Toward a History of American Linguistics

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

CHAPTER 9

ON THE ORIGINS OF MORPHOPHONEMICS IN AMERICAN LINGUISTICS

1.

Introductory remarks

As recently as 1997, Noam Chomsky reiterated what he had affirmed on several occasions much earlier that when working out his ideas on rule ordering for his Master's thesis on Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew in 1951, he had not had access to Bloomfield's "Menomini Morphophonemics" paper of 1939, at the same time suggesting that the generative model of linguistic analysis he developed during his student years was more or less original with him. In this chapter it is argued that Chomsky's memory of his early work and of what he read at the time has at best been sketchy, and that in effect even if he did not have direct access to a copy of Travaux du Cercle Linguistique de Prague vol. 8 prior to the completion of his M.A. thesis, he had very likely been able to absorb the essentials of Bloomfield's ideas about rule ordering through, among others, reading the proofs of his supervisor's main theoretical work, Zellig S. Harris' Methods in Structural Linguistics. In this book, which had been circulating in manuscript form since 1946, Harris discusses the salient points of Bloomfield's 1939 argument in a section entitled "Morphophonemics". Although Harris' book was not published until 1951, its preface, signed January 1947, thanks none other than Noam Chomsky for helping with the proofs. It may also be pointed out that Harris' Methods contains the essentials of the generative approach to language which is by now almost exclusively associated with Noam Chomsky's name, not to mention the fact that Harris' 1941 and 1948 articles on Hebrew provided more than simply the data of which Chomsky's 1951 M.A. thesis constitutes largely a 'restatement' in a much more abstract, technical form of his own making. In other words, it is the subject of this chapter to demonstrate that there has been much more continuity and cumulative advance in American linguistics than we have been made to believe both by the active participants in the 'revolution', the followers, and the court historians (cf. Chapter 8, for details).

When engaging in historiographical work, a serious scholar ascertains all possible sources for the documentation of a given subject, notably written materials, published or unpublished. He will of course pay particular atten-

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