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Review of Fifty Key Thinkers on Language and Linguistics
AUTHOR: Margaret Thomas TITLE: Fifty Key Thinkers on Language and Linguistics SERIES TITLE: Routledge Key Guides PUBLISHER: Routledge YEAR: 2011
Julie Bruch, Department of Languages and Literature, Colorado Mesa University
SUMMARY This book presents a concise collection of articles representing the history of linguistics and exploration of language problems. As the introduction to the book states, it attempts to synthesize a ''vast … treasury of reflection on language” (p. xiii). According to the author, the book is intended to be an introduction to people's thinking about language over time, and as a reference text for graduate or undergraduate students of “linguistics, literary and cultural studies, foreign language, anthropology, philosophy, intellectual history” (p. xiv) or anyone with curiosity about language. However, even seasoned linguists who have not done much targeted reading in the History of Linguistics will have the opportunity to make new connections and review key ideas. One of the benefits for readers will be to gain a “big picture view,” and it will inspire many readers to visit some of the primary sources on linguistic thinking that students often read about only in footnotes.
Each chapter is limited to five pages, regardless of the fame of the person or the depth of the contribution. The chapters are chronologically ordered in the text, but listed both alphabetically and chronologically in the table of contents.
Among the fifty are some whose names are less frequently found in linguistics texts. Their mention here may invite deeper consideration among students and scholars of language. There are also several ancient and medieval names that are virtually unknown to modern students of linguistics. However, the author defends the importance of all of these past thinkers as a ''vital resource'' for informing current thinking (p. xiii).
The key thinkers included in the collection include representation from the following eras: four from B.C.E., four from the Middle Ages, two from the 14-15th centuries, seven from the 17th-18th centuries, fourteen from the 19th century, and twenty-one from the 20th century. Nearly all are from the Western tradition, and the author expresses regret at this heavy representation of Europeans and Americans and the relative dearth of women and non-Westerners. The sole representatives of these groups consist of one British woman and one person each from India, Persia, and Korea.
The author explicitly addresses her inclusion strategies in the introduction. She explains that her first choice group consists of figures of ''unquestionable importance and influence'' (according to her, Plato, Saussure, Chomsky) (p. xv). Her second round choices were considered on the basis of adding variety (such as Cameron's work on gendered language), her third group included intellectual rivals and intellectual descendants of the first two groups (Jakobson's stance on Saussurean ideas), and her fourth round choices include less familiar outliers (Sibawayhi or John Wilkins) that help to broaden the perspectives represented by the first three groups. The introduction aptly compares the decision-making process for inclusion in the book to the process of inviting guests to a party. She makes the analogy of inviting student guests (readers) who will be there to meet “established community members” (p. xv) who are the key figures written about here. The author carefully defends her choice of guests and makes a point of apologizing for groups left underrepresented (especially women).
Each chapter contains: 1) brief biographical information about a key thinker, 2) an overview of his or her broad questions and arguments, 3) a representative example or two of specific work done, and 4) an indication of how the thinker's work influenced others and is relevant to modern thought (including how modern work has confirmed or rejected the ideas set forth). For example, in the chapter on Whorf, Thomas describes some of the ongoing controversies surrounding the so-called ''linguistic relativity principle,'' stating that results of empirical work to date has been ''heterogeneous and contradictory'' (p. 199) and suggesting that further work is needed. Chapters also contain coding in bold letters of the names of figures who influenced each other, serving as an intra-textual reminder of the cross-germination of ideas. Explanations of the specific types of influences are reiterated when appropriate.
Primary sources (“major works”) and “further reading” are listed at the end of each chapter so that readers gaining first exposure to some of the “key thinkers” can easily follow up on ones in which they develop further interest.
A glossary of nearly twenty pages is provided at the end of the book. Many of the terms can be found in any introductory linguistics text, but the glossary will serve those from other fields.
The first four individuals presented here inhabited the ancient past: Panini, Plato, Aristotle, and Marcus Terentius Varro who wrote the first descriptive grammar of Latin (including etymology, syntax, and morphology) sometime before 27 B.C.E. A fifth chapter is dedicated to the writers of the Bible who showed obvious early fascination with the origins and diversification of language. Although Biblical mythology relevant to language is distinct from the logic-based, theory-building ideas of others, the author claims that the cultural authority of writing on language in the Bible has had widespread and lasting influence on thinking about language through the ages.
The next six chapters jump to the Middle Ages and to Latin grammars by Donatus and Priscian, and Sibawayhi’s Arabic grammar. There is an overview of the writings and thinking of the anonymous so-called “First Grammarian,” who described and justified the writing system of Icelandic, and a chapter on King Sejong the Great, who created the “Hangeul” writing system of Korean. Also included in this group is a chapter on the original, medieval “Speculative [theoretical] grammarians” (including names such as William of Conches, Peter Helias, and Thomas of Erfurt). The author describes the specific contributions of the people in each chapter to cumulative human knowledge and shows the spread of their influence into modern thought. For example, she points out that the failure of the quest of the Speculative Grammarians for language universals contributed to the formulation of questions about language while at the same time showing how cultural parochialism can limit our thinking (p. 48).
Four characters from the Renaissance are represented in the following three chapters: Antoine Arnauld and Claude Lancelot (Port Royal Grammarians), John Wilkins (an inventor of one of the first artificial languages intended to serve as a universal language), and John Locke, who was integral to the debate over rationalism vs. empiricism. (Page 60 seems to contain a typo: ''Post-Royal Grammarians'' instead of ''Port-Royal.'')
