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Bloomfield, Leonard

Bloomfield, Leonard



Leonard Bloomfield was born in Chicago in 1887 and died in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1949. He came to linguistics when it was the dilettante preoccupation of a few “crow-baited students of literature”; he left it a branch of science.

Bloomfield was the son of Sigmund and Carola Buber Bloomfield and the nephew of the Indologist Maurice Bloomfield. In 1896 his family moved to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin; the winters of 1898–1899 and 1900–1901 were spent in Europe. He did not do well in the village school but was tutored by his mother and gained admittance to the North Division School in Chicago, graduating in 1903 and going on to Harvard College. By his own account, his most important Harvard experience was the discipline of writing daily themes for the merciless scrutiny of Charles Townsend Copeland. His writings support this judgment: his prose is simply constructed and, despite technical subject matter, largely consists of everyday vocabulary.

In 1906 Bloomfield received the A.B. and went to the University of Wisconsin as a graduate assistant in German. The teaching of German was to be a prominent part of his duties for more than two decades; in 1923 he published an excellent elementary text. He was unsure whether to concentrate on literature or linguistics, but the influence of the Germanic philologist Eduard Prokosch, at that time an instructor in the Wisconsin department of German, was quickly decisive.

In 1908 Bloomfield transferred to the University of Chicago, to complete his work for the PH.D. under Francis A. Wood. In March 1909 he married Alice Sayers of St. Louis. They adopted two children.

Bloomfield’s first position after receiving his PH.D. in June 1909 was as instructor in German at the University of Cincinnati; after one year he moved to the University of Illinois at the same rank. In 1913, doubtless in part because of his completion of An Introduction to the Study of Language (1914), he was promoted to assistant professor of comparative philology and German and was granted a year’s leave of absence, which he spent at Leipzig and Göttingen with such scholars as August Leskien and Karl Brugmann. His respect for these scholars, as for Prokosch, was abiding. Once, thirty years later, he said to me that we had learned nothing important about language not already known to Leskien.

Superbly equipped for Germanic and IndoEuropean philology, Bloomfield continued to teach those subjects but turned his research largely in other directions. We may suspect two reasons: first, his belief that the major problems of those fields had been solved; second, his recognition that generalizations based only on Indo-European fall short of the inductive inferences we must seek about all language. The temper of the times may have helped in a left-handed way: German was unpopular during World War i, and Bloomfield perhaps had fewer and smaller classes. At any rate, finding on the Illinois campus a Filipino student, Alfredo V. Santiago, he enlisted his help in work on Tagalog. Existing reference materials on the language were unreliable. Bloomfield took down, from dictation, an extensive series of texts, which he then subjected to detailed analysis. The results were published in 1917.

In order to write down the words Santiago spoke, Bloomfield had to devise a way to spell them. Earlier treatments of the language were of no help: they failed to indicate differences of pronunciation that were distinctive in Santiago’s speech. The slow development of a valid notation was Bloomfield’s painful introduction to the phonemic principle, of which he was one of a small number of partly independent discoverers.

In his treatment of grammar, also, the Tagalog report was a sharp departure from tradition. The prevailing habit of Western scholarship facing a “peculiar” language had been to assume that it must be like Latin and that the obvious differences were only superficial. Subtle but important differences were therefore typically overlooked: a grammar of a “peculiar” language was cast in the format of a Latin grammar, and the odd ways of the language were noted as discrepancies. Bloomfield would have none of this. His collating of Tagalog text materials sought to reveal and record the patterns of that language, whether they were like or unlike those of any other. This has become the standard approach; it is hard for us to understand the disapproval some linguists expressed at the time. The issue is not whether a valid “universal grammar” exists, relative to which we can characterize each individual language, but whether we can blithely assume such a frame of reference or must seek it inductively. Bloomfield believed it had to be sought inductively.

Tagalog led Bloomfield into Malayo–Polynesian, in which, despite much work, he published very little. Because of the low quality of available reports on these languages, he felt he would need precise texts before attempting extensive comparison. But that would have required long field trips. Instead of such prolonged field trips, however, Bloomfield conducted a lively correspondence with Otto Dempwolff, and when the latter’s treatise appeared in the 1930s, laying the foundations of Malayo–Polynesian comparative linguistics, Bloomfield’s influence was evident and amply acknowledged.

