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Language and Linguistics


Estimates of the number of languages spoken on earth at the turn of the twenty-first century range between four and six thousand. Considering that this number has been rapidly declining for the last couple of centuries, there must at one time have been many more languages, perhaps upwards of ten thousand. Of the languages spoken in the twenty-first century, a few have tens or hundreds of millions of speakers spread over enormous stretches of land, while most languages have severely restricted population distribution. No matter exactly how many different languages there are or how many speakers each of them has, the multiplicity of human speech patterns is staggering, and any attempt to reduce this overwhelming plethora of sounds, meanings, and structures to a finite set of rules and procedures is both daunting and humbling. Yet that is precisely the charge that linguists take as their solemn duty. No wonder that linguistics is probably the most contentious of all academic disciplines; there is no easy, transparent mechanism for bringing order to the wild proliferation of human speech (not to mention writing).

The varieties of linguistic experience are so profuse as to defy accurate enumeration: grammar, syntax, etymology, phonology, phonetics, morphology, psycholinguistics, anthropological linguistics, sociolinguistics, educational linguistics, taxonomy, philology, historical linguistics, lexicography, and so on. It would be futile to attempt any sort of exhaustiveness with regard to the branches and sub-branches of this protean discipline. What is more, each division and subdivision of linguistics has its own generation after generation of leading lights. Thousands of linguists have left their imprint on the field, but here it will be possible to mention only a few of those who represent major trends, particularly in the realm of thought (both about the discipline itself and about human beings and their world).

Philosophers, Grammarians, and Neogrammarians

Throughout most of human history, the study of language has been subsumed under philosophy. The distinction between philosophical linguistics and linguistic philosophy is subtle but telling: Is the driving concern language or philosophy?

The Austrian-born English philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (18891951) was instrumental in bringing language-related questions to the fore for those who were not professional linguists. He accomplished this in two respects: (1) discussions on the philosophy of language, and (2) elaboration of logical theories. Wittgenstein was a protégé of Bertrand Russell (18721970), absorbing features of the analytic philosophy of Russell and Gottlob Frege (18481925), but fundamentally posing a whole series of innovative questions of his own devising. Wittgenstein's genius is enshrined in his Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922), a brilliant work that is only about seventy-five pages in length. Despite its extreme brevity, the Tractatus manages to raise provocative questions concerning the nature of language, logic, ethics, death, and other, often disturbing, topics. How is language possible? How does a sequence of words come to mean something? How can it be understood? For Wittgenstein, a sentence is a depiction of reality, thus he presents what might be called a picture theory of language. The Tractatus deals, above all, with the limits of language: "What can be said can only be said by means of a proposition, and so nothing that is necessary for the understanding of all propositions can be said." (In such statements by Wittgenstein, "said" means "represented.") The limits of language correspond to the limits of thought, hence there are certain things that cannot be thought, which accounts for the famous last sentence of the book: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

In Tractatus, Wittgenstein expressed the idea that there was a unifying essence beneath the diversity of language, and that the philosopher strives to discern this essence. In his posthumously published Philosophische Untersuchungen (Philosophical investigations, 1953), he had come to the conclusion that this supposed underlying essence was illusory. Rather, one demolishes obsessive concern with such perplexing questions as knowledge, intuition, and assertion by simply describing what one experiences in the daily use of language. In short, throughout his philosophical studies, Wittgenstein was perpetually in quest for das erlösende Wort ("the redemptive word").

Another important British thinker who followed the later Wittgenstein in pursuing philosophical analysis through detailed study of mundane language was John Langshaw Austin (19111960). Austin maintained that linguistic analysis can solve philosophical problems, but was opposed to the language of formal logic as contrived and incomplete. According to Austin, daily language is actually more subtle and complex than formal logic, and hence better able to get at the crux of critical issues. His approach helped to underscore the significance of language for philosophy.

One tradition of thought in which philosophy and concern with language are given almost equal weight is semiotics. Simply stated, semiotics (or semiology) is the study of signs and their diverse applications. The notion of sign is fundamental to the study of language, but its protean ubiquity (including for nonlinguistic purposes) makes it extraordinarily difficult to define. One of the earliest sign theories is that of St. Augustine of Hippo (354430) as enunciated in De Doctrina Christiana : "A sign is a thing that causes us to think of something beyond the impression the thing itself makes upon the senses." The semiotic frame of reference is vast, being designed to encompass all other types of inquiry, but it became an independent mode of investigation with the American philosopher Charles S. Peirce (18391914). Originally a logician, Peirce did not offer a systematic presentation of his major principles and frequently changed his doctrines. He basically contended that all human experience could be organized at three levels that, roughly stated, are felt qualities, experiential effect, and signs, the latter being the abstract class of all sensorially perceived "signals" that refer to the same object or phenomena.

