LINGUIST List 23.415

Wed Jan 25 2012

Review: Discipline of Linguistics; History of Ling.: Thomas (2011)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 25-Jan-2012
From: Julie Bruch <>
Subject: Fifty Key Thinkers on Language and Linguistics
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AUTHOR: Margaret ThomasTITLE: Fifty Key Thinkers on Language and LinguisticsSERIES TITLE: Routledge Key GuidesPUBLISHER: RoutledgeYEAR: 2011

Julie Bruch, Department of Languages and Literature, Colorado Mesa University

SUMMARYThis book presents a concise collection of articles representing the history oflinguistics and exploration of language problems. As the introduction to thebook states, it attempts to synthesize a ''vast … treasury of reflection onlanguage" (p. xiii). According to the author, the book is intended to be anintroduction to people's thinking about language over time, and as a referencetext for graduate or undergraduate students of "linguistics, literary andcultural studies, foreign language, anthropology, philosophy, intellectualhistory" (p. xiv) or anyone with curiosity about language. However, evenseasoned linguists who have not done much targeted reading in the History ofLinguistics will have the opportunity to make new connections and review keyideas. 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 onlinguistic thinking that students often read about only in footnotes.

Each chapter is limited to five pages, regardless of the fame of the person orthe depth of the contribution. The chapters are chronologically ordered in thetext, but listed both alphabetically and chronologically in the table of contents.

Among the fifty are some whose names are less frequently found in linguisticstexts. Their mention here may invite deeper consideration among students andscholars of language. There are also several ancient and medieval names thatare virtually unknown to modern students of linguistics. However, the authordefends the importance of all of these past thinkers as a ''vital resource'' forinforming current thinking (p. xiii).

The key thinkers included in the collection include representation from thefollowing eras: four from B.C.E., four from the Middle Ages, two from the14-15th centuries, seven from the 17th-18th centuries, fourteen from the 19thcentury, and twenty-one from the 20th century. Nearly all are from the Westerntradition, and the author expresses regret at this heavy representation ofEuropeans and Americans and the relative dearth of women and non-Westerners.The sole representatives of these groups consist of one British woman and oneperson 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 ''unquestionableimportance and influence'' (according to her, Plato, Saussure, Chomsky) (p. xv). Her second round choices were considered on the basis of adding variety (suchas Cameron's work on gendered language), her third group included intellectualrivals and intellectual descendants of the first two groups (Jakobson's stanceon Saussurean ideas), and her fourth round choices include less familiaroutliers (Sibawayhi or John Wilkins) that help to broaden the perspectivesrepresented by the first three groups. The introduction aptly compares thedecision-making process for inclusion in the book to the process of invitingguests 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 thekey figures written about here. The author carefully defends her choice ofguests 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 representativeexample or two of specific work done, and 4) an indication of how the thinker'swork influenced others and is relevant to modern thought (including how modernwork has confirmed or rejected the ideas set forth). For example, in thechapter on Whorf, Thomas describes some of the ongoing controversies surroundingthe so-called ''linguistic relativity principle,'' stating that results ofempirical work to date has been ''heterogeneous and contradictory'' (p. 199) andsuggesting that further work is needed. Chapters also contain coding in boldletters of the names of figures who influenced each other, serving as anintra-textual reminder of the cross-germination of ideas. Explanations of thespecific types of influences are reiterated when appropriate.

Primary sources ("major works") and "further reading" are listed at the end ofeach chapter so that readers gaining first exposure to some of the "keythinkers" 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 ofthe terms can be found in any introductory linguistics text, but the glossarywill 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 descriptivegrammar of Latin (including etymology, syntax, and morphology) sometime before27 B.C.E. A fifth chapter is dedicated to the writers of the Bible who showedobvious early fascination with the origins and diversification of language.Although Biblical mythology relevant to language is distinct from thelogic-based, theory-building ideas of others, the author claims that thecultural authority of writing on language in the Bible has had widespread andlasting influence on thinking about language through the ages.

The next six chapters jump to the Middle Ages and to Latin grammars by Donatusand Priscian, and Sibawayhi's Arabic grammar. There is an overview of thewritings and thinking of the anonymous so-called "First Grammarian," whodescribed and justified the writing system of Icelandic, and a chapter on KingSejong the Great, who created the "Hangeul" writing system of Korean. Alsoincluded in this group is a chapter on the original, medieval "Speculative[theoretical] grammarians" (including names such as William of Conches, PeterHelias, and Thomas of Erfurt). The author describes the specific contributionsof the people in each chapter to cumulative human knowledge and shows the spreadof their influence into modern thought. For example, she points out that thefailure of the quest of the Speculative Grammarians for language universalscontributed to the formulation of questions about language while at the sametime showing how cultural parochialism can limit our thinking (p. 48).

