The beginnings of American linguistics the end of the 19th c the study of language in North America in isolation from Europe



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The beginnings of American linguistics

the end of the 19th c.

  • the study of language in North America in isolation from Europe

  • TWO RATHER DIFFERENT TRADITIONS:

  • one determined regular academic studies in the major universities, especially East Coast, and followed the historical, philological approach (current also in Europe at the time)

  • the second was the interest in the languages of the indigenous peoples of the Americas

  • explorers and missionaries accumulated information on Amerindian languages

  • this study was institutionalized at the American Philosophical Society; in 1879, the Bureau of Ethnology was established under Powell

  • most research consisted in the collection of word lists; the grammatical accounts were acc. to the Latin mould

William Dwight Whitney (1827-1894)

  • the best known representative of the first tradition

  • the notion of explanation taken from geology:

  • the idea of uniformitarianism in historical change, which rejects exceptional or ‘catastrophic’ events as the source of present natural features

  • causes operating in the past are no different from those of today

  • 1879 Sanskrit Grammar, a descriptive work

  • he also published two books in general linguistics:

  • 1867 Language and the Study of Language, 1875 The Life and Growth of language

  • emphasis on the social character of language; against overly biological or mechanistic views in the direction of more genuinely linguistic lines of thought

Franz Boas (1858-1942)

  • represented the second tradition

  • ‘Papa Franz’, the father of the authentically scientific study of language in North America

  • born in Germany, studied natural sciences there; participated in expeditions (the Eskimo people, other peoples of north-west coast); his interest focused on ethnographic questions; developed association with the Bureau of American Ethnology; taught in Columbia and settled in New York 1896; he was not working for BAE, but his influence grew

  • 1903 the project for the Handbook of American Indian Languages was approved, and Boas assumed the leading role in the investigation of the native languages of North America

  • he did not tolerate the work of others - to ensure a reasonable scholarly standard (though this contributed to extreme ‘territoriality’ among Americanists)

  • language for Boas provided a ‘window on the mind’, with largely unconscious knowledge it represents; language is a particularly revealing aspect of culture

  • the Handbook marks a major turning point, with its format and style of presentation: to provide a common expository format that would facilitate a typological comparison

  • each language should be studied in its own terms - this became the characteristic position of later American structuralism “languages could differ from each other without limit and in unpredictable ways“ (Joos 1957); no language could furnish a framework to study all others, still, an underlying system of linguistic universals is presupposed

  • concern for phonetic accuracy: insofar as two sounds are distinguishable phonetically, it is necessary to reproduce this distinction, thus also a non-contrastive one

  • phonetic representation and phonetic rules as part of a grammar


three components of a grammar:


  • (a) an inventory of the sounds which occur in the languages (contrastive or not)

  • (b) a description of their possible combinations

  • (c) a system of euphonic laws that specify modifications in the shape of linguistic elements when in combination

euphonic laws

  • those laws may be phonetic or not

  • the latter are the processes which will be treated by later theories as non-automatic rules conditioned by grammatical, morphological or lexical factors

  • the laws express relations between the shapes of surface forms, rather than a synchronic derivation of such forms from some more abstract representation

  • B.’s descriptions do not structure the languages they deal with (since include the predictable)

  • ‘fully specified surface variant’ type of the view

Edward Sapir (1884-1939)

  • by far the most important of Boas’s students was Sapir, who had substantially eclipsed Boas as a theoretician of language by the mid-1920s

  • born in Lauenburg, Germany; when he was five, his parents emigrated to the United States; school in New York

  • when in Columbia he met and began to study with Boas; diss. on Takelma (incredibly comprehensive)

  • 1910 Ottawa - the division of anthropology in the Canadian National Museum, worked on Nootka and Sarcee (the first language he studied from the ATHABASKAN family which was to occupy him for much of his life)

  • in 1917 he wrote his description of Southern Paiute (published in 1930)

  • 1921 he published his popular outline Language. An Introduction to the Study of Speech

  • in this period he devoted a lot of time to poetry, music, writing literary reviews

linguistic determinism

  • already in Language: ”…we see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation” (quoted in Whorf 1956: 134)

  • he became increasingly interested in the relationship between personality and culture

  • University of Chicago, shortly S. was a major figure in American anthropology

  • 1931 Yale - Sterling Professorship; at both universities he had a lot of students (e.g. Morris Swadesh and Benjamins Whorf); but he encountered a certain amount of anti-semitic feeling

language as a profoundly mental phenomenon

  • phonemes are sth in the mind, ”the intention of the actual rumble of speech” (S. 1921: 56); but still rather sth like an ideal sound than an abstraction

  • S.’s approach is contrasted with the behaviourist, positivist and mechanistic climate of research which grew up in the 30s and 40s - due to Bloomfield

  • S. was more prominent in the relations between American and European linguistics, corresponded with Trubetzkoy, but he was increasingly in a peripheral, even eccentric position in relation to the mainstream development in the field, he was gradually eclipsed by Bloomfield

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

  • together with Whorf: the structure of language determines the way in which we see and structure the world - language determinism

  • but language’s own structure is in turn determined culturally - linguistic relativity (distinctions encoded in one language are not found in any other language; this could lead to untranslatability)

  • later, psychologists have found that language does influence/determine at least some mental processes:

  • it affects perception and recall, e.g. people recognize and memorize better the colours that have names in their language

  • the existence or absence of some items in a given language due to differences in culture and environment (cf. Boas’s example of the snow-terms in Eskimo)

item and process’ vs. ‘item and arrangement

  • S.’s generalizations are formulated as processes which replace one representation with another: ‘item and process’ descriptions, as Hockett 1954 named them

vs.