The German mathematician, logician, and philosopher Gottlob Frege contributed to the early development of semi-otics by adding, among other things, the crucial distinction between Sinn ("sense") and Bedeutung ("meaning"). Frege enunciated the principle of compositionality whereby a sentence can be described according to the functional interdependence of the meanings of its appropriately formed elements.

In his Foundations of the Theory of Signs (1938), another American philosopher, Charles W. Morris (19011979), offered a tripartite organizational scheme for semiotics: syntax (the interrelations among signs), semantics (the relation between signs and the objects they designate), and pragmatics (the relationship between the sign system and the user). Morris collaborated with the German scholar Rudolf Carnap (18911970), who developed an ideal language that became a model for semioticians. A major figure in the development of symbolic logic was the Polish-American scholar Alfred Tarski (19021983), who is well known for his concept of truth in formalized languages.

Semiotics was further developed in the monumental work of another German thinker, Ernst Cassirer (18741945), entitled Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (The Philosophy of symbolic forms, 19231929). Cassirer recognizes the vital role of language in articulating and conceptualizing a preexisting reality, but his project is primarily philosophical. He emphasizes that human beings are animal symbolicum ("the symbol-creating animal"), not merely because of their ability to manipulate verbal language itself, but also because of their creation of other symbolic spheres: art, myth, religion, science, history, and so on.

Semiotics and grammar converged in the synthesis of the American logician Richard Montague (19301971), who followed in the path of Frege, Tarski, and Carnap. Based upon the semantics of formal languages, Montague grammar puts forward the premise that there is no theoretically relevant difference between artificial (formal) and natural (human) languages. Therefore, the logical structure of natural languages may be described through universal algebra.

Having pursued the philosophical path thus far, this article now follows the grammatical thread. Classical grammarians were concerned with prescriptive principles. This suited the sharply defined structure of Indo-European languages. It is one of the perennial questions of linguistics, however, whether such principles apply equally well (or at all) to non-Indo-European languages. China had its own sort of language studies, known as xiaoxue ("minor learning," in contrast to daxue ["major learning"], which signified ethics), for at least two millennia. An early philosopher named Xun Zi (c. 310210 b.c.e.), moreover, had elaborated a doctrine of "names" that bore striking similarity to doctrines about language expressed by Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.) in his "Cratylus." But it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese) was forced into a Latin grammatical moldand it fit very badly. This question of the appropriateness of classical Western grammar for non-Indo-European languages shall return below (both directly and under the guise of universal grammar). For the moment, however, the focus will be on Western grammars for Indo-European languages.

The Modistae (also known as Modists and speculative grammarians), who flourished around Paris from about 1260 to 1310, wrote medieval treatises on the modi significandi ("modes of signifying," the semantic and deictic functions of words and word classes). They were generally Aristotelian in their aim to explain language, not simply to describe it, and had a large impact on the terminology and systematicity of later grammarians.

After having investigated grammars for various specific languages (Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Spanish, etc.), Claude Lancelot (1615?1695), professor at the Petites Écoles of Port-Royal des Champs, in collaboration with Antoine Arnauld (16121694) wrote the Grammaire générale et raisonée (1660), often referred to as Grammaire de Port-Royal. This is a general grammar that enunciates certain principles that presumably govern all languages and are meant to define language in general, while individual languages are thought to be particular cases of the universal model. By and large, eighteenth-century grammarians followed in the footsteps of their Port Royal predecessors. Lancelot and Arnauld imply, and later grammarians (for example N. Beauzée) specify, that communication of thought by means of speech demands that the latter be a sort of "picture" or "imitation" of thought (cf. Wittgenstein). That is to say, the function of language is to be a representation of thought. Already in the seventeenth century, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (16461716) and other thinkers subscribed to the belief in the imitative value of language sounds. This leads to the consideration of the place of phonology in the history of linguistics.

In comparing Old Norse, Greek, and Latin, the Danish linguist Rasmus Rask (17871832) had discovered regular sound differences. In 1822, the German philologist and folk-lorist Jacob Grimm (17851863) construed these differences as systematic sound changes that had led to the development of Germanic as a separate branch of Indo-European. This recognition became enshrined as Grimm's Law (also referred to as the Germanic sound shift) and was a major milestone in the evolution of linguistics as a rigorously scientific discipline.

