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Review of  Landmarks in Linguistic Thought II: The Western Tradition in the Twentieth Century

Reviewer: Ashish Mehta
Book Title: Landmarks in Linguistic Thought II: The Western Tradition in the Twentieth Century
Book Author: John E. Joseph Nigel Love Talbot J. Taylor
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 13.422

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Joseph, John E., Nigel Love, and Talbot J. Taylor, ed. (2001) Landmarks
in Linguistic Thought II: The Western Tradition in the Twentieth
Century. Routledge, paperback ISBN 0-415-06397-3, xiii+265pp, Routledge
History of Linguistic Thought series.

Ashish Mehta, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.

The second installment of the History of Linguistic Thought series
covers the eventful twentieth century. Many of the themes included
here are yet to become part of history, they are very much at the
center of the current debates. Thus, the present volume can be an ideal
introduction to the whole gamut of current linguistic ideas. It is most
suitable for introductory courses to linguistic thought.

The editors clarify in the introduction that they have offered a
"continuist" approach as an alternative to the prevalent
"progressivist" approaches found in many volumes on the history of the
twentieth century linguistics. Introduction notes that,
"Twentieth-century linguistics continued to debate and develop same
themes, questions, issues, concepts and arguments that have preoccupied
Western thinking about language since its inception."

Another welcome change they have planned here is to be "inclusive",
rather than maintain disciplinary autonomy. As a result, the volume
includes introductory essays on not only noted linguists like Chomsky
and Labov, but also on Skinner, Sapir, Wittgenstein, Orwell, and
Derrida. Such an eclectic collection only represents the
interdisciplinary nature of the current linguistic thought. The book
thus has a rare distinction of putting both Chomsky and Derrida between
two covers! However, Saussure, the starting point of the twentieth
century linguistics, is not included here, since the Father of the
modern linguistics was introduced in the earlier volume of the same

The book opens with an Introduction which sets the above mentioned
continuist and inclusivist approach in perspective. There are fifteen
full-length chapters on various thinkers, structured on the same lines
as the earlier, famous volume in this series by Harris and Taylor:
every chapter opens with a representative quotation by the thinker
under review, followed by brief biography and sketch of the thinker's
work and short critical evaluation. The book ends with a valuable
section of suggestions for further reading apart from bibliography and

The following is a brief summary of each chapter:
1 Sapir on language, culture and personality
Thoughts of Edward Sapir, somewhat puzzling in nature, are presented
here with a number of quotes that can lead the reader to primary
literature. Starting with a biographical note on the thinker, the
chapter also mentions the recently published of his lectures, The
Psychology of Cultures (Sapir 1994). Sapir woked on universal,
culture-specific and individualistic psychological perspectives on
language. An argument is made on the supposed link between Sapir and
Chomsky ("the structures of languages are real and exist in the
psychlogy of speakers"), and chapter ends with a note on the
Sapri-Whorf Hypothesis.

2 Jacobson and structuralism
The chapter on Jacobson also serves as an excellent introduction to
structuralism, and the structuralist themes are shown to relate to
Chomsky and Optimality Theory (OT) as well. The essay does justice to
Jacobson's claim that "finally every linguistic structure, no matter
how seemingly arbitrary, is somehow shaped or determined by the very
purposes for which language has come into existence."

3 Orwell on language and politics
Inclusion of a novelist and political commentator is an original
choice. George Orwell, remembered for his essays on the English
language and the novel "1984", was concerned about political and
ideological aspects of language use. The Newspeak of 1984 is the most
quoted fictional language of our time. Unlike some other chapters, this
one doesn't link up the thinker under review with Chomsky, but it
should be mentioned that the latter has often quoted Orwell, though in
only in his political ("non-linguistic") writings.

4 Whorf on language and thought
Benjamin Lee Whorf, a fire-prevention inspector with an insurance
company, was never a full-time linguist and yet his contribution
remains one of the most talked-about, if not outright controversial,
thoughts of twentieth century. He proposal, that language and culture
are intricately related, paves the way for wholesale relativism. The
essay could have traced the current postmodern ideas back to Whorf's
hypothesis. It is interesting to note how he developed his linguistic
ideas while working on cases related to fire prevention!

5 Firth on language and context
J. R. Firth was originator of what is known as the 'London School' of
linguistics. His chief interest "lies in his attempt to resist the
idea that linguistics should treat what he calls speech events as no
more than a means of access to... the language system allegedly
underlying them". His program, we are told right at the beginning,
failed, and in this failure raised interesting questions.

6 Wittgenstein on grammatical investigations
The name of Ludwig Wittgenstein evokes different images from
different people, philosopher, mystique, logician, grammarian. To
present a brief sketch of his works in nineteen pages is a challenge.
The aspects of his work that concern linguistics are presented here in
a considerably lucid manner and this might be the ideal place to start
off. And why should a budding linguist read him? Because his legacy
"provides a diagnostic survey of the problems that have plagued
Western linguistic thought from its beginning to the present day."

