Academic journal article Studies in Literature and Language

Leonard Bloomfield and the Exclusion of Meaning from the Study of Language

Academic journal article Studies in Literature and Language

Leonard Bloomfield and the Exclusion of Meaning from the Study of Language

Article excerpt


In this study the attempt was made to find out whether Bloomfield was only interested in the structural description of language, and therefore he excluded the study of meaning. This was done by the examination of his (1933) published book LANGUAGE which is still considered to be the most relevant study on language ever written, because it covers all traditions of language study - historical-comparative, philosophical-descriptive and practical-descriptive.

The present paper has shown that Bloomfield regarded meaning as a weak point in language study and believed that it could be totally stated in behaviorist terms. For Bloomfield, the context of situation was an important level of linguistic analysis alongside syntax, morphology, phonology, and phonetics, all of which contribute to linguistic meaning. Meaning then covers a variety of aspects of language, and there is no general agreement about the nature of meaning. This paper, therefore, should be considered only as a clarification of Bloomfield's understanding of meaning.

Key words: Context of situation; Traditional grammarians; Behaviourism; Mentalistic psychology; Linguistic meaning; Generative grammar


Bloomfield's approach to linguistics can be characterized by his emphasis on its scientific basis, his adherence to behaviourism, and by his emphasis on formal procedures for the analysis of linguistic data. This approach put the American linguists at dispute not only with rival approaches but also with the wide-spread philosophy and humanities. De Beaugrande emphasizes this aspect in his (1991) published book, he writes "Bloomfield's language fostered in American linguistics a spirit of confrontation not merely against rival approaches,but also against prevailing philosophy, language teaching, and the humanities at large" (83ff).

Bloomfield was annoyed with the philosophers because they "took it for granted that the structure of their language embodies the universal forms of human thought or even of the cosmic order, and looked for truth about the universe in what really nothing but formal features of one or another language" (1933, p.5). Philosophers then confined their grammatical observations to one language and stated them in philosophic terms. Bloomfield believed that philosophers were mistaken in that they "forced their description into the scheme of Latin grammar" (1933, p.5), and in that they held Latin to be "the logically normal form of human speech" (1933, p.8). For the same reason, Bloomfield criticized the traditional grammarians whose doctrine was to define categories of the English language in philosophical terms. Bloomfield was also at dispute with them because they were convinced that "the grammarian can prescribe how people ought to speak," and thus they "ignore actual usage in favour of speculative notions"(1933, p.7). Moreover, Bloomfield attacked the mentalistic psychology because of its inability to capture the totality of meaning, and because of its inaccessibility to scientific investigation by available techniques. This position of Bloomfield about mentalistic psychology was misinterpreted as if he ignored the importance of meaning in human use of language. (cf.Palmer, F.R., 1982 and 1996). Nevertheless, Bloomfield regarded considerations of meaning as essential. His critics regard meaning as existent somewhere outside of the individual speaker. However, they tried to make practical use of the concept LINGUISTIC MEANING. This concept is concerned with relations within language and with relations between language and the outside world as well. The relations within language are associated with the lexical item (word) and with a lexical structure whose study is known as lexical or structural semantics; the relations between language and the external world are concerned with the meaning of language in terms of the situations to which language refers or in which language occurs. The relations between language and the world were excluded by some studies such as generative grammar studies. …

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