Meanwhile, Bloomfield turned to a more readily accessible language family: Algonquian. Edward Sapir, then at the National Museum of Canada, may have suggested the choice. Between 1917 and 1920 he excerpted the Fox and Ojibwa materials published by his chief predecessors in this field, William Jones and Truman Michelson, the former a native speaker of Fox and both trained by Franz Boas. In the summers of 1920 and 1921 Bloomfield worked with the Menomini, in Wisconsin, not far from his boyhood home. After the second summer he did not return to the University of Illinois but went instead to Columbus, where he had accepted an appointment as professor of German and linguistics at the Ohio State University.

Bloomfield’s Algonquian research, although often interrupted, continued until his death. In 1925 he spent five summer weeks as assistant ethnologist for the National Museum of Canada (undoubtedly arranged by Sapir, who left the museum that year for the University of Chicago), with the Cree of the Sweet Grass Reserve near Battleford, Saskatchewan. In the summer of 1938 he took down texts from an Ojibwa who was in Ann Arbor to assist in a field-methods course at the Linguistic Institute. A steady flow of publications began in 1922 and is not yet finished: two major works appeared after his death, and extensive lexical materials still remain in manuscript.

One of the reasons for the Algonquian research was Bloomfield’s distrust of a notion then current: that regularity of sound change, so obvious a feature of the history of the Indo-European languages, might be due to something peculiar to those languages. Bloomfield believed, rather, that regularity of sound change is either a language universal or does not exist at all. The fruitfulness of the regularity assumption for Algonquian (and, in Dempwolff’s hands, for Malayo-Polynesian) went a long way to support the former alternative; indeed, for many, including Bloomfield, all doubt was removed. More recently it has been recognized that Algonquian is less conclusive evidence for our understanding standing of language design than Bloomfield believed: in some ways the languages in this family resemble remarkably the older stages of IndoEuropean, with highly inflected verbs and verb-centered syntax. Languages of a sharply different type, like Chinese or Thai, might have afforded Bloomfield a broader basis for generalizations— although, to be sure, he would still have been very cautious about making them.

The Ohio State years brought Bloomfield into close contact with the Hellenist George M. Boiling and the psychologist Albert Paul Weiss. In collaboration with the former and with Edgard H. Sturtevant of Yale, he sought to launch a professional society devoted wholly to linguistics: he himself wrote the Call for an Organization Meeting; the three signed it; the Linguistic Society of America was founded in 1924 and began its journal Language in 1925. Bloomfield contributed the first article, setting forth the reasons for such a society; 21 years later the last article he wrote was a survey of the society’s achievements.

The association with Weiss was important for both, although Bloomfield later spoke as though all the influence had passed from Weiss to himself. Weiss’s behaviorism, under Bloomfield’s influence, soon came to differ from the naive sort then common among psychologists: he saw that human behavior could not be viewed in exactly the same way as that of other animals, since the human species has language and others do not. For his part, Bloomfield was led to abandon the pseudopsychological “explanations” of language phenomena that had been customary: if human psychology rests on language, then our understanding of language must not, circularly, rest on human psychology but on simpler things. Beyond their special fields, both Bloomfield and Weiss were led to the general scientific view later called “physicalism,” which rejects the hoary common-sense notions of a special mind-stuff in humans or a special entelechy in living matter and insists that life and man are wholly phenomena of the physical world and must be so understood. Philosophers had flirted with this view (or similar ones) for a long time; but Bloomfield and Weiss meant it. It is only this view that renders linguistics a branch of science—to wit, that branch devoted to the determination of the position of language in the universe.

The two developed their views in various articles, Weiss also in a book first published in 1925. Bloomfield’s work culminated in his “Language or Ideas?” drawn from his presidential address to the Linguistic Society in 1935 (1936). Of course, this orientation, coupled with his deceptively simple manner of speaking, got Bloomfield into trouble. Many thought he was denying the existence of obvious realities, such as love and honor and intelligence, when he was in fact only challenging our customary confused ways of philosophizing about such things. The misunderstanding continues to this day, although to reject the physicalist view is to deny the possibility not alone of linguistics but of any social science.

In 1927 Bloomfield left Ohio State and joined Sapir at the University of Chicago (Sapir was to leave for Yale four years later) as professor of Germanic philology. Still busy with all the interests he had developed, he nevertheless found the time to write what is generally regarded as his magnum opus and is certainly his most widely known work, the book Language (1933). Modestly described in the preface as a revision of the 1914 Introduction, it was nothing of the sort. Almost everything of enduring value that had been discovered in a century and a half of the study of language found its way into the new book. Since 1933 it has hardly been possible to become a linguist without first having mastered Bloomfield’s integrated presentation. Today there is scarcely a feature of the book that can stand unmodified; yet subsequent criticisms of Bloomfield’s work are cogent and possible only because by standing on his shoulders we can see farther than he did.

