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Review of  The History of Linguistics in Europe

Reviewer: Margaret J-M Sonmez
Book Title: The History of Linguistics in Europe
Book Author: Vivien Law
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): History of Linguistics
Issue Number: 14.2013

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The book's content, purpose and format.

The content of the book is clearly indicated in its title. It is
described by the writer as a textbook (xv)and assumes no previous
acquaintance with the subject.

In accordance with its teaching aims, its material is organised in
labelled sections and subsections, the endnotes contain references only,
additional information is displayed in user-friendly boxes, pictorial
illustrations are provided, and there is an avoidance of advanced
linguistic or philosophical jargon. The instructional aim is also
revealed throughout by thought-provoking questions and comments directly
addressed to the reader; for example, describing an argument in the
Occitan "Leys d'Amors" there is a parenthetical question that asks
word class would you consign 'Mr' and 'Mrs' to?" (203). At the same
time, this is not a book for school children, for it contains no
oversimplifications or over-generalisations; Law's scrupulous attention
to details and to maintaining as far as possible the highest standards of
scholarliness result in a book that will be appreciated by academics at
any stage of their career, and that is an important reference for
students of the history of thought, not just of linguistic thought.

While the book teems with facts, ideas, comments and analyses, Law has
remained alive to the difficulties readers face in coming upon streams of
facts new to them, the sheer memory overload that occurs when reading
chunks of linguistic thought of the "Plato argued . . . Aristotle said .
. . Priscian wrote . . ." type. Such bald reporting is avoided, and we
are given in its place a coherent history in the course of which the
different ideas and practices of those who wrote about language are
disclosed in their natural places and within their explanatory
contexts.The advantages of this includethose coming from use ofa
single person's "sense of perspective" of "the grand themes and
patterns of the 2,500 years of European Intellectual history" which, Law
notes, "is what disappears between the cracks in a multi-authored
history" (xv). To illustrate a further advantage, whereas books like
Harris and Taylor (1997) (while serving a great need) tell us what
certain people thought about language, Law shows us why they thought that

The use of boxes rather than extended footnotes or simple references to
other works dealing with the points referred to is more than just a
matter of making information more accessible; it enables the writer to
add a large amount to the main text without detracting from the flow of
the story of ideas. It takes great skill and dedication to collect so
much information and to present it so clearly and with such apparent
ease, so much so that when one considers the total number of facts
presented - even in the boxes alone - one is not surprised to learn that
the book is based upon 25 years of research (xvi). The boxes cover a
very wide range of topics from "what is a Golden Age" (Box 3.1, 39)
lists of the Church Fathers (Box 5.3, 98), the Modists (Box 8.7. 174) and
of Early European grammars of Non-European languages (Box 10.4, 219).
There are lists for further reading within each box as well as
bibliographies at the end of each chapter. These would be good places
for postgraduate students to start dissertation workas, especially,
would be the last section of the book, "Research resources for the
history of linguistics" (284-289).

The need for such a book.

Up until now, the student of linguistic thought has had recourse to very
few surveys that cover the period from Classical Greece to 1600. Robins
(1967) has been the only English language book to cover this and later
periods within the same covers; its wider chronological scope, however,
necessarily results in much less space being given to this early period
than the 257 pages that take us up to 1600 in Law. The same is true of
Mounin (1974) who, in an introduction that provides a brief history of
histories of linguistics,identifies a complete lack of satisfactory
historical surveys up tothe early 20th century(Wilhelm Thomsen's
"Sprogvidenskabens Historie"; Copenhagen, 1902), and the scarcity of
surveys, in any language,since then.They are all, he says, either too
cursory, or toodated, or not focussed upon linguistics proper, or
paying little to no attention to earlier periods of thought (8-9).
Robins (1967) is named as the only survey that can satisfy our demands
for contextual and causal explanations (10).

In addition to the general lack of surveys, full-scale studies of the
Middle Ages have been particularly scarce, whereas references to and
discussions of Classical theories of language and to those of the later
Renaissance period are plentiful, if scattered. Law made these
intervening ages her particular domain and published extensively in the
area; more extensively, perhaps, than anyone else. In the middle chapters
of this book, then, she is writing about her special interest and for
once we find a survey that does not lump all the complex issues of those
hundreds of years into one amorphous entity referred to as 'medieval'.
Here, not only are the Middle Ages given a little more space than the
Classical Ages and the Renaissance, but they are presented with their own
chronological and thematic subdivisions (Christianity, the early middle
ages, the Carolingian Renaissance, Scholasticism, Medieval vernacular
grammars). This may be contrasted with the approach of Harris and Taylor
(1997), who selected for their book works mostly "composed either before
100AD or after 1650AD", explaining this huge gap by claiming that
inclusion of more medieval and Renaissance writers "would have promoted
the work of those periods to a level of importance which its limited
originality does not warrant in Western Linguistic thought" (viii).
Robins (1967), who gave us 33 pages, or an average-length chapter, on the
Middle Ages, had indicated however that this period may be not so much
uninteresting as under researched, saying that "a great deal remains to
be done before a really satisfactory full-scale historical treatment of
the years linking Western antiquity with the modern world can be
envisaged" (vi). As Law also does in her introduction, he warned the
reader against the arrogance of dismissing the ideas and discoveries of
one age just because another age (our own) does not place importance on
the same questions: "the aims of science vary in the course of its
history and the search for objective standards by which to judge the
purposes of different periods is apt to be an elusive one" (1967, 3).
Law, friend and "spiritual daughter" (Matthews 2002, 12)of Robins,
finds perhaps the best alternative to objective standards in this case to
lie in one major attribute - the "fundamental attitude" required of
scholars of history - that is, empathy (2003, 276). Both in terms of
scholarship and, ultimately, of ethics, she claims that empathy with
one's sources is essential, and the attempt to demonstrate and instil
such an empathetic approach informs and moulds the whole of her book.

