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Language and Linguistics

The Structuralist Era

The father of structuralism (and many would say of the modern science of linguistics) was the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913). 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 century—following the lead of Saussure—became 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 (1884–1939) 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 language—including many of its most specific and distinguishing features—that 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 terms—that 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 (1896–1934).

Although Leonard Bloomfield (1887–1949) 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 Saussure—or 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 (1899–1965), 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 (1861–1947), 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 (1909–1967), 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 (1897–1941), 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 languages—like all people—are 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.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Kabbalah Mysticism - Types Of Kabbalah to LarynxLanguage and Linguistics - Philosophers, Grammarians, And Neogrammarians, The Structuralist Era, The Transformational Generative Insurrection, Other Voices