  • static statements of distributional regularity, i.e. ‘item and arrangement (the norm in later American phonemics)

methodology of empirical work

  • also acknowledgement of Sapir by sociolinguistics

  • field work: eliciting and analysing material from native speakers, then re-eliciting and re-analysing limited data to identify formal contrasts

  • applying structural analysis to empirical evidence

  • cf. Sapir’s paper on the psychological reality of the phoneme 1949: the transcription errors made by Am. Indians taught to transcribe English & other European languages are predictable from the knowledge of the informants’ phonemic systems

Leonard Bloomfield (1887-1949)

  • the symbol of theoretical thought about language in North America from the 1930s through the 1950s

  • American linguistics in this period basically WAS Bloomfieldian linguistics

  • B. was closely identified with the rise of a distinct professional field of linguistics (Boas’s and Sapir’s work was thought of as placed within the tradition of anthropology)

  • one factor of this identification was B.’s prominence in the development of the new institutions of the new field

  • he wrote a ‘call’ for the formation of a linguistic society, was author of the lead article ”Why a Linguistic Society?” in the first issue of Language; was president in 1935

  • taught several times at the Linguistic Institute, including introductory courses, which was v. important at the time when linguistics was taught at a very few universities

  • he constantly stressed the independence of linguistics from other disciplines

  • while his views were aligned with the scientific and philosophical tenor of the times

  • his text Language served as the intro to the field for more than one generation of students

  • also impact of his popular and effective teaching

Leonard Bloomfield was…

  • born in Chicago; Harvard, Wisconsin (there met Eduard Prokosch and settled on Germanic and linguistics); 1908 doctorate in Chicago; Illinois where his major teaching responsibility (as later as well) was German

  • he concerned himself seriously with problems of language pedagogy

  • 1913-14 Leipzig and Göttingen (Indo-European, Sanskrit); however, this was a rather unfortunate time to pursue Germanic studies

  • 1914 his first major work: An Introduction to the Study of Language, based on Wundt’s views on the psychological nature of language (!)

  • 1921 full professor at Ohio State University, where he took on behaviourist mechanist views about the nature of the human mind (among others, from Alfred P. Weiss) which completely replaced Wundt

  • 1927 invited to the Uni of Chicago (where Sapir was); B. worked on the ALGONQUIAN languages

  • 1933 published Language

  • 1940 Sterling Professor at Yale, but never settled there

  • WWII broke out and he devoted time to the Army’s Intensive Language Program

  • he left unfinished, among others, the grammar of Menomini, later prepared for publication by Charles Hockett

Bloomfield’s views

  • initial interest in Wundt’s Völkerpsychologie was replaced by behaviourist, mechanist assumption about the nature of the human mind

  • passion for scientific explanation based solely on relating observable factors by principles of logic and mathematics (maintaining neogrammarian assumptions)

  • for B. meaning is entirely in terms of situation, context and the disposition of a speaker to respond in a particular way to particular stimuli ( a reductionist account of meaning)

  • to talk about an unobservable ‘concept’ was for B. antiscientific mysticism

a theory of language change

  • B. stressed the regularity of change: change cannot be due to any sporadic factors; it is due to phonetic mechanist regularity

  • but, he also gave an account of analogy and borrowing in Language

  • change is what remains if you set those mechanisms aside

  • sound change consists in replacement of certain sound sequences by others, so it CANNOT affect only part of the vocabulary determined by some extraphonetic criteria

  • phonemes change; when this happens, it affects in identical ways every linguistic form in which the changed phoneme occurs

  • independence of linguistic structure from extralinguistic factors

a phoneme

  • a minimal unit of distinctive sound feature” (1933:79)

  • a theory of incompletely specified phonemes: a phoneme is a cluster of exactly distinctive properties of a segment, but it’s a unitary Gestalt, not analyzable into constituent distinctive features

  • similarities with Sapir & Hjelmslev: phonemes are classified into vowels and consonants on the basis of their role in the syllable - definable in terms of peaks of sonority

  • phonemes are also classified in terms of their distributional properties

  • independence of such classifications from purely phonetic considerations

  • but, for Bloomfield, the fact of alternations such as bath vs. bathe does not establish a phonological connection between the dentals: such relations belong to morphology (or syntax)

representations

  • his theory was a theory of phonemic representations to be assigned to each particular linguistic form in the language, independent of other forms

  • only phonemic representation has any systematic significance, whereas the phonetic one can be discarded, since phonetic transcription is an imperfect approximation to the complete physical record (which is never given by transcribers)

  • expulsion of phonetics from linguistics (see also B. de Courtenay, Trubetzkoy, Hjelmslev)

  • language is a system of communication, so only features which serve communicating meanings are essentially linguistic

linguistic phonetics

  • now we know it is an empirical fact that nondistinctive features are also governed by the grammar (e.g. aspiration, length of vowels in English etc.)

  • with Ladefoged, a serious study of systematic phonetic differences within and between languages began: linguistic phonetics; phonetic transcription indicates those features which are potentially under linguistic control


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