Mounin had, in a way, hinted at the necessity for empathy or something
like it, when he stressed that no thinker, however much of a genius he
may be, is "alone on his individual Mount Sinai, but a link in a very
long chain. The history of any science presents us with a dose of
humility" (1974, 20). Law's book, with its empathy-inducing narration of
the ebb and flow of ideas (2003, 8) administers such a dose, in a most
pleasurable way. It challenges assumptions of the "limited
of thinkers in any of the ages it touches upon, making the reader aware
not only of thenew ideasthat were, in fact, happening during the
derided Medieval period, but also, indirectly, of the narrowness and
historicity of our demands for and definitions of "originality".
Linguists of the Middle Ages were, after all, the first to tackle the
huge and multifarious issues of foreign languages and their diversity, to
study linguistic form in structured declensions and paradigms, and the
first to create a developed metalanguage for grammar (199). Early
Humanists wrote comparative word lists from different languages, the
direct ancestors of later comparisons which lead to the Comparative
Method of historical linguistics; and it was in these early days of the
Renaissance that morphology and articulatory phonetics were at last paid
attention to in the western world (through 16th century translations of
Hebrew grammars (247), ultimately fashioned on Arabic works of the 9th
century (241).). I think Robins, who called this "the book that is to
replace me" (Law 2003, xvi), would have agreed that this is a "really
satisfactory full-scale treatment" of these much neglected years of
linguistic thought.

The balancing of erudition and education

Self-awareness as a (human and) methodological necessity is a strong if
mostlyhidden message in this book, and Law's integrity is again evident
in the awareness of herself and of her methods that she shows. Calling
herself "a researcher rather than a textbook-writer by temperament"
(xvi), she identifies the two elements of detailed scholarship and
explanatory clarity which are often played against each other, or
watered-down, in the search for a compromise in teaching books - and
which she has here so successfully reconciled. Covering what must be
all the main Western grammarians and writers about language in a 2,000
year period, she manages to present more specific details and analyses
from individual works than do any of the other surveys mentioned in this
review. This interplay of the broad view and the deep analysis may be
illustrated with one of many possible examples: her discussion of Donatus

A very brief biography (not much else is known) is followed by a
description of the "Ars Maior" and the "Ars Minor". The
"Ars Maior's"
structure is then given, with the contents of each of the 3 books into
which it is divided being listed (67-68). Law shows how the structure of
the work echoes the structure of language as understood by the ancients
(68-69). The reader is now reminded of the philosophical basis for such
an understanding of language and treatment of material. This leads to a
presentation of one chapter from the "Ars Minor", translated into
and set out on the left hand side of pages 70-72, with Law's detailed
comments on the right hand side. This gloss comments directly on the
text and at the same time establishes links with broader issues. The
discussion moves on to a more detailed analysis of the structure of the
chapter, set out in a tree diagram (76) and of the advantages and
disadvantages of organizing knowledge in such hierarchical or vertical
structures - reminding us on the way that "in both syntax and historical
linguistics, the heavy use of tree diagrams has recently brought to light
the limitations of the model. In other spheres of life, too,
hierarchical models lead to difficulties in dealing simultaneously with
diversity and equality" (76). Moving back to Donatus, we are now told
that for eight centuries this structure was used in textbooks on any
subject, even though "the inability of the hierarchical model to cope
with horizontal relationships brought grammarians up against the biggest
problem in western linguistics: how to relate meaning and form in a
single framework" (76, 78[77 and most of 78 are taken up with Box 4.10,
Latin inflectional morphology]). Two pages detailing how Donatus deals
with issues of form now follow, and the section is concluded with a
summary of the achievements and shortcomings of this grammar.

The reader gains a very clear idea of exactly what Donatus's grammar
contains, how it sets out and discusses its contents, its ordering and
influence, as well as why he uses the categories and orders he has, where
these ideas came from and what consequences they had. Donatus's work has
been placed within the local context of other known Schulgrammatik works
(names and dates given in Box 4.7 with up to date editions cited) and the
chapter continues with a discussion of Donatus's commentators, equally
well referenced, and more discussions of grammar as found in those
commentators. In this way Law overcomes the dual problems of "too much
linguistic history with too little analytic interpretation [in histories
of linguistics, and ] . . . too much text with too little commentary [in
anthologies] (Harris and Taylor, vii-viii).