Four characters from the Renaissance are represented in the following threechapters: Antoine Arnauld and Claude Lancelot (Port Royal Grammarians), JohnWilkins (an inventor of one of the first artificial languages intended to serveas a universal language), and John Locke, who was integral to the debate overrationalism vs. empiricism. (Page 60 seems to contain a typo: ''Post-RoyalGrammarians'' instead of ''Port-Royal.'')

Representing early Modern thought is an array of seventeen figures, startingwith Samuel Johnson and continuing on through Otto Jespersen. Several of these,such as Etienne Bonnot, are names not commonly found in general linguisticstexts,. This era in language thought was a heyday of work in typology andcomparative/historical work evolving out of the study of Sanskrit andprojections of a Proto-Indo-European language. Localization of language in thebrain by Paul Broca, foundational work in structuralism (Saussure), and emergingconceptualizations 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 mostrecent, James D. McCawley and Deborah Cameron. This group shows the developmentof work that explores a wide range of questions about language, including:non-Indo-European languages, the relationship among thought, culture, andlanguage, descriptivism and language study as a formal science, the socialdimensions of language, language universals, generativism, and gendered language.

The author explains in her introduction that she has intentionally omitted mosttwenty-first century leaders from this edition, assuming that the most recentkey figures in linguistics are already amply familiar to modern readers.

EVALUATIONAfter reading this book, students of language will have an increasedappreciation for the inter-connectedness of thinkers, inquirers, and explorersof the mind from different ages and regions of the world. While other, moredetailed 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 theRobins classic ''A Short History of Linguistics,'' which both have a Euro-centricemphasis), this briefer overview attempts to provide a more representativeselection 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 Chineselinguistic thought. The degree to which the author was successful here in herattempt to be fully representative in a short space can be judged as quiteadmirable. However, additional representation from other such traditions wouldgreatly enrich this collection. As illustration, the chapter on the ideas andwork of King Sejong of Korea is not only fascinating in and of itself, but alsohighly significant in the overall historical development of thought on language.

Any choice of inclusion and exclusion in a collection of this sort is bound tobe problematic and controversial, and authors of ''Key Thinkers'' books typicallyapologize for some of the important exclusions they are forced to make. Thomasis no exception. She provides rationale for her final fifty choices that iswell-reasoned and sensitive to possible criticism. At the same time, readersmay still yearn to hear more about some of the figures who are mentioned in someof the chapters without being given chapters of their own. (These include:Chinese lexicographers and grammarians, William Stokoe of ASL fame, GeorgeTrager, 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 onand on, but since prioritizing and excluding is inevitable, the author must beforgiven, and her elegant apology accepted. As the saying goes, ''There is nounbiased history!'' The author's final choice of figures and thoughts to includeor exclude will, of necessity, influence readers' perceptions of the history ofideas about language, but all in all, Thomas' choices are well-balanced, and herdiscussions successfully avoid framing ideas exclusively through the eyes ofpresent-day approaches.

The short biographical sketches in each chapter evoke lively images of thepeople behind the names. The summaries of most important work done by eachfigure are explained in easily accessible terms, as are the specific examples ofimportant details of their work and the influence of their ideas on others. Theanalyses of implications of particular ideas and thinkers and their influence onothers are particularly helpful in demonstrating trends of the times and overalldevelopment of ideas in linguistic thought. As an example, pages 122-123contrast Whitney's thinking related to the ''superabundance of linguisticevidence'' in child/first language acquisition (L1A) with Chomsky's ''poverty ofthe stimulus'' characterizations. Another example comes from the deep parallelsbetween the thinking of Baudouin and Saussure (p. 137).

This collection will enable readers to more clearly comprehend the true originsof various classic traditions in linguistics. For instance, how many readerswould know that the oft cited capacity of language to make ''infinite use offinite means'' (p. 96) came originally from Humboldt rather than Chomsky, whopopularized 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 someof the paradigm-changing work currently underway (e.g., conceptualizations oflanguage as a complex adaptive system or the use of corpora in appliedlinguistics 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 ofreaders. It fills a gap in the currently available literature by providing ausefully succinct overview for reference and introductory purposes, and arepresentative introduction to a wide range of human thought regarding language. As mentioned above, Thomas' survey of linguistic thought would be moreadequately representative if it branched out into additional areas ofnon-Western language tradition. Nevertheless, it is an exceptionally conciseand informative work.

REFERENCES:Harris, R. