LINGUIST List 15.1555

Fri May 14 2004

Review: History of Linguistics: Brown & Law (2002)

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  1. Fiona Carolyn Marshall, Linguistics in Britain: Personal Histories

Message 1: Linguistics in Britain: Personal Histories

Date: Fri, 14 May 2004 13:48:31 -0400 (EDT)
From: Fiona Carolyn Marshall <>
Subject: Linguistics in Britain: Personal Histories

EDITOR: Brown, Keith; Law, Vivien
TITLE: Linguistics in Britain
SUBTITLE: Personal Histories
PUBLISHER: Blackwell publishing
YEAR: 2002
Announced at

Fiona Marshall, University of Sheffield


'Linguistics in Britain: Personal Histories' is the 36th volume in the
Publications of the Philological Society series. Commissioned by the
Council of the Philological Society, this volume comprises the
'linguistic autobiographies' of 23 leading British linguists whose
significant contributions to the development of the subject in Britain
have thus far been unattested. To date, the modicum of literature on
the history of 20th- century British linguistics has been concerned
primarily, though not solely, with the earlier schools of linguistic
thought and the various battles between them. Langendoen (1968)
focuses on the contributions of J. R. Firth (1890- 1960) and the
so-called 'London School', together with the influential work of
Bronislaw Malinowsky (1884-1942). Sampson (1980) deals with the major
strands of international linguistic theory and, accordingly, makes
only one concession to British linguistics in a short chapter on the
'London School' (Sampson 1980, Ch.9). Between them, Robins (1963);
Harris (1988); and Matthews (1999) effectively span the first six
decades of the 20th century. In his fine overview of 20th-century
linguistics, Joseph (1995) briefly considers the role of British
linguistics in an international context, whilst Palmer (1995) and
Robins (1992) complement the existing literature on British
linguistics with respective synopses of Firth's contributions to
linguistics and to the Philological Society. As Borsley (Unpublished)
recently observed, the history of 20th-century British linguistics
undoubtedly remains an under-researched area. Brown and Law (2002)
is, therefore, a welcome addition to the literature.


This edited volume is essentially a collection of memoirs and not a
history of linguistics as such. Indeed the editors candidly admit to
not having shaped 'an academic history of linguistics in Britain'
(p. vii). Nevertheless, Brown and Law (2002) provides the reader with
a fascinating insight into the significant achievements of British
linguistics in the second half of the 20th century. Solicited
contributions featured in this volume include those by Jean Aitchison
(pp. 1-13), W. Sidney Allen (pp. 14-27), R. E. Asher (pp. 28-42),
John Bendor-Samuel (pp. 43-52), Gillian Brown (pp. 53-66), N.
E. Collinge (pp. 67-77), Joseph Cremona (pp. 78-90), David Crystal
(pp. 91-103), Gerald Gazdar (pp. 105-115), Michael Halliday
(pp. 116-126), Richard Hudson (pp. 127- 138), John Laver
(pp. 139-154), Geoffrey Leech(pp. 155- 169), John Lyons (pp. 170-199),
Peter Matthews (pp. 200- 212), Anna Morpurgo-Davies (pp. 213-227),
Frank Palmer (pp. 228-238), Randolph Quirk (pp. 239-248), R. H. Robins
(pp. 249-261), Neil Smith (pp. 270-273), John Trim (pp. 274-285),
Peter Trudgill (pp. 286-296), and John Wells (pp. 270-306).

Contributors were not given strict format guidelines to follow.
However, they were asked to state their reasons for embarking upon a
career in linguistics. They were also invited to comment on what
aspects of linguistics attracted them to particular branches; to
reflect on the various ways in which they were influenced by their few
seniors (e.g. Firth and Daniel Jones (1881-1967)); and to account for
what they deem to be their own contributions to the intellectual and
institutional development of linguistics in the 20th century. As
Brown and Law point out in the Preface to this volume (pp. vii-viii),
hardly any linguistics degree courses had been established in British
universities prior to the 1950s, and the majority were set up in the
1960s and later (p. vii). Consequently, the first generation of
British linguists was forced to try and establish itself in a field
which, in terms of securing institutional status, was in its foetal
stages. Of particular interest in this anthology of papers is the way
in which the development of the subject is observed, at times from
very different perspectives, through the eyes of these eminent
linguists who, amongst many others not included in this volume, were
centrally involved in its expansion.

Naturally, given that the field of linguistics was in a relative stage
of infancy in the mid-20th century, the majority of contributors to
this volume did not harbour any long-term ambitions to become
linguists. Many appear to have fallen into the subject by chance;
either due a background in classical languages, an inherent curiosity
about language(s), or subsequent to coming into contact with an
inspirational senior or colleague. It seems that Firth in particular
played a major role in the early development of linguistics in
Britain. In his contribution to Brown and Law (2002), R. H. Robins
(1921- 2000) remembers that Firth made no secret of his desire to
ensure that the Department of Phonetics and Linguistics at the School
of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) became 'a centre of general
linguistics' in post- war Britain (p. 254). According to Robins, his
professional career in linguistics owed a debt to Firth more than to
any other major figure in the field (ibid.). Many others, including
Geoffrey Leech and John Lyons, share this view. Leech maintains that
Firth was 'in many ways the founder of linguistics as a discipline in
the UK' (p. 156); whilst Lyons testifies that at one time Firth's was
indeed 'the best department of linguistics in Britain' (p. 175).