7 Austin on language as action
J. L. Austin is remembered for his work, "How To Do Things With Words".
His studies on speech acts is introduced here in detail, along with
comparisons with similar programs of Firth among others, and also a
critical analysis why it failed.

8 Skinner on verbal behaviour
The essay on B. F. Skinner also introduces the reader to behaviourism
as applied in the realm of linguistics, and thus rightly begins with a
discussion of Bloomfield and structuralism. Skinner formulated the idea
that language is learned by imitation, as a set of
stimuli-responses. Skinner's representative work, "Verbal Behaviour"
is discussed here in thorough detail, and so is Chomsky's famous
criticism of it.

9 Chomsky on language as biology
To present Noam Chomsky's work in eighteen pages to a primarily
linguistics audience is an unenviable task. With detailed examples, the
early work on transformational grammar is introduced. The discussion on
the larger ramifications of Chomsky's proposals in grammar cannot be
dealt with sufficiently, given the space limitations. Yet, the small
essay succeeds in conveying the central notions of the most "happening"
branch of linguistics, namely, generative grammar.

10 Labov on linguistic variation
William Labov's path-breaking work brought sociolinguistic facts to
the fore and challenged Chomsky and others for what he perceived as
imposition of homogeneity in linguistic data. He argued that "in order
to reconcile theories of synchronic structure with theories of
linguistic change, linguists would have to recognize heterogeneity as
an inherent property of linguistic rules and systems." The chapter
concludes with a note of criticisms of inherent inconsistency of the
notion of "speech community."

11 Goffman on the communicating self
Erving Goffman, a sociologist, pioneered the study of conversational
interaction, or, "how people communicate with each other in
face-to-face interaction". The essay begins with tracing the origin of
his concerns back to Locke and takes us to the contemporary evaluation
of his thought.

12 Bruner on the child's passport into language
Jerome Bruner, one of the founders of cognitive psychology, also
pioneered 'cognitive interactionist' approach to language acquisition
studies. Given the fact that language acquisition studies were among the
first to be influenced by Chomsky's highly influential Innateness
Hypothesis, the essay rightly introduces Bruner's work in comparison
with Chomskyan approach.

13 Derrida on the linguistic sign and writing
Jacques Derrida's name is associated with the world of
French/literary/social theory and/or postmodernism. However, his
original contribution is primarily in a philosophy of language.
Arguably one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century,
he remains an enigma to most readers, especially those trained in
empirical or rationalist ways of linguistics. The present essay lucidly
introduces his views on language.

14 Harris on linguistics without languages
Roy Harris, one of the editors of the earlier volume of the same
series, has raised metalinguistic questions concerning the discipline
of linguistics. The chapter is quite updated, taking into account his
recent works too.

15 Kanzi on human language
"Kanzi" is a bonobo, a species of ape, and this final chapter deals
with the study of animal communication vis-a-vis human language.
Chomsky's revolutionary proposals on the species-specificity of
language has revived one of the oldest debates about language capacity
among animals. The chapter presents a historical survey of the debate
intersperced with the discussion of the actual case study of Kanzi.

Landmarks in Linguistic Thought II, apart from being the ideal
introduction for a beginner to the basic issues, serves as a small
reference volume to make sense of linguistic wars and academic
controversies that this discipline is besotted with. Most of the
chapters serve as introduction to a particular school of linguistics as
well. At the same time, the balanced critical evaluation is on the
whole quite welcome. The individual essays can be read as stand-alone
pieces and yet they are interlinked to refer to what the other thinker
has to say on the given issue.

However, it should be noted that any selection of fifteen thinkers is
bound to be debatable: Does Bruner or Goffman sit easy in the company
of Chomsky, Derrida and Wittgenstein? Is Firth or Austin as much
influential in the development of the twentieth century thought as
Labov has been? Isn't Piaget or Lakoff sorely missing here?

References to Chomsky, obviously, keep coming in almost every chapter.
And yet, the essay devoted to his work is somewhat outdated: It deals
extensively with the early part of his career, and not much attention
is paid to the more radical Principle and Parameters approach developed
in the 1980's. The Minimalist program is barely mentioned. (Compare
this with the essay on Harris which quotes extensively from his most
recent works of 1990's. whereas the most recent quote from Chomsky
work goes back to 1980.)

As part of the eminently praiseworthy series, the volume serves its
purpose of providing historic perspective to the linguistic practice.
The reader can look forward to the future volumes in the series.

Ashish Mehta is an MPhil (pre-doctorate) student of Jawaharlal Nehru
University of India, working within the minimalist framework on
syntax-semantics interface issues in interpretation of nominal


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