The very excellence of Bloomfield’s integration of the field was unfortunate in a minor way that was not his fault. There had been very few American linguists in the preceding two decades; beginning in the 1930s many more were trained. Some of them were of limited ability, able to do useful research on specific languages only because Bloomfield’s book showed them the way. But they took Bloomfield’s treatment as definitive (he himself never did). Consequently, they missed the few points on which his discussion was clearly in error. Bloomfield had presented a “single-stratum” model of language design: phonemes, directly observable in the speech signal, are the minimum though meaningless units of a language; small groups of phonemes, called “morphemes,” are the minimum meaningful units; morphemes form words, words form phrases and clauses, and these form sentences. Saussure had long since, in 1916, come closer to the truth with a “two-stratum” model, in which arrangements of phonemes merely represented morphemes, much as, in telegraphy, two dots represent the letter “i.” But Saussure’s presentation was cast in mentalistic terms; Bloomfield, in his vigorous rejection of antiphysicalist modes of discussion, threw the baby out with the bath. The exposure of this mistake did not begin for almost two decades.

Bloomfield was led by his physicalist position to an interest in mathematics and its role in science. In Language he characterized mathematics as “the best that language can do”; this notion was the basis of an article (1935) and a monograph (1939), as well as of the paper “Language or Ideas?” He found a curious disparity between the power of mathematics and the cloudiness of most discussions of its “foundations.” His view that mathematics springs from language and writing and is thus, in origins, empirical rather than purely “abstract” has since been independently espoused by some mathematicians, although there is surely no general agreement.

In the late 1930s Bloomfield turned to the teaching of reading to children. He found existing materials very confused, reflecting the educationists’ total lack of technical knowledge of the nature of writing and its relation to speech. Bloomfield held that writing is a representation of speech; that the child starting school already knows his language and has only to learn the rules of the writing system; and that those rules, in the case of the complex and irregular orthography of English, are most quickly mastered if the child is started with the regularities and then slowly introduced to the irregularities (1942). Bloomfield’s materials were tried, with considerable success, in some Chicago parochial schools in the early 1940s; but they were not published until long after his death, in a modified form of which he might not have approved—and too late to be of research value, since it has recently been shown that his understanding of the problem, while far better than that of the “reading specialists” of then or now, is in certain ways oversimplified.

In 1940 Bloomfield accepted a call to Yale University as Sterling professor of linguistics, once again following Edward Sapir—but this time sadly, for Sapir had died in 1939 and Bloomfield went as his successor. World War II was beginning, and Bloomfield turned away from his real research concerns to devote himself to the practical language teaching that the country needed. The American Council of Learned Societies was engaged in an extensive preparation of learners’ texts in a wide variety of languages, about some of which there was no reliable scientific information. Yale was a center of this activity. Bloomfield trained and guided younger linguists and himself wrote three practical manuals, two for Dutch (1944; 1944–1945) and one for Russian (1945), as well as a grammatical introduction for a spoken Russian dictionary. This grueling work undermined his health. On May 27, 1946, a stroke ended his career, and after three years of forced inactivity he died.

The foregoing says too little of Bloomfield’s personality. Unlike Sapir, who wrote poetry, Bloomfield had no discernible avocation and perhaps needed none. His humor was whimsical, sometimes biting. He liked simple, honest people: in the preface to The Menomini Language (1962) he thanks his informants for some of the finest companionship of his life; for many years after 1921 he maintained his friendships among the Menomini via correspondence. He was painfully aware of the tragedy of such peoples as the Menomini, divested of the guiding principles of their own culture and supplied with nothing in their place but the worst features of ours. His only intolerance was for the pompous misuse of language. He saw natural English spoiled by the artificial niceties of schoolteachers and regretted a similar distortion of Tagalog. His physicalism was consonant with this; it was a protest against the confusion in the discussion of human affairs wrought by operationally undefinable mentalistic and finalistic terms. He would have approved Whitehead’s aphorism: “Seek simplicity, and distrust it”; perhaps his one fault was that he did not distrust it enough.

Charles F. Hockett

[For the historical context of Bloomfield’s work, see the biographies ofBoas; Sapir; Saussure; for discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeLanguage, article onlanguage and culture; Linguistics.]