The neogrammarians (Junggrammatiker in German, also known as the Leipzig School), subscribed to positivistic atomism. During the 1870s, they arose in staunch opposition to the metaphysical and biological approaches to language then current. Their name was actually a pejorative term applied to them by the older generation of traditionalists in language studies. The school is said to have its inception from the publication of Karl Verner's (18461896) celebrated explanation of apparent exceptions to Grimm's Law in 1877, of August Leskien's (18401916) postulation of the inviolability of sound laws in relation to declension in 1876, of Karl Brugmann's (18491919) studies on the morphology of Indo-European, and of Hermann Paul's (18461921) Prinzipien der Sprachgeschichte (Principles of the history of language) in 1880. They insisted upon the absolute autonomy of phonology from syntax and semantics, with phonology having the most important position. Their main aim was to describe historical change, plus they had an overriding interest in diachronic aspects of language and the development of precise methods of reconstruction. The structuralists and transformationalists of the twentieth century criticized virtually all of the basic premises of the neogrammarians, yet the neogrammarians arguably did more to establish linguistics as an independent science (in the strictest sense of the term) than any other school.

The Structuralist Era

The father of structuralism (and many would say of the modern science of linguistics) was the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (18571913). But Saussure was a reluctant father whose seminal Cours de linguistique générale (Course in General Linguistics, 1916) was edited and posthumously published by two colleagues and a student who assiduously took notes at his lectures. The peculiar nature of its composition has resulted in a work that is fraught with contradictions and puzzling self-doubts cheek by jowl with superbly confident, dogmatic assertions. Despite all the vagaries of its composition, Cours de linguistique générale is a hugely influential work and has probably done more to establish linguistics as an independent discipline than any other single book.

Although Saussure had a background in the historical study of language and had made significant advances in the understanding of the Indo-European vowel system, he was unusually critical of neogrammarian philology, which he accused of being overly absorbed in diachrony (that is, issues of the evolution of languages). Saussure also criticized traditional grammarians for neglecting entire aspects of language and for lacking overall perspective, but allowed that their method was fundamentally correct and that they properly emphasized synchrony. Hence, whereas the discipline of historical linguistics that grew up in the nineteenth century was almost wholly diachronic in its orientation, linguistics in the first half of the twentieth centuryfollowing the lead of Saussurebecame a largely synchronic enterprise. It was not long before European structuralism crossed the Atlantic to become the predominant methodology of American linguistics.

The German-born American anthropologist Edward Sapir (18841939) was responsible for many enduring concepts in linguistic research. Author of the landmark volume Language (1921), Sapir emphasizes that language is tightly linked to culture. For Sapir, language is an acquired function of culture rather than being biologically determined. This view is diametrically opposed to that of the transformationalists (see below), who believe (but have not proved) that human beings possess a genetically determined predisposition for languageincluding many of its most specific and distinguishing featuresthat is already present at the moment of birth. Sapir is undoubtedly correct when he points out that, sans society, an individual will never learn to talk in meaningful termsthat is, to communicate ideas to other persons within a given community. This can easily be demonstrated by observation of feral or mentally abused children and in children suffering from autism or other psychological disorders that affect the acquisition and manipulation of language. Similarly, infants who are born into one linguistic environment but are adopted into a completely different linguistic environment will obviously not grow up speaking the language of their biological parents. If there is any "hardwiring" of linguistic abilities, it occurs around puberty, after which time it becomes increasingly difficult to attain full fluency in a second language or to lose all ability in one's mother tongue. Sapir, of course, could not have foreseen the degree to which the transformationalists would divorce language from its social and cultural matrix, but he would undoubtedly have been horrified by this turn of events and would have regarded it as a fallacious approach to language. While Sapir may not be around to point out the speciousness of the transformationalists' so-called LAD (Language Acquisition Device, also styled the "language module," "language instinct," and so forth), which stipulates hardwired language ability at birth, that has been done ably by Jerome Bruner (b. 1915) with his cognitive learning theory that builds on the cultural-cognitive developmental model of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky (18961934).

