Toward a History of American Linguistics

By E. F.K. Koerner | Go to book overview
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My first interest in American linguistics goes back to 1966, when I was a graduate student in English and German philology at Justus Liebig University in Giessen, a provincial city north of Frankfurt. My professor, a Germanic philologist who had taken an interest in structural linguistics, decided to offer a seminar in which each student was to prepare a report on a major book. I ended up with Charles Hockett's Course in Modern Linguistics which I found difficult to understand, not only because it was rather technical in parts but also because I found non-historical thinking a strange angle from which to approach anything, not just language. At the time, I had no idea that two years later I would be in North America and taking formal courses in 'modern linguistics', phonology, morphology, syntax and general linguistic theory.

If memory serves me well, my first major paper, which I sent off to a German journal after two semesters of doctoral studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C., had its origin in the same Giessen seminar where each participant also had to submit a paper at the end of the course. Mine dealt with the issue of the treatment of meaning in American structural linguistics. 1 In other words, my interest in the history of American linguistics is of long standing. My European, philological background (I had previously studied at the Universities of Göttingen, Berlin, and Edinburgh) and general interest in history may help explain why the history of western linguistics eventually became my chosen field of academic pursuit following the completion and defence of my doctoral thesis at the end of 1971. 2

The present book is to some extent the summary of my incursions into the history of American linguistics from 17th-century missionary study of indigenous languages to the work of Noam Chomsky and William Labov at the end of the 20th century. It responds in a way to several other studies pertaining to

1 See Koerner, "Bloomfieldian Linguistics and the Problem of 'Meaning': A chapter in the history and study of language", Jahrbuch für Amerikastudien/German Yearbook of American Studies 15.162-183 (Heidelberg, 1970). It was anthologized almost thirty years later in Leonard Bloomfield: Critical assessments ed. by John G. Fought, vol.II, 142-166 (London & New York: Routledge, 1999).

2 It was the basis of Koerner, Ferdinand de Saussure: Origin and Development of His Linguistic Thought in Western Studies of Language. A contribution to the history and theory of linguistics (Braunschweig: Friedrich Vieweg & Sohn, 1973), a book which was later also translated into Hungarian (Budapest: Tankönyvkiadó, 1982), Japanese (Tokyo: Taishukan, 1982), and Spanish (Madrid: Gredos, 1982).


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