1914 An Introduction to the Study of Language. New York: Holt.

1917 Tagalog Texts With Grammatical Analysis. University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature, vol. 3, no. 2–4. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

(1923) 1928 First German Book. 2d ed. Columbus: Adams; New York: Century.

1925a Why a Linguistic Society? Language 1:1–5.

1925b On the Sound-system of Central Algonquian. Language 1:130–156.

1928a Menomini Texts. Publications of the American Ethnological Society, vol. 12. New York: Stechert.

1928b A Note on Sound Change. Language 4:99–100.

(1933) 1951 Language. New York: Holt.

1935 Linguistic Aspects of Science. Philosophy of Science 2:499–517.

1936 Language or Ideas? Language 12:89–95.

(1939) 1955 Linguistic Aspects of Science. Volume 1, part 1, pages 215–277 in International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1942 Linguistics and Reading. Elementary English Review 19:125–130, 183–186.

1945 About Foreign Language Teaching. Yale Review 34:625–641.

1946 Twenty-one Years of the Linguistic Society. Language 22:1–3.

1957 Eastern Ojibwa: Grammatical Sketch, Texts, and Word List. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

1961 Bloomfield, Leonard; and Barnhart, ClarenceLet’s Read: A Linguistic Approach. Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press. → Published posthumously.

1962 The Menomini Language. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → Published posthumously.


Block, Bernard 1949 [Obituary of] Leonard Bloomfield. Language 25:87–98. → Contains a bibliography of Leonard Bloomfield’s works.

Dempwolff, Otto 1934–1938 Vergleichende Lautlehre des austronesischen Wortschatzes. 3 parts. Zeitschrift für eingeborenen Sprachen Supplements 15, 17, 19.

Weiss, Albert (1925) 1929 A Theoretical Basis of Human Behavior. 2d ed., rev. Columbus, Ohio: Adams.

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Leonard Bloomfield

Leonard Bloomfield

The influence of the American linguist Leonard Bloomfield (1887-1949) dominated the science of linguistics from 1933—when his most important work, Language, was published—to the mid-1950s.

Leonard Bloomfield was born on April 1, 1887, in Chicago. He graduated from Harvard College at the age of 19 and did graduate work for 2 years at the University of Wisconsin, where he also taught German. His interest in linguistics was aroused by Eduard Prokosch, a philologist in the German department. Bloomfield received his doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1909.

After teaching German at the University of Cincinnati for a year, Bloomfield became assistant professor of comparative philology and German at the University of Illinois, where he remained until 1921. His An Introduction to the Study of Language was published in 1914.

In 1913-1914 Bloomfield studied in Leipzig and Göttingen, Germany, with the neogrammarian scholars August Leskien and Karl Brugmann. Neogrammarian historical philology emphasized the regularity of sound change in language without exceptions, any apparent exceptions being explained in terms of nonphonetic phenomena. This view represented a scientific advance over the earlier view that extraordinary, inexplicable sound change can take place. Bloomfield emphasized throughout his career the scientific neogrammarian methodology of seeking out regularity in sound change rather than appealing to random, meaningless change. This approach brought much order to historical linguistics.

Bloomfield adopted Ferdinand de Saussure's concept of language structure. Saussure emphasized that languages at any one time were systems of interrelated elements: lexical, grammatic, phonological. Bloomfield accepted Saussure's distinction between a diachronous (time being a variable) approach and a synchronous (time being a constant) approach to language. He utilized both approaches in his work. He envisaged diachronous language change in the course of the history of a language as a succession of language structures, each viewed synchronously.

Franz Boas was the first anthropological linguist to emphasize descriptive study of non-Indo-European languages as they exist today. Bloomfield, who acknowledged his debt to Boas, emphasized the value of synchronic descriptive linguistics, though he never deserted diachronic historical linguistics. Though trained in historical Indo-European, especially Germanic, philology, Bloomfield turned to a study of Tagalog, a Malayo-Polynesian language, during World War I. In 1917 he became interested in a more accessible language family, the Algonquian. His linguistic work with Indians of the Algonquian family in Wisconsin was not only descriptive; he also applied historical linguistic techniques to this language family. He showed that the neogrammarian methodology of assuming regularity in sound change was applicable beyond the Indo-European language family.