Although Leonard Bloomfield (18871949) was a contemporary and colleague of Sapir, and the two are widely regarded as the founders of American structuralism, they were quite dissimilar in temperament and outlook. Whereas Sapir was more dramatic and imaginative, Bloomfield tended to be methodical and preferred as much as possible to rely strictly upon evidence in formulating his positions. In 1914 he wrote Introduction to the Study of Language, which in later editions was called simply Language (1933). Bloomfield was responsible for an enormously influential synthesis that brought together three earlier traditions of language study (historical, philological, and practical), and forged them into a coherent whole. He was fiercely determined to establish linguistics as a science. In particular, he wished to distinguish linguistics from the speculative philosophers who assumed that the structure of their own language embodied universal forms of human thought or even the cosmic order. In addition to the speculative philosophers, Bloomfield censured the grammarians of the old school tradition who strove to apply logical standards to language, ignoring actual usage in favor of prescriptive rules. Bloomfield was especially critical of those who took the features of Latin as the normative form of human speech. He was much more favorably disposed toward the grammatical studies of the ancient Indians because the latter were themselves excellent phoneticians who had also developed an intelligent systematization of grammar and lexicon.

In Europe, structuralism did not remain a monolithic linguistic monopoly. The Prague School (which grew out of the Prague Linguistic Circle) is a branch of structuralism, but with a difference. The members of this school hold language to be a system of functionally related units and focus on the observation of linguistic realia at discrete moments. They are interested in language change, not in maintaining a strict dichotomy of langue and parole (linguistic system versus linguistic utterance)a key tenet of Saussureor of synchrony and diachrony. The starting point of the Prague School is to clarify the function of the various elements of actual utterances. The Prague School has made a lasting impact upon many areas of modern linguistics, particularly with regard to the analysis of the sounds of language and their effect in literature.

Another noteworthy structuralist school is the Copenhagen Linguistic Circle. One of its leading theoreticians was Louis Hjelmslev (18991965), whose Prologomena (1943; English edition 1953) is intended as a series of preliminary statements essential for the formulation of any theory of language. Laying down the most basic ground rules for linguistics, Hjelmslev faults the humanities for being overly descriptive and insufficiently systematizing. He is opposed to the confusion of philosophy of language with theories of language. Hjemslev views language as a self-sufficient totality of its own. He foresees the emergence of an "algebra of language," which he calls "glossematics." This novel linguistic approach, which strongly emphasizes form, is intentionally designed to distinguish the ideas of the Copenhagen School from more traditional forms of structural linguistics, such as those of the Prague School. Hjelmslev does adhere to Saussure's basic principles of structuralism, but attempts to make his theory more axiomatic, having been influenced by the logical empiricism of Alfred North Whitehead (18611947), Russell, and Carnap. With the ostensible goal of eliminating confusion between the object (language) being studied and the methodology used to describe it, Hjelmslev tries to create noncontradictory descriptive terminology by employing carefully crafted abstractions and mathematical logic.

Around the middle of the twentieth century, Morris Swadesh (19091967), a student of Sapir, devised a statistical method for determining the family relationships of languages and the probable dates of their separation from a common parent. This technique, which is called lexico-statistics or glottochronology, is premised upon the idea that the vocabulary of a language is replaced at a constant rate, much like the steady radioactive decay of carbon-14 that is used to date organic remains. The Swadesh lists select a core vocabulary of one hundred or two hundred words consisting of body part terms, lower numerals, pronouns, primary kinship terms, common flora and fauna, words for ordinary topographical features, and so forth. Widely used in the 1960s and 1970s, glottochronology provoked an emotional debate, with all manner of objections being raised against it: the rate of decay is not universal, cognates may be partial and may or may not be recognizable, even core terms may be borrowed, and so forth. Despite the outcry, glottochronology is still employed, but in mathematically increasingly complex and conceptually more sophisticated models. For example, a geographical dimension may be incorporated into the tree, and more careful attention is paid to historical reconstruction.

Another controversial legacy of structuralism that continues to attract attention is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis concerning the relationship among language, thought, and culture developed by Benjamin Lee Whorf (18971941), who was also a student of Sapir and who based his hypothesis on the approach of his mentor. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has two main facets: (1) linguistic determinism (the language one uses conditions the way one thinks), (2) linguistic relativity (the complex of distinctions made in a given language are unique and not to be found in any other language). Both of these facets are somewhat at odds with the Bloomfieldian notion (broadly ascribed to by modern linguists) that all languageslike all peopleare equal in their ability to express whatever thoughts their speakers need or want to convey. Whorf did intensive work on North American indigenous languages that have dramatically different grammatical and lexical properties from Indo-European languages, so it is altogether comprehensible that his intimate familiarity with their distinctive outlooks would lead him to develop the hypothesis that he did. While the two main facets of the hypothesis would appear to be innocuous, commonsense propositions, they are anathema to certain sectors of the modern political spectrum. Furthermore, continuing the tinctorial theme, the strong form of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (that a given language determines the thought and perception of its speakers) is seen by many to have been refuted by the study of Brent Berlin and Paul Kay on basic color terms and their supposed universality (1969). The conclusions of Berlin and Kay, however, have not gone un-challenged: John A. Lucy and Richard Shweder have demonstrated significant behavioral differences in regard to color perception on the part of speakers of different languages. In any event, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis should be easily testable by extensive investigation of the thought patterns of individuals who are thoroughly bilingual (or multilingual) in markedly dissimilar languages. Simply asking such individuals whether it is easier to think certain thoughts in a given language than in another language, or whether it is impossible to think the thoughts of one language in another language, should go far toward determining the validity of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

