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Review of  Western Linguistics: An Historical Introduction

Reviewer: Radu Daniliuc
Book Title: Western Linguistics: An Historical Introduction
Book Author: Pieter A. M. Seuren
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Linguistic Field(s): History of Linguistics
Issue Number: 10.887

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Pieter A.M. Seuren, 1998, "Western Linguistics. An Historical Introduction",
Blackwell Publishers Oxford, UK,570pp.

reviewed by Laura and Radu Daniliuc

Lecturer in Linguistics at both Cambridge and Oxford, then Professor of
Philosophy of Language and of Theoretical Linguistics at Nijmegen
University, Pieter A.M. Seuren brings before readers kin on the science of
language an impressive history of Western linguistic thought ranging from
Greek Antiquity up to the twentieth century. In an epoch with such a great
diversity of theories, modern linguists have, unfortunately, forgotten their
predecessors and, more than that, the role that those predecessors played in
the progress of the linguistic science. In spite of a number of books
presenting in detail the history of linguistics, the questions in vogue
nowadays are not shown as having a direct continuation of those formulated a
long time ago, some of them in the fifth century BC. Seuren's book is a
linguistics history of linguistics, written from the point of view of a
linguist preoccupied with the current issues as well as with their trace
back into the history.

The point of departure is expressed by Seuren through the question 'If
linguistics is justified in claiming the status of a real science, when and
how did the application of scientific methodology came about, and what
mistakes have been made in this respect?' Therefore, his aim is the
evolution of scientific methodology during the ages as well as its errors
and their influence on linguistics theory. Baring this explicit purpose in
mind, Seuren organizes his book in two parts: the first offers a diachronic
approach on what is generally considered to be linguistics proper, with a
focus on the study of grammar, while the second deals with meaning also from
a diachronic perspective. It should be added that from Antiquity till the
19th century grammar and meaning formed a whole, while in our century the
have split into separate entities. Seuren aims at bringing them together,
though this is rather difficult, since grammar and meaning have developed
different ways of thinking, standards and perspectives.

Nevertheless, Seuren had the courage to undertake this thorny task (although
it cost him a ' life time of teaching, reading and thinking') and he begins
his exploration of the history of linguistics with Plato's dialogue
'Cratylus', the earliest document, in Western world, of linguistic analysis.
Aware of the fact that linguistic history cannot be treated in detail in a
single volume, Seuren highlights the main concepts and analytical
instruments characteristic for every period of linguistic evolution. For
Antiquity, he pays special attention to the distinction between
'word-linguistics' and 'sentence-linguistics', and between 'underlying
semantic form' and 'surface structure'. He also emphasizes the paramount
influence of the Aristotelian theory of truth on the development of modern
model-theoretic formal semantics and not only. In discussing the two schools
emerging in Antiquity, anomalism and analogism, Seuren concentrates on the
opposition between 'ecologism' and 'formalism' as different methods in
dealing with the fact of language. As representatives of late Antiquity,
Seuren mentions the name of Apollonius Dyscolus, Donatus and Priscian; and
as far as the middle ages are concerned, Seuren considers it necessary to
talk about Speculative Grammar, an attempt to establish a relation of
regularity between the ontological and the metaphysical categories. From the
renaissance linguistic period, which abounded in actual descriptive
grammars, Seuren has chosen three main figures: the English Linacre, the
Italian Scaliger and the Spaniard Sanctius. Then he concentrates on the
powerful Port Royal tradition, based in fact on Sanctius' ideas.

The next chapter takes the reader into the 18th and 19th centuries which are
known as 'the modern period' and during which the study of language form and
that of meaning became separate matters. Beside the more philosophically
oriented developments that flourished in the 18th century, Seuren touches
upon the linguistic achievements that took place during the Enlightenment.
He mentions the first systematic attempts at compiling large dictionaries of
the languages of culture, the romanticist interest developed in exotic
languages, and the expansion of grammar in 18th century France, whose
representatives ( Vaugelas, Desmarais, Buffier, Dumarsais, Girard, Beauzee),
neglected by historians, Seuren argues, continued the Port Royal tradition.
A major topic of the 19th century was the origin of language, which produced
speculative theories that gave birth later to historical comparative
philology, a sudden and extremely important change toward empirically
testable theories. Another aspect of the period is the profound interest in
mental phenomena, illustrated by the two opposing schools of thought,
'associationism' and 'volitionism', as well as by the German Humboldt.
Around 1840 began the subject-predicate debate, which was to last for almost
a century, till, roughly, the 1930s, when Ogden & Richards drew the famous
semiotic triangle.