We often take it for granted that talented students are able to move
with relative ease from one stage in their university education to the
next (subject to obtaining funding of course). This was not always
the case however. The onset of the Second World War (WWII), for
example, temporarily impeded the education of many gifted students
and, to some extent, the progress of the subject. Amongst these
conscripted students were Sidney Allen (pp. 17-18), Frank Palmer
(p. 230), Randolph Quirk (p. 241), and R. H. Robins
(pp. 251-253). John Trim observes the difficulty for younger scholars
in conceiving of 'the situation of academic life half a century ago'
(p. 274). However, this volume goes some way towards finding a remedy
for this problem. The reminiscences of the more senior members of the
linguistics community serve as a reminder to post-war generations that
the journey through the university system has not always been

Harsh realities of warfare aside, we ought to acknowledge that
students of today are faced with an entirely different set of
problems. University cutbacks have made it increasingly difficult for
doctoral candidates to obtain financial assistance. Lack of funding
is a problem with which Peter Trudgill is all too familiar.
Initially, Trudgill was 'not successful in an application for a
further state studentship', and it seemed he would be unable to
undertake his proposed PhD at Edinburgh (1967-70) (p. 289). However,
he was rewarded for his persistent attempts to secure financial
support when his former College (King's, Cambridge) agreed to fund his
first year. Subsequently Edinburgh funded him. Trudgill firmly
believes that had he been a student in today's climate, with a failed
funding application behind him, he would almost certainly 'have had no
chance of a career in academic linguistics' (p. 290). When bearing in
mind Trudgill's highly influential work in the burgeoning field of
sociolinguistics, it may well cause us to consider the potential cost
for linguistics if equally exceptional students are unable to embark
upon a career in the field due to an absence of funding.
Reading 'Linguistics in Britain', it is hard to believe the discipline
has achieved so much in such a short amount of time. Both John
Bendor-Samuel (p. 51) and Peter Matthews (p. 210) report on the
unavoidable difficulties in keeping abreast of the latest trends in
linguistic theory as the field has proliferated. In fact, Jean
Aitchison considers her most important role in developing the
discipline to be rooted in her attempts to link together the
ever-escalating subsections of linguistics to present a 'broader view'
(pp. 10-11). As the discipline has expanded, and simultaneously sub-
divided, its practitioners have initiated and witnessed many changes;
not only as far as developments in linguistic theory are concerned but
also on a more practical level. R. E. Asher recalls, for example,
that the then obligatory field trips at SOAS were made all the more
difficult by having to transport cumbersome recording equipment from
one exotic location to the next (p. 33).

One of the major attractions of this volume is the disarming honesty
with which each contributor tells his/her story. John Lyons and Peter
Matthews, in particular, are refreshingly honest and self-effacing.
Lyons writes an honourable account of his early successes along with a
moving description of the ways in which his recurring illness was to
have adverse effects on his later career (p. 170-199). Matthews is
equally unassuming and confesses that he has often 'gone left when the
field has gone right' (p. 211). Daring to turn left when others are
turning right in droves is not necessarily a bad thing. For my part,
it is not difficult to agree categorically with Matthews when he
declares that 'academic work is definitely more fun if one does not
run with the hounds' (ibid.).


It is not unduly difficult to see why this volume is proving
enormously popular within the linguistics community. It appeals to
seasoned academics and students alike. In addition to reflecting on
linguistic achievements from a historical perspective, each
autobiographical account affords the reader a rare personal insight
into the range of problems faced by those engaged in a typical
struggle en route to institutional status. Perhaps an obvious
limitation of 'Linguistics in Britain' is that it is not an academic
history, but it does not claim to be a scholarly contribution to the
history of linguistics literature. If this collection is taken as
intended, that is as a series of engaging personal reminiscences
written by some of those who can rightly claim to have played a
central role in the development of linguistics in the 20th century;
the strengths undoubtedly prevail over the few weaknesses. Of course,
it is regrettable that many linguists of equal distinction to those
featured in this volume are conspicuous by their absence (e.g. Roy
Harris, Angus McIntosh, and Jeffrey Ellis). However, the editor of any
collected volume of papers will be alert to the problems involved in
recruiting willing participants. It is especially difficult to find
contributors whose ability to participate in a project is not
constrained in some measure by time and/or work commitments. Both John
Lyons (p. 170) and Randolph Quirk (p. 247) admit that, for various
reasons, they were initially reluctant to contribute to the volume.