The Transformational Generative Insurrection

Few would disagree that Noam Chomsky (b. 1928) was the dominant figure in linguistics from the late 1950s through the 1970s. Two early works, Syntactic Structures (1957) and Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), laid the foundations and set the tone for Chomsky's linguistic project that has lasted (albeit in increasingly attenuated versions) into the twenty-first century. From the very beginning of his career, Chomsky adopted a highly combative stance against his intellectual and ideological opponents. Since Chomsky is a clever debater, he usually wins his arguments, and this has been one of the main factors in his meteoric rise. Chomsky's highly polemical orientation spills over into many nonlinguistic fields. Although he has been remarkably prolific writing about language-related matters, Chomsky's publications on a wide range of politically sensitive topics would appear to be still more numerous.

In general, Chomsky is favorably disposed to traditional grammar but is hostile to structural linguistics. His hostility to the structuralists seems to stem from their emphasis on anthropologically grounded fieldwork and formal description of numerous languages, which is in stark contrast to his own psycho-philosophical orientation and nearly exclusive attention to English. Chomsky is opposed to reliance on what he calls "discovery procedures" and "objective methods," opining that linguists are simply awash in the particularities of data unless they possess profound notions of linguistic theory to guide them. For Chomsky, theory is clearly more important than data, intuition more desirable than induction. Chomsky is an introspective mentalist who believes that the methodological purity and attention to minutiae of the structuralists and behaviorists prevents them from asking the big questions about language that really count.

Chomsky posits a perfectly competent, ideal speaker-hearer whose actual linguistic performance may display deviations from rules but who is capable of correctly analyzing the underlying processes of language. This accounts for his well-known concept of generative grammar, a synonym for transformational grammar, which is made up of formal operations that are said to mediate between the deep structure underlying linguistic utterances and the surface structure of the sentences that are actually produced by a speaker. Transformational-generative grammar (hereafter TGG) is asserted to be a universal grammar that is supposedly innate in all human beings.

As a complement (or rather supplement) parallel to the mastery of internalized generative grammar of the individual, Chomsky posits an externalized universal grammar that possesses profound regularities. Although he is strongly in favor of determining linguistic universals, Chomsky is vague about how this is to be accomplished. Chomskyan linguistics also touches upon other areas, such as Cartesian rationalism (to reinforce his faith in innateness), and has evolved into other forms, most notably government and binding theory, which focuses on modularity of syntax. Yet all of the elaborations and refinements of the 1970s and 1980s only serve to underscore the concerns that Chomsky had already embraced in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1990s, while still residually influential, Chomsky's linguistics program had essentially run its course and was badly fragmented in its second generation. A few younger disciples, such as Steven Pinker, however, still carry the torch.

The last main restatement of Chomsky's theories was his minimalist program that followed government-binding theory and principles and parameters theory. This final designation gives the distinct impression that the Chomskyan insurrection has at last imploded, ending with a whimper, not with a bang.

Chomsky claims that one of the chief inspirations for his generative grammar was the concept of language as "activity" (Greek energeia ) rather than as a "(static) entity" (Greek ergon ) waiting to be surveyed in its entirety. This view of the dynamic, "continuously self-generating" processes inherent in language is attributed to Wilhelm von Humboldt (17671835) and has become a linchpin of what is now called ethnolinguistics.

Chomsky was a student of Zellig Harris (19091992) and borrowed extensively from the analytical procedures that the latter devised. To be sure, it was Harris who had developed the concept of linguistic transformation, which he borrowed from mathematics, and this was the crux of the entire Chomskyan enterprise. The distinction was that Harris worked within the structuralist paradigm, whereas Chomsky rejected it. Chomsky began by giving the impression that he was following Harris's still fundamentally Bloomfieldian approach, but soon made clear that it was his intention to extend it. Not long thereafter, he launched attacks against all of the main pillars of American structuralism: positivism, behaviorism, and descriptivism.