One of the difficulties facing students new to any historical subject is
a lack of information about what knowledge and which earlier works were
or were not available to the writers of any particular age. For all
ages, but especially for those before the printed book, we have very few
references works that will help us to ascertain the reading habits of our
subjects. Law is particularly good at giving us this sort of
information, telling us, for instance, that to medieval scholars "Plato's
writings were all but unknown" (162). Likewise, the popularity and
influence of medieval books are mentioned (Alexander on pages 180-181,
Aelfric on page 195), and the excitement with which Aristotle was
rediscovered is in the way brought to life (especially on page 162)

Another way in which Law's erudition and scholarliness become evident is
related to detail. It takes dedication to look up "which planets were in
conjunction in the third week of December 1991" (xvi), a piece of
information used merely to illustrate an argument about the historicity
of historical explanations (4). There are many examples of this sort of
delightful detail: the morpheme was first mentioned in 1896, we are told
(68), in a by-the-way parenthesis; indexes and tables of contents became
routine only from the 13th century (70); collections of pressed flowers
began in the 16th century (214). Such gems are provided throughout the
book in a generous sharing of interest.

Concluding comments

There are many other praiseworthy aspects of this book that deserve
mention, but the reader will have understood whatthis reviewerconsiders
to be itsmost outstandingstrengths (beautifully presented
scholarliness).Some remainingcomments may, then, be summarizedin this
section. First of all, the subject matter is treated with full respect
to its importance in the place of human understanding (it is, ultimately,
the history of thinking about thinking: a uniquely human attribute, as
Law says (xvii).). This justifies, quite naturally, utilization of all
the writer's considerable powers and skills of understanding, explaining
and the use ofyears' worth of familiarity with primary as well as
secondary sources. Nothing can replace first hand knowledge of the
texts, and anecdotes and morsels of information gleaned from experience
handling manuscripts illuminate many pages, making the subject an
enticing prospect for future researchers. A good example of this may be
found in her comments on female scribes and writers (Box 8.6, 170).
Next, the matter of layout is extremely important because, as she showed
in her analyses of early grammars, choice of structure largely determines
what can and what cannot be made manifest. Sections and
sub-sectionshere follow a chronological order, but the extensive use of
boxes overcomes the constraints of chronology and enables us to make
thematic links which may otherwise be hidden. Similarly, they enable us
to follow the story beyond the Renaissance and up to the present day in
various ways, something which is more explicitly undertaken in Chapter
11, "A brief overview of linguistics since 1600".

Finding any negative criticism is next to impossible in such a work, and
seems the worst sort of nit-picking when faced with strengths of the type
described above. There are nevertheless a few (very few) typographical
errors that the publishers may wish to take note of for the next
printing: a misplaced parenthesis (32, line 1), "here" for
"there" (72,
gloss on cases), a missing "the" (271, second line of last
andthe word"lsagwge" that I cannot understand at all and think must
an error (220).InBox 10.11 (294) the letters "v", "y" and
"v" (again)
are described as "servile" in "veysismor" -I think the
second mention of
"v" is incorrect and should perhaps read "s".Not knowing
Hebrew I
cannot be sure of this, however. I also wondered about Law's use of the
word "mystery" in reference to the various "mystery centres"
of the
ancient world (42). These are more usually called 'mystic centres'
(especially in relation to Pythagoras); but later repetition of the same
word with the same meaning, the "mystery cults of the ancient near
(like Mithraism)(95), leads me to suspect that she may have used this
word intentionally, referring to places of divine revelation perhaps (as
in the second definition given in the OED), orto indicate the
differences both anthropologically and religiously between the ancient
practices she is referring to and the modern associations of the word
'mystic'. I bow down willingly before Law's greater knowledge.

This review must not end on a negative or even questioning note. The
book is going to be a revered classic in its field. It is a fitting
memorial to a superb and much loved scholar.


Harris, Roy and Talbot J. Taylor. (1997). Landmarks in Linguistic
Thought I. The Western Tradition from Socrates to Saussure. 2nd
edition. London: Routledge.

Oxford English Dictionary online.

Matthews, Peter. (2002). Personal tribute to Vivien Law in The Henry
Sweet Bulletin No. 38, May 2002; 12-13.

Mounin, Georges. (1974). Histoire de la linguistique des origines au XXe
siecle. Presses Universitaires de France.

Robins, R. H. (1967). A Short History of Linguistics. Bloomington:
Indiana University Press.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER Margaret Sonmez has been teaching courses in linguistics, the history of English, the history of ideas, methodology and literatureat the Middle East Technical University for the past10 years. Her research interests centre on variation and change inEarly Modernwritten English.

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