguistics in the early days was pretty slight. Partly this seems to be because we are more attracted to the practical than the theoretical: while the Europeans were working away at sound change laws, we were slaving over things like the OED. However, there are some notable developments. Perhaps because of the predilection for the practical, early British contributions were in the fields of phonetics and phonology. Already mentioned last week, but worth another mention, one of the pioneers in this area, Henry Sweet (1845-1912). His successors included Daniel Jones (1881-1967), notable for the development of the cardinal vowel chart and the concept of the phoneme (although Saussure seems to have invented it). He was a member of the Phonetics Department at University College London, founded in 1907, and indeed the first appointment in this area (appointed to teach Phonetics to students of French). The honour of having the first actual linguistics department goes to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), also at the University of London, founded in 1932 – which gives you an idea of what a relatively new subject this is. The School was founded by the government in 1916 in order to study the languages and cultures of the British Empire, as it then was. As Geoffrey Sampson rather nicely puts it: “The British Empire was to the London School what the American Indian was to the American Descriptivists” (214). Thus there is also a tradition in this country of people being exposed to strange languages. However there is an important difference: on the whole these languages were not threatened with extinction; some of them, such as the languages of the Indian sub-continent were, and remain, major world languages. However, they were languages which were facing great cultural change, and which required linguists to work out writing systems, produce dictionaries and grammar, advise on plans for language development. Often too, as in America, there was a religious motivation: to translate the Bible into these languages as a preliminary to converting their speakers to Christianity.

The linguists that emerged from this situation had a strong interest in the sociological and cultural aspects of language. Chief among them:

J.R.R. Firth (1890-1960).
The Tongues of Men, 1937.

He worked for 10 years in India before joining SOAS in 1938 and becoming the first Professor of General Linguistics in Britain. A lot of his work was in phonetics, especially in theories of prosody, but he also worked out a theory of context, embracing everything from the immediate text to the widest cultural context: all these he considered essential to the interpretation of language. Although he probably hasn’t had the recognition he deserved, he influenced the next generation of British linguists, notably M.A.K. Halliday (1925--), who developed systemic-functional grammar, combining elements of the Firthian and European Functional approaches. If you did Level 2 last year, that was the kind of grammar you used in The Language of Power.

Noam Chomsky (1928--)
Syntactic Structures (1957)

So we’ve now reached the 1950’s, where everyone was beavering away, working out rules and paradigms for this and that language. Into this placid scene burst a young American, Noam Chomsky, with some revolutionary ideas. Chomsky was not interested in data, nor in the minutiae of the workings of actual languages. Instead, he was looking for grand theoretical ideas which would explain the nature of language.

Chomsky's declared aim in his influential first book, Syntactic Structures (1957), was to produce a set of rules which generate the grammatical sentences of the language while excluding the ungrammatical ones. He writes:

‘Notice that in order to set the aims of grammar significantly it is sufficient to assume a partial knowledge of sentences and non-sentences. That is, we may assume for this discussion that certain sequences of phonemes are definitely sentences, and that certain other sequences are definitely non-sentences. In many intermediate cases we shall be prepared to let the grammar itself decide, when the grammar is set up in the simplest way so that it includes the clear sentences and excludes the clear non-sentences. This is a familiar feature of explication. A certain number of clear cases, then, will provide us with a criterion of adequacy for any particular grammar.’ (13-14)

The key phrase is the one I’ve underlined: the role of a grammar was to generate correct sentences of the language (any language, not just English), and to exclude the ungrammatical ones. Hence this type of grammar is known as generative. It’s also sometimes known as transformational or transformational-generative, because of the way in which Chomsky saw grammatical elements being transformed by the application of rules until they formed acceptable sentences.

Like Saussure, Chomsky used some effective contrasts:
deep surface/surface structure, to explain the relationship between the language we actually hear and the underlying elements from which sentences are formed; Thus an ambiguous sentence like:

MAN WANTED TO KILL QUEEN is said to derive from two different deep structures. Conversely the pair “Man killed Queen” and “Queen was killed by man” are said to be two different surface structures deriving from the same deep structure.

He also adopted an opposition made by the American sociolinguist Dell Hymes, who distinguished competence, our underlying idealised knowledge of the language, from performance, the language we actually produce. Very similar to Saussure’s Langue and Parole.

Most controversially, he posited the Language Acquisition Device (LAD), a hypothetical inbuilt cognitive capacity which enables any normal human child to learn a language; somewhat under attack, esp. as a result of the growing recognition of the abilities of other primates.

Chomsky has inspired many followers and numerous sub-schools of his approach. Still the most widespread linguistic theory, esp. in the U.S. Has also spread into the other two main branches of language study:
Generative Phonology (Morris Halle)
Generative Semantics (George Lakoff; now moved on)

Cognitive Linguistics
Many other developments in the 20th C – most notably the development of new branches of linguistics, often linking linguistics with another discipline – sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, pragmatics (philosophy) etc. Also a new theory of linguistics rapidly gaining ground in semantics and grammar, cognitive linguistics. Grounded in Psychology, in the notion that a theory of language ought to be based on observation of the mental processes used by speakers. Thus, as with Chomsky, moving from the analysis of data to a combination of introspection and, in this case, psychological testing. Names such as Ronald Langacker (grammar), George Lakoff (semantics). In grammar draws on another grammatical theory which at one time looked like being a rival to Chomsky: Charles C. Fillmore, The Case for Case (1968).

All this still being worked out. Who knows what will happen next?

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Information about Document 5

History of linguistics II


Text audience

Adults (18+)
Informed lay people
Audience size 21-100
Writer knew intended audience

Text details

Method of composition Wordprocessed
Year of composition 2000
Word count 2450

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Prepared text (e.g. lecture/talk, sermon, public address/speech)
Prose: nonfiction
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Author details

Author id 606
Title Prof
Forenames Christian
Surname Kay
Gender Female
Decade of birth 1940
Educational attainment University
Age left school 18
Upbringing/religious beliefs Protestantism
Occupation Academic
Place of birth Edinburgh
Region of birth Midlothian
Birthplace CSD dialect area midLoth
Country of birth Scotland
Place of residence Glasgow
Region of residence Glasgow
Residence CSD dialect area Gsw
Country of residence Scotland
Father's place of birth Leith
Father's region of birth Midlothian
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area midLoth
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's place of birth Edinburgh
Mother's region of birth Midlothian
Mother's birthplace CSD dialect area midLoth
Mother's country of birth Scotland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes All
Scots No Yes No Yes Work