Representing early Modern thought is an array of seventeen figures, starting with Samuel Johnson and continuing on through Otto Jespersen. Several of these, such as Etienne Bonnot, are names not commonly found in general linguistics texts,. This era in language thought was a heyday of work in typology and comparative/historical work evolving out of the study of Sanskrit and projections of a Proto Indo-European language. Localization of language in the brain by Paul Broca, foundational work in structuralism (Saussure), and emerging conceptualizations of the phoneme are also part of this epoch.
Finally, there is an encyclopedic overview of twenty-one modern intellectuals, starting with Daniel Jones and Edward Sapir and culminating with the most recent, James D. McCawley and Deborah Cameron. This group shows the development of work that explores a wide range of questions about language, including: non-Indo-European languages, the relationship among thought, culture, and language, descriptivism and language study as a formal science, the social dimensions of language, language universals, generativism, and gendered language.
The author explains in her introduction that she has intentionally omitted most twenty-first century leaders from this edition, assuming that the most recent key figures in linguistics are already amply familiar to modern readers.
EVALUATION After reading this book, students of language will have an increased appreciation for the inter-connectedness of thinkers, inquirers, and explorers of the mind from different ages and regions of the world. While other, more detailed histories of linguistic thought may focus on specific periods of time, or specific branches of linguistics, or representatives from specific regions (e.g., the Harris and Taylor volume ''Landmarks in Linguistic Thought 1'' and the Robins classic ''A Short History of Linguistics,'' which both have a Euro-centric emphasis), this briefer overview attempts to provide a more representative selection of thought from a variety of traditions. However, some of the longer, more expansive histories achieve even better representation. For example, Lepschy's four-volume ''History of Linguistics,'' contains a chapter on Chinese linguistic thought. The degree to which the author was successful here in her attempt to be fully representative in a short space can be judged as quite admirable. However, additional representation from other such traditions would greatly enrich this collection. As illustration, the chapter on the ideas and work of King Sejong of Korea is not only fascinating in and of itself, but also highly significant in the overall historical development of thought on language.
Any choice of inclusion and exclusion in a collection of this sort is bound to be problematic and controversial, and authors of ''Key Thinkers'' books typically apologize for some of the important exclusions they are forced to make. Thomas is no exception. She provides rationale for her final fifty choices that is well-reasoned and sensitive to possible criticism. At the same time, readers may still yearn to hear more about some of the figures who are mentioned in some of the chapters without being given chapters of their own. (These include: Chinese lexicographers and grammarians, William Stokoe of ASL fame, George Trager, Sir William Jones, Rasmus Rask, Mario Pei, Bernard Bloch, Zellig Harris, and George Lakoff.) A list of others who are not mentioned at all could go on and on, but since prioritizing and excluding is inevitable, the author must be forgiven, and her elegant apology accepted. As the saying goes, ''There is no unbiased history!'' The author's final choice of figures and thoughts to include or exclude will, of necessity, influence readers' perceptions of the history of ideas about language, but all in all, Thomas' choices are well-balanced, and her discussions successfully avoid framing ideas exclusively through the eyes of present-day approaches.
The short biographical sketches in each chapter evoke lively images of the people behind the names. The summaries of most important work done by each figure are explained in easily accessible terms, as are the specific examples of important details of their work and the influence of their ideas on others. The analyses of implications of particular ideas and thinkers and their influence on others are particularly helpful in demonstrating trends of the times and overall development of ideas in linguistic thought. As an example, pages 122-123 contrast Whitney's thinking related to the ''superabundance of linguistic evidence'' in child/first language acquisition (L1A) with Chomsky's ''poverty of the stimulus'' characterizations. Another example comes from the deep parallels between the thinking of Baudouin and Saussure (p. 137).
This collection will enable readers to more clearly comprehend the true origins of various classic traditions in linguistics. For instance, how many readers would know that the oft cited capacity of language to make ''infinite use of finite means'' (p. 96) came originally from Humboldt rather than Chomsky, who popularized it?
The author's decision to omit the most recent thought on language is laudable. It is almost certain that she would have been strongly tempted to include some of the paradigm-changing work currently underway (e.g., conceptualizations of language as a complex adaptive system or the use of corpora in applied linguistics analyses). However, current work is better left to a new edition of ''Fifty Thinkers'' to be published in fifty years.
In sum, this book is highly readable and of high interest to a broad range of readers. It fills a gap in the currently available literature by providing a usefully succinct overview for reference and introductory purposes, and a representative introduction to a wide range of human thought regarding language. As mentioned above, Thomas' survey of linguistic thought would be more adequately representative if it branched out into additional areas of non-Western language tradition. Nevertheless, it is an exceptionally concise and informative work.
REFERENCES: Harris, R. and T. J. Taylor. (1997) Landmarks in Linguistic Thought 1, The Western Tradition from Socrates to Saussure. 2nd Edition. London/New York: Routledge.
Lepschy, G. (Ed.) (1994) History of Linguistics (Storia della linguistica) Volumes 1-4. London/New York: Longman.
Robins, Robert Henry. (1997) A Short History of Linguistics. 4th Edition. London: Longman.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Julie Bruch received her Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of
Kansas. She currently teaches Linguistic Diversity, History of English,
Structure of English, and Beginning Japanese at Colorado Mesa University.
Her principle research interests are cultural aspects of language, language
diversity, and language change.