The most vulnerable was behaviorism, which maintains that psychology should be based solely on observable, measurable phenomena. Bloomfield applied these guidelines to linguistics, holding that language researchers should concentrate on observable, precisely describable verbal behavior and refrain from unnecessary theorizing. In 1957, the Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner (19041990) published Verbal Behavior, which attempted to interpret language in strictly behaviorist terms. In that same year, Chomsky penned a harsh denunciation of Skinner's book, with the result that many young linguists were persuaded to embark upon theorizing as a safer path than that of mere observation, description, and measurement.

But all was not peace and calm within Chomsky's own camp, which we may refer to as transformational-generative linguistics (TGL). Disputes had begun to erupt within TGL already during the 1960s and 1970s, some of them quite nasty. There is no point in chronicling the vitriolic arguments that took place during this period. Suffice it to say that, at base, many of them had to do with how to handle linguistic structures that were larger and more complicated than the phrase.

The most productive departure from the TGL camp is that of George Lakoff, who, together with Mark Johnson and his collaborators, has led the development of conceptual metaphor and cognitive linguistics. Lakoff was one of the early generative semanticists who questioned the validity of syntactic deep structure. This led him to formulate metaphor as a schema in the Kantian sense. One of the most fascinating aspects of cognitive linguistics and conceptual metaphor theory is that it is data-driven, not theory-driven. That is to say, it has to be (empirically) responsible to meaning making as it occurs in human communication, which is why meaning exists in the first place. Consequently, grammar cannot be conceived of as an algorithmic process that proceeds regardless of the constituent meanings. Furthermore, if human meaning making uses the same elements and principles (namely, conceptual metaphor and blending), then all aspects of human creationliterature, religion, history, philosophy, art, music, science, even mathematicsare constituted by these elements and principles, and subject to analysis through them. Cognitive linguistics, conceptual metaphor, and conceptual blending have been adopted by a second generation of students who are every bit as enthusiastic about it as were the second generation of adherents to TGG back in the 1960s and 1970s. They believe that this new, interdisciplinary approach to language will revolutionize our understanding of ourselves and our world. The fact that their numbers are growing impressively indicates that, to a certain extent, they may well be right.

Other Voices

Although structuralism and TGL were respectively paramount in the first and second halves of the twentieth century, this is by no means to say that competing approaches were lacking. During the period when structuralism dominated linguistics, other interesting approaches to language proliferated. One that caught the popular imagination was that of general semantics, a philosophical movement originated by the Polish-American philosopher and mathematician Alfred Korzybski (18791950). Korzybski, who once famously declared that "The map is not the territory," called for a heightened awareness of the conventional relationship between words and the things to which they refer. It was his intention to promote clear thought (to free human beings from the "tyranny of words," as enunciated by one enthusiast) and thereby to improve systems of communication. That is to say, it should be recognized that language does not directly reflect reality. Indeed, the structure of language may be said to distort our perception of reality. This deficiency can be remedied by insight into the nature of mundane language and, further, by the creation of more refined language that is structured in the same way reality is. Korzybski's fundamental ideas are spelled out in Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (1933). General semantics was further popularized by S. I. Hayakawa (19061992), whose Language in Thought and Action (1938) has been a bestseller for decades. After serving in the United States Senate from 1977 to 1983, Hayakawa founded U.S. English, Inc., which is dedicated to making English the official language of the United States.

Also showing how politics and linguistics can become tightly intertwined is a nonstructuralist school of a very different sort. Marrism, founded in the 1920s by the Soviet archeologist and linguist Nikolai Y. Marr (18651934), was quintessentially Marxist in holding that all linguistic phenomena are purely a reflection of economic functions and social forces (superstructure). Marr considered Caucasian as the proto-language of Europe (the so-called Japhetic theory), which oddly coincided with German racialist theories of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (17521840). Joseph Stalin (18791953) (who, incidentally, had much to say about language), however, put an end to Marr's influence on Soviet linguistics when in 1950 he refuted the superstructure theory of language, declaring that it was independent of human productivity.

Politics aside, there were plenty of other nonaligned linguistic practitioners during this period, both in Europe and in America. Bringing together the philological exactitude of Antoine Meillet (18661936) with the conceptual grandeur of Georges Dumézil (18981986), the French scholar Émile Benveniste (19021976) was the author of the redoubtable Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes (1969; English trans. Indo-European Language and Society, 1973). In it, employing what has been referred to as ethnosemantics (or ethnographic semantics), he strove to "elucidate the genesis" of the vocabulary of Indo-European institutions in six fundamental realms: economy, kinship, society (status), authority (especially royalty and its prerogatives), law, and religion. Benveniste was particularly interested in the religious doctrines of the Indo-Europeans.