In 1921 Bloomfield became professor of German and linguistics at Ohio State University. There he met the behaviorist psychologist A. P. Weiss. Both men took a logical positivist approach to science; they agreed that a mechanistic rather than a mentalistic approach to human phenomena was necessary if the disciplines concerned with man were to be truly scientific.

Bloomfield was one of the founders of the Linguistic Society of America in 1924. He was professor of Germanic philology at the University of Chicago from 1927 to 1940, when he became professor of linguistics at Yale University. He died in New Haven, Conn., on April 18, 1949.

Influence of Language

In Language Bloomfield emphasized the need to be objective, to deal only with physically observable phenomena, and to develop a precise description and definition in order to make linguistics a true science. The period from the publication of Language in 1933 to the mid-1950s is commonly called the "Bloomfieldian era" of linguistics. Though Bloomfield's particular methodology of descriptive linguistics was not widely accepted, his mechanistic attitudes toward a precise science of linguistics, dealing only with observable phenomena, were most influential. His influence waned after the 1950s, when adherence to logical positivist doctrines lessened and there was a return to more mentalistic attitudes. Today linguists, especially the younger ones, are more concerned with the directly nonobservable mental processes by which human beings are uniquely capable of generating language.

Further Reading

Obituaries by Bernard Bloch and Edgar H. Sturtevant are reprinted in Thomas A. Sebeok, ed., Portraits of Linguists, vol. 2 (1966). Although Bloomfield claimed his linguistics to be free of any psychological school, Erwin A. Esper in Mentalism and Objectivism in Linguistics: The Sources of Leonard Bloomfield's Psychology of Language (1968) argues that Bloomfield was influenced in important ways by behaviorism. C. C. Fries in a chapter in Christine Mohrmann and others, eds., Trends in European and American Linguistics, 1930-1960 (1961), contends that behaviorism was not an important influence on Bloomfield.

Additional Sources

Hall, Robert Anderson, A life for language: a biographical memoir of Leonard Bloomfield, Amsterdam; Philadelphia: J. Benjamins Pub. Co., 1990.

Leonard Bloomfield, essays on his life and work, Amsterdam; Philadelphia: J. Benjamins Pub. Co., 1987. □

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BLOOMFIELD, Leonard [1887–1949].American philologist and linguist, born in Chicago, Illinois, and educated at Harvard, Wisconsin, and Chicago. He taught at several universities (1909–27) before becoming Professor of Germanic Philology at Chicago (1927–40) and Professor of Linguistics at Yale (1940–9). Initially, he was interested in Indo-European, and particularly Germanic, speech sounds and word-formation. Later, he undertook pioneering studies in the Malayo-Polynesian languages, and made a detailed study of the North American Indian languages. His publications include: An Introduction to the Study of Language (1914), Language (1933), and Outline Guide for the Practical Study of Foreign Languages (1942). Influenced by European structuralism, Bloomfield is generally regarded as the founder of American STRUCTURAL LINGUISTICS. His definitions of the basic units of language were influential. He defined the PHONEME as ‘a minimum same of vocal feature’ (that is, as a physical piece of speech rather than as an abstract construct of the linguist) and believed (mistakenly, as it proved) that within a few decades it would be possible to establish the phonemes of a language in the laboratory. He defined the MORPHEME as the basic unit of grammatical arrangement, a ‘minimal form which bears no partial phonetic-semantic resemblance to any other form’ (Language, p. 161). The WORD was a ‘minimum free form’, the smallest unit that can occur in isolation, and might consist of one morpheme (boy, but) or more than one (boyish, carelessness).

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Bloomfield, Leonard

Leonard Bloomfield, 1887–1949, American linguist, b. Chicago. Bloomfield was professor at Ohio State Univ. (1921–27), at the Univ. of Chicago (1927–40), and at Yale (from 1940). His specialty for years was Germanic languages, especially in their comparative aspects. He became interested, however, in languages from a scientific, descriptive viewpoint. His masterpiece Language (1933) is a standard text. It had a profound influence on linguistics, for it was a clear statement of principles that became axiomatic, notably that language study must always be centered in the spoken language, as against documents; that the definitions used in grammar should be based on the forms of the language, not on the meanings of the forms; and that a given language at a given time is a complete system of sounds and forms that exist independently of the past—so that the history of a form does not explain its actual meaning. His other works include Tagalog Texts with Grammatical Analysis (1917), Linguistic Aspects of Science (1939), Spoken Dutch (1945), and Spoken Russian (1945).

See R. A. Hall, Leonard Bloomfield: Essays on His Life and Work (1987).

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