All this evolution culminated in the 20th century, which, Seuren
appreciates, has seen more linguistic studies carried out than all preceding
centuries taken together. The main characteristic of theoretical linguistics
is shown to be the desire to become a real autonomous science. Its central
theme is the search for empirical access to language and its leading force
is considered the concept of structuralism. In order to avoid an expeditious
treatment of the subject, Seuren discusses separately Europe and America in
the 20th century. As far as Europe is concerned, Seuren presents the two key
figures of early European structuralism, Baudouin de Courtenay and Ferdinand
de Saussure, and he emphasizes the importance of Saussure's 'Course' as the
standard work of linguistic theory in Europe during the years after the
first world war, and its influence on the European linguistic schools that
flourished between the wars, especially in Prague, Copenhagen and London.
Their contribution to phonology is particularly notable, as it has proved of
lasting value. In the same period the study of language in the New World was
partly indigenous, partly inspired by the ideas coming from Europe. The key
figures presented by Seuren are Bloomfield, whose ideas are largely
discussed, Zellig S. Harris, the 'father' of generative and transformational
grammar and Noam Chomsky, considered by Seuren as 'a metalinguist rather
than a linguist'. The importance of transformational grammar, the author
points out, lies in its general deepening of methodological insights. Seuren
did not intend to present a detailed version of the theoretical proposals
made by the Chomskyan school, which would have been useless and
inappropriate, nevertheless he looks with a critical eye at some of its
methodological aspects, especially at Chomsky's 1995 statement according to
which there is really only one, abstract, language in the world, and that
grammatical processes are, to a very large extent, lexicon-driven. The large
chapter on the 20th century America ends with the view on linguistic
typology or universalist linguistics, a branch inaugurated by Joseph H.

The second part of Seuren's book concentrates in third chapters on the
history of the study of meaning and, implicitly, on the history and
development of logic which has led to modern formal semantics. Seuren
presents the evolution of predicate calculus from the Aristotelian Square of
Oppositions and 19th century formalism to the theory of generalised
quantifiers, arguing that modern predicate calculus is empirically relevant
for natural language syntax and that natural language semantics is to be
based on the cognitive, not the verbal, notion of truth. Modern semantics,
Seuren appreciates, has been influenced by philosophy in two different ways.
Firstly, under the influence of mathematically oriented thinking, it adopted
the formalised versions of logic, giving birth to what is known as formal
semantics. Secondly, the school of Ordinary Language Philosophy, which
flourished at Oxford, demonstrated the inconvenients of the mathematically
inspired developments in formal logic applied to the semantics of natural
language and drew attention on the phenomena of anaphora, presupposition and
speech acts which showed the inconsistency of the establish logical paragigm
of model-theoretic formal semantics.

After these voyages into the history of grammatical and semantic studies,
Seuren wants to identify and explain the issues that have been of all times
and their evolution through the centuries. He talks about the meaningfulness
of all linguistic structure until the 20th century, about the autonomy of
linguistic structure after 1900 and about deep structure and analysis,
which, opaque for many centuries, have got clarity and explicitness only
nowadays. The author deals with the main streams of thinking throughout the
history of western world, streams which have their origin in the Greek
Antiquity whose major representatives, Plato and Aristotle, taught the world
how to look at things. Seuren talks about the immanent generative power of
their thinking which was to influence all the centuries that followed. The
Platonists are said to possess a deeper insight into the nature of the
issues involved and a relative incapacity to provide adequate formal
analysis. The Aristotelians are characterised by great formal prowess based
on adequate insight and coverage of facts. Linguistic history is known to be
a continual succession of Platonists and Aristotelians. It is from this
overall perspective that Seuren has chosen to present in the end of his book
the evolution of grammatical and semantic studies and the relation between
them through the centuries. He studies mainly the historical roots of
current theories and their implication in the general linguistic context.
It is crystal-clear for the reader of this book that its author is a
convinced anti-Chomskian: he argues, based on Huck & Goldsmith's statements,
that Chomsky's "unprofessional behaviour" has caused "great harm" to
linguistics which is now "sociologically in a very unhealthy state". Seuren'
s dramatic conclusion is that neither the discipline of linguistics, nor the
community of linguists have achieved the degree of maturity one expects to
find in a real science. Perhaps Seuren forgets the fact that we are living
an age in which science is developing under our eyes and present-day
linguistics is to be judged with other instruments than those applicable to
historical linguistics. Chomsky is, fortunately or not, a linguist to be
mentioned in every course on the history of linguistics, despite his
personality as a human being. And 'An Introduction' should deal with
important matters, not with trivia.

In conclusion, Seuren's book deserves a place among the valuable works on
linguistics, a science that fights nowadays to preserve its unitary status
menaced not by Chomsky, but by the more and more powerful


The reviewers - Laura and Radu Daniliuc - Suceava, ROMANIA - are BA in
English Language (Linguistics) and Literature, members of SSA, authors of
the first complete Romanian translation of F. de Saussure's "Courses" and of
articles on generativism and applied linguistics. Their main interests
include: generativism (P&P theory, minimalist structures etc) and
computational linguistics. [other info available on request]


Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0631208917
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 592
Prices: U.K. £ 19.99
U.S. $ 40.95