Toward a History of American Linguistics

By E. F.K. Koerner | Go to book overview

IN LIEU OF A CONCLUSION ON THE IMPORTANCE OF THE HISTORY OF LINGUISTICS

As can be shown from history, those who have no past, usually have no future either.

Manfred Fuhrmann *


1.

Introductory remarks

For some thirty years now, I have been arguing for the importance of the history of linguistics, and while not everyone has been convinced by the arguments, the climate of opinion has indeed changed. During the early 1970s, in the earlier stages of the institutionalization effort of the history of linguistics as a bona fide subject of instruction within linguistics proper, it seemed natural to make a strong appeal to the methodological soundness of linguistic historiography in order to render the subject respectable in the eyes of 'real' linguists for whom linguistics meant 'theory' (see Koerner 1972, 1976 as examples of this approach). This original attitude to matters historical might, at least initially, have had something to do with the success of Chomsky's Cartesian Linguistics (1966), given that Chomsky was in a way combining theory with an interest in finding antecedents for what he was doing. Even though this type of ancestor hunt, an essentially presentist and unhistorical approach, was soon discredited, Chomsky's incursions into the linguistic past made an engagement in this kind of activity appear legitimate for a number of North Americans during the late 1960s and early 1970s. 1

In Europe as well as among European-born linguists living in America, a historical approach to many subjects had a long tradition, and this may explain the fact that the scholarly reactions to Chomsky's Cartesian Linguistics were almost universally critical, at times rather harshly so (cf. Koerner & Tajima

* "Wie sich durch Beispiele aus der Geschichte belegen läßt, pflegt derjenige, der keine Vergangenheit hat, auch keine Zukunft zu haben." (Manfred Fuhrmann, Bildung: Europas kulturelle Identität, Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam, 2001, p.111).

1 For a critique of this naïve approach to the subject, see my reviews of Peter H. Salus' On Language: Plato to von Humboldt (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1969) in Lingua 25:4.419-431 (1970), and of the same author's Pānini to Postal: A bibliography in the history of linguistics (Edmonton, Alta. & Champaign, Ill.: Linguistic Research, Inc., 1971) in Foundations of Language 10:4.589-594 (1973).

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