Toward a History of American Linguistics

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

CHAPTER 4

LEONARD BLOOMFIELD AND THECOURS DE LINGUISTIQUE GÉNÉRALE

1.

Introductory observations

Leonard Bloomfield's (1887-1949) theory of language dominated the North American linguistic scene from the mid-1930s until at least the end of the 1950s. 1 With the publication of his book Language in 1933 Bloomfield-whether it was his intention or not-soon replaced the Sapirian approach to language through a much more rigorous, formal approach, which emphasized the autonomous nature of language, cut the traditional ties between linguistics and literature, and distanced linguistics from other social sciences, notably sociology and anthropology (pace Murray [1994:113-115] who views Bloomfield much more in tune with Boas and Sapir than I would be ready to concede). Although it is true that Bloomfield agreed with Franz Boas (1858-1942), whom he regarded as "the pioneer and master in the study of Amerian languages and the teacher in one or another sense, of us all" (1972[1946]: 265), and Edward Sapir (1884-1939) on matters of linguistic analysis, his philosophy of science was inspired by rather different intellectual sources. (There is no indication that Sapir ever read Saussure, for example.)

Those familiar with Bloomfield's work will easily notice that Chomskyan 'autonomous linguistics' has much more in common with Bloomfield's linguistic theory and practice than with Sapir's-quite in contrast to the official stance within Generative Grammar according to which Bloomfield has been dismissed as a 'taxonomist' and Sapir praised as a 'mentalist'. An indication of the refusal to recognize the significance of Bloomfield's contribution to linguistics may be seen in the fact that one of the commercially most successful textbooks in North America-such as the third edition of Fromkin & Rodman's An Introduction to Language of 1983-does not even make mention of Bloomfield's name in its 385 pages, whereas Sapir is at least referred to in

1Indeed, as Murray (1994:129n.29) reports, the hardcover edition of Bloomfield's (1933) Language remained in print until 1976, and sold more than twice as many copies after what has often been regarded as the dawn of a new era in linguistics, i.e., 1957, the year in which Syntactic Structures appeared: 12,800 copies were sold between 1933 and 1956, but 26,800 between 1957 and 1976. The book was reprinted in 1984, with a foreword by Charles F. Hockett, by University of Chicago Press.

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