Since each contributor was encouraged to construct his/her own
historical account according to the individual style and approach
preferred, it could be argued that these 'loose guidelines' (p. vii)
have resulted in a volume lacking in uniformity. However, I would
argue that it is precisely this irregular format that adds to the
unorthodox but integral quality of this exemplary volume. Inevitably
there are a few factual discrepancies (e.g. according his great friend
Frank Palmer, Robins died in April 2000 (p. 231), not 2001, as stated
on p. 249). However, inconsistencies are to be expected in a
miscellaneous volume of personal recollections. Most worthy of note
perhaps is Michael Halliday's contention that the first British chair
in linguistics was not, as is commonly supposed, established for Firth
at SOAS in 1944. Contrary to the accepted view, Halliday suggests the
first linguistics chair in Britain did, in fact, belong to Alan Strode
Campbell Ross (1907-80) (p. 122). According to his entry in 'Who was
who' (1981), Ross was a lecturer in English Language at Leeds
University (1936-40). Following the War, he lectured in English
Language at Birmingham University (1946), and the following year he
was promoted to Reader (1947). Subsequently, Ross held a chair in
English Language, also at Birmingham (1948-51), and he became
Professor of Linguistics thereafter (1951-74). In 1944, when Firth
was appointed to his chair in Linguistics, Ross was working for the
Foreign Office (1940-45). On this basis, it seems that Ross's chair
in Linguistics did not predate Firth's. To his credit, Halliday
freely admits that memory often 'constructs its own recordings of past
events' (p. 116) and that it cannot, therefore, be relied upon
entirely. Peter Matthews also recognises that we all have a tendency
to be 'seduced by rosy memories' (p. 206). Brown and Law mention the
problems involved in relying on the recollections of individuals and,
in the absence of being able to gain access to the appropriate
records, they wisely concede to having made no attempt at
synchronizing the personal accounts therein (p. vii).

'Linguistics in Britain: Personal Histories' was proposed by the
Council of the Philological Society partly to mark the recent
millennial juncture. The advent of a new millennium, and indeed the
turn of the 21st century, does present a most opportune moment to
consider the achievements of a discipline so youthful that it achieved
institutional status in the living memory of each contributor to this
volume. Brown and Law (2002) successfully reflects on the rapid growth
of British linguistics since WWII and, perhaps more importantly, it
encourages subsequent generations of linguists to contemplate and
appreciate the considerable achievements of the subject's first
cluster of practitioners. What links this collection of papers into a
single coherent and extremely readable monograph is the fact that each
author can claim to have contributed in part to the rapid expansion of
linguistics, both as an intellectual and institutional discipline in
Britain during the past fifty years, and each can claim to have
contributed in whole to the lively character of the book.


Borsley, R. D. Unpublished. 'British linguistics in the Chomskyan
era'. Online version available at:

Harris, R. (ed.) 1988. Linguistic Thought in England
1914-1945. London: Duckworth.

Joseph, J. E. 1995. 'Trends in Twentieth-Century Linguistics: An
Overview'. In Koerner, E. F. K., and R. E. Asher (eds) 1995, 221-233.

Koerner, E. F. K., and R. E. Asher (eds) 1995. Concise History of the
Language Sciences: From the Sumerians to the Cognitivists. Oxford:

Langendoen, D. T. 1968. The London School of Linguistics: A study of
the linguistic contributions of B. Malinowski and
J. R. Firth. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press.

Matthews, P. H. 1999. 'Linguistic theory and the Philological Society from the
1930s to the 1960s'. In Transactions of the Philological Society, Vol. 97:2.
Oxford: Blackwell, 259-285 [Written version of a paper from the
Sesquicentennial Symposium of the Philological Society, delivered on the
afternoon of Saturday 14 November 1992 under the title 'The impact of
linguistic theory on the Philological Society in the twentieth century'].

Palmer, F. 1995. 'Firth and the London School of Linguistics'. In
Koerner, E. F. K., and R. E. Asher (eds) 1995, 268-272.

Robins, R. H. 1963. 'General Linguistics in Great Britain
1930-1960'. In Mohrmann C., F. Norman, and A. Sommerfelt (eds)
1963. Trends in Modern Linguistics. Antwerp: Spectrum.

Robins, R. H. 1992. 'The London School of Linguistics and the
Philological Society' [Unpublished opening paper from the
Sesquicentennial Symposium of the Philological Society, delivered on
the evening of Friday 13 November 1992 (typescript in the possession
of Professor Peter Matthews)].

Sampson, G. 1980. Schools of Linguistics: Competition and
Evolution. London: Hutchinson.

Who was who, Vol. VII 1971-1980. 1981. 'Alan Strode Campbell
Ross'. London: A & C Black, p. 686.


Fiona Marshall is currently an AHRB-funded (first-year) PhD student at
the University of Sheffield. Her doctoral thesis involves determining
the role of the learned societies in British linguistics in the 20th
century. She is in the process of cataloguing the archives of the
Philological Society; and her forthcoming article, 'Edwin Guest:
Historian, Philologist, and Founder of the Philological Society of
London', is due for publication in May 2004 (The Henry Sweet Society
Bulletin, Issue No. 42).
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