J. R. Firth (18901960) was one of the chief founders of linguistics in Great Britain. He held the first chair in general linguistics in England, which was established at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London in 1944. Firth is noted for his development of prosodic phonology, and insisted on analyzing both sound and meaning in context. Furthermore, Firth held that no single system of analytical principles and categorization could adequately account for language; different systems are required for different situations. Unlike most theorists, but very much like Benveniste, Firth recognized the importance of religion for the history of linguistics. Himself an Orientalist, Firth acknowledged the great merit of early Indian grammars (the first in the world) and the tremendous significance of Sanskrit for understanding the development of Indo-European. At the same time, he admits that the classical grammarians (Panini for Sanskrit, Dionysius for Greek, Priscian for Latin) were not concerned with the vernacular. Firth is thus also one of the few major linguistic theoreticians who is aware of the great gulf between classical and vernacular languages, a subject that awaits future research.

One of Firth's outstanding students, M. A. K. Halliday (b. 1925), countered Chomsky on many points, including the central concept of competence, against which Halliday adduces the notion of "meaning potential." This is defined in terms of culture, to which Halliday is unusually sensitive, not mind. He possesses a keen sense of the social functions of language and its existential acquisition during childhood. Halliday developed a grammatical theory according to which language is viewed as an intersecting set of categories and scales operating at different levels. He is also responsible for creating systemic functional grammar, which is particularly well adapted to non-Indo-European languages.

In the United States, one of the most estimable twentieth-century linguists whose work lay outside of both structuralism and TGL is Kenneth Lee Pike (19122000). His Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior (1967) is a massive, ambitious tome. In keeping with the combative atmosphere pervading the discipline, Pike speaks of the "battle ground" of language study and his determined efforts to promote thoroughgoing changes in language theory. Pike's theoretical work (he is also celebrated for his achievements in applied linguistics) derives from an attempt to describe empirical data drawn from a literally worldwide range of languages in the absence of a satisfactory grounding in contemporary linguistic theory. It was due to his search for a theoretical basis that would permit him to analyze and make sense of a vast amount of empirical data that he developed his brand of tagmemics. (A tagmeme is normally defined as the smallest functional grammatical element of a language. It is parallel in usage to the morpheme [the smallest functional lexical unit of a language] and the phoneme [the smallest functional phonological unit of a language].)

Pike's tagmemic approach differs from mainstream American linguistics in various technical respects, but above all in its complexity. A key feature of Pike's thinking about language is that he abandons the Saussurian distinction between langue and parole. His reason for doing so was because the large amounts of materials that he and his collaborators collected showed that speech itself was highly standard, an analytical characteristic that was normally reserved for formal, written language according to the mainstream view. As elaborated by Pike, tagmemics remained an important branch of American structuralism, but he distanced himself from other leading linguists of his day in striving to describe linguistic regularities in accord with sociocultural behavior instead of abstract models. Part of the methodology of tagmemics was determined by the sheer necessity of the chief task that its practitioners faced: translating the Bible into previously unwritten, unresearched, "esoteric" languages. Pike goes further in combining tagmemes to form syntagmemes, thus enabling him to engage in advanced syntactical analysis. Pike's most profound and far-reaching contribution to the history of ideas, however, is his application of etic and emic analysis to linguistic research. This distinction between the material and functional study of language had an enormous impact upon anthropology and other fields, albeit often in poorly understood and badly distorted guises.

After a couple of decades in which theoretical research reigned supreme, the restoration of empirical studies of language was furthered in the 1970s and 1980s with the inauguration of discourse studies. A landmark in this development is Strategies of Discourse Comprehension (1983), co-authored by Teun van Dijk, a linguist, and Walter Kintsch, a psychologist. A salient feature of their work is its interdisciplinary quality, requiring linguistic and computer analysis of texts, experiments in psychology laboratories, sociological field studies, and so forth. They also relied on literary scholarship, classical poetics and rhetoric, Russian formalism, and Czech structuralism, as well as sociolinguistics, ethnography, and folklore studies. All of these approaches were integrated under the umbrella of "the wide new field of cognitive science."

