LINGUIST List 9.721

Fri May 15 1998

Disc: Philology vs. Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Brett Churchill <>


  1. Prof. R.M. Chandler-Burns, Re: 9.591 & 9.685, Disc: Philology vs. Linguistics

Message 1: Re: 9.591 & 9.685, Disc: Philology vs. Linguistics

Date: Mon, 11 May 1998 06:50:38 -0400 (EDT)
From: Prof. R.M. Chandler-Burns <>
Subject: Re: 9.591 & 9.685, Disc: Philology vs. Linguistics

The following is taken from the last two pages of an article
written by Norman Bird for the journal _English for Medical
Purposes Newsletter_ (1986) Vol. 3, number 1, pp30-35 (ISSN-
0258-9672 and will be reissued in late 1998 or early 1999
in the electronic journal _English for Medical Purposes from
Mexico_ (1999): 16:1 at URL:
< >

I believe the differences of approaches in linguistics and
philology from a British point of view can clearly be discerned
in the following 140-line text from the postscript:


Postscript: Bloomfield Revisited

 The problems raised in this article are, in fact,
of a much more general and yet fundamental nature than those
discussed above; they relate directly to the poor definition
of terms in theoretical linguistics, which has a powerful,
albeit indirect, effect on applied and pedagogical linguistics.
The fundamental issue was raised 60 years ago and was handled
disastrously; in the debate to determine the parameters of
linguistic description, Bloomfield made assertions which
were to create a deep rift between synchronic and diachronic
linguistics. In his seminal work _Language_ (1933) he described
the morpheme as "a linguistic form which bears no partial
phonetic-semantic resemblance to any other form."
(Bloomfield 1933:161)

This was an acceptable working hypothesis, but he then also

 "In order to describe a language, one needs no historical
 knowledge whatsoever; in fact, the observer who allows
 such knowledge to affect his descriptions is bound to
 distort his data. Our descriptions must be unprejudiced
 if they are to give a sound basis for comparative work . . .
 The only useful generalisations about language are
 inductive generalisations." (Bloomfield 1933:19-20)

As a result of Bloomfield's prestige and his making statements
of this sort, many linguists, including applied linguists,
felt themselves absolved of the need to study ancient languages
and philology, with sad consequences. It was only later
realised that Bloomfield's definition of the morpheme was
difficult to apply in the field. Twenty-two years later,
Gleason wrote: "An exact definition (of the morpheme) is
not feasible." (Gleason:1955:52).

And another 20 years later the position had not radically
changed; Ljung concluded: "Thus the morpheme, we may say, is
still very much a linguistic category to be reckoned with,
but it is largely taken for granted rather than defined."
(Ljung 1974:3)

It is not unreasonable to suppose that the uncertain position
of the morpheme and the lack of any clear definition may be
2 reasons for the recent lack of interest in morphology and
its allied fields. Only in the most recent years do there
seem to have any signs of change, e.g. Maher (1969, 1977)
and Bird (1971, 1984). Maher has perhaps been the most
outspoken critic of Bloomfield to date:

 "The neglect of history that stems from the post-Saussurean
 antimony of synchrony and diachrony characterises the work
 of the Tranformational-Generativists every bit as much as
 their mentors, the Descriptivists. . . And today's
 theorists 'enjoy' the same results because of Bloomfieldean
 blight on history, which . . . they haven't at all shaken
 off . . ." (Maher 1969, 1977)

Maher's outspokenness is such, in fact, that Raimo Antilla
quotes in his foreward to Maher's selected papers, that

 "a 'grand old man' of American linguistics at Harvard
 wondered whether the author was writing under a pseudonym,
 for no one would dare to publish such common-sense
 scholarship under his own name." (Maher 1977:xi)

The tradition of philological research has never, in fact,
ceased during this century, as is witnessed by the following,
albeit small, selection of authors and their works: Vasmer
(1953-58)a, Pokorny (1959, 1969), Partridge (1966), Bird (1982
after Pokorny) & Mann (1982-). A strong recovery, however,
depends on a reconciliation between diachrony and synchrony
in linguistics. Such a reconciliation of the two approaches
to morphology is possible, but it involves either the rejection
or at least an extension of Bloomfield's definition to include
a diachronic element--or alternatively the establishment of a
new level of analysis altogether. This has been suggested
elsewhere (Bird 1984:446) in a discussion of the possibility
of establishing an enti rely new concept, the archimorpheme.

 An agreed definition of such basic terms as 'morpheme'
and 'root' is long overdue. If agreement can be reached by the
theoretical linguists, then the benefits for applied linguistics
concerned with the effective use of such research materials
as lexical frequency lists for pedagogical purposes will
doubtless be very far-reaching indeed.


Bauer, L (1983) English Word Formation, London, CUP
Bird, N (1971) The Polish Morphemes of Native Origin,
 MPhil Thesis, University of London
Bird, N (1982) The Distribution of Indo-European Root
 Morphemes: A Checklist for Philologists, Wiesbaden,
Bird, N (1984) A Critical Evaluation of an Inventory of
 Polish and Russian Root Morphemes of Native Origin,
 PhD Thesis, University of London
Bloomfield, L (1933) Language, New York: Holt
Gleason, HA (1955) Introduction to Descriptive Linguistics,
 New York, Holt
Hofland, K & S Johansson (1982) Word Frequencies in British
 & American English (The LOB Corpus) Distribution:
 London, Longman (1984)
Kucera, H & N Francis (1967) Computational Analysis of
 Present-Day American English (The Brown Corpus)
 Providence, RI, Brown University Press
Ljung, M (1974) A Frequency Dictionary of English Morphemes
 Stockholm, AWE/Gerbers
Maher, JP (1977) The Paradox of Creation and Tradition in
 Grammar: Sound Pattern of a Palimpsest, in J Peter
 Maher--Papers on Language Theory & History I, Current
 Issues in Linguistic Theory, Vol 3 Amsterdam, John
Mann, SE (1984-) An Indo-European Comparative Dictionary
 Hamburg, Buske
Partridge, E (1966) Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary
 of Modern English London, Routledge, Keegan, Paul
Pokorny, J (1959, 1966 Index) Indogermanisches Etymologisches
 Worterbuch Bern, Francke
Proctor, P (1978) Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English
 Harlow Longman
Salager, F (1983) The Lexis of Fundamental Medical English:
 Classificatory Framework & Rhetorical Function--A
 Statistical Approach Reading in a Foreign Language
Salager, F (1985) Specialist Medical English Lexis: Classi-
 ficatory Framework & Rhetorical Function--A Statistical
 Approach EMP Newsletter, II,2
Sapir, E (1921) Language, London, Harvest
Vasmer, M (1953, 1955, 1958) Russisches Etymologisches
 Worterbuch (3 volumes) Heidelberg, Winter
West, M (1936) A General Services List of English Words London,
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