A linguistic loner who has had a remarkable impact on the classification of languages is Joseph H. Greenberg (19152001). Greenberg started out as a language typologist. Language typology identifies ideal types (for example, agglutinative, [in]flectional, isolating, etc., but there are, of course, many other characteristics that must be taken into account) and proceeds to group individual languages under these categories. Greenberg's fame rests in part on his seminal contributions to synchronic linguistics and his indefatigable quest to identify language universals. His typological approach contrasts with that of genetic classification, which is premised on delineating the development of languages from older precursors. Greenberg was always collecting data, which he copied down in countless notebooks. Known as a "lumper" (as opposed to a "splitter") par excellence, in 1955 Greenberg reduced more than 1,500 African languages to just four supergroups. Later he would ascribe all of the indigenous languages of the Americas to just three main waves of migrants, whereas they had formerly been grouped into hundreds of families. Greenberg achieved these nearly miraculous feats through the application of what he styled mass lexical comparison or multilateral comparison. Mainstream linguists were outraged, with one of the most distinguished among them publicly calling for Greenberg to be "shouted down." At stake were sacrosanct issues of methodology relating to phonology, etymology, and other vital components of linguistics. Undaunted, Greenberg dedicated the last years of his life to the study of Eurasiatic, which brought together all of the languages of Europe and Asia (and then someexcept isolates) and was similar to earlier proposals for Nostratic, minus certain African languages.

In linguistics and language studies, writing is often overlooked. When attention is devoted to writing, it is usually minimized as secondary to speech. The Akkadian specialist I. J. Gelb (19071985) aimed to lay the foundations for a new science of writing that he called grammatology. This approach would not be merely descriptive, as were earlier histories of writing. In his classic work, entitled humbly and plainly A Study of Writing (1952), Gelb attempted to establish general principles governing the use and evolution of written forms of language through comparative and typological analysis. His is the first, and still the only, work to present a universal theory of all known writing systems. Gelb was able to achieve this considerable synthesis by distinguishing clearly between forerunners of writing and writing proper, and by distinguishing further between word-syllabic systems, syllabaries, and alphabets.

In the opinion of those who are involved in computational linguistics, the most important development since the 1980s has been to resurrect the use of statistical methods for analyzing distributional evidence. This general approach was pioneered by Zellig Harris in the early 1950s, but starting around 1955, his student Chomsky simultaneously cast doubt on the viability of such methods and presented a different vision of how to proceed, employing a more axiomatic approach based on explorations in formal language theory. The "cybernetic underground" began skirmishes in the engineering hinterlands during the 1980s and took over computational linguistics entirely by the 1990s. By the early twenty-first century, psycholinguistics had largely succumbed, though there are pockets of resistance. Plain or unhyphenated linguistics is increasingly influenced by statistical methods, both in methodology and in terms of the empirical techniques that are used.

The phonetician Mark Liberman is responsible for building gigantic corpora of data that are used to solve both theoretical issues and practical problems of great merit (such as voice recognition by cybernetic-electronic devices). Many of the brightest minds in linguistics are now laboring quietly at the task of figuring out how to enable human beings and machines to talk to each other. One of the leading theoreticians engaged in this area of research is Roland Hausser, whose Foundations of Computational Linguistics: Man-Machine Communication in Natural Language (1999) offers a prescient look at what the future holds in store with regard to the human-machine interface.

One of the most exciting new realms of investigation in historical linguistics is the application of genetics. According to Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, one of the leading researchers in this field, the genes of modern populations contain a record of the human species stretching back 100,000 years. What is more, conclusions drawn from the study of modern genetic material are now being corroborated by direct recourse to ancient DNA. It is striking that genetic and linguistic trees match each other closely, and archeological data provide further confirmation of the movements and intricate interrelationships of ancient peoples.


Although human beings have for millennia taken an intense interest in the languages they speak, modern linguistics has gradually developed as an independent discipline (some would be willing to call it a science) only during the past few centuries. Hundreds of major figures have contributed to this development, and thousands of others have had a significant impact upon linguistics and its host of subfields. It has been possible here only to introduce briefly some of the main ideas of several of the individuals who have been instrumental in making language study what it is at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In many cases, it has been possible to do little more than mention some of their names and their areas of expertise to signal to the interested reader the necessity of investigating further the full range of their work. Scores of other truly outstanding linguists have not even been mentioned at all.

Linguistics is a vibrant, unsettled field, one in which passions run high. In the end, as with so much else pertaining to the intellectual pursuits of humankind, it is evident that a goodly portion of the contradictions and energy that suffuse linguistics can be attributed to the perennial dichotomy between the Aristotelian and the Platonic, between unity and infinity, between the fox and the hedgehog.

See also Language, Linguistics, and Literacy ; Language, Philosophy of .


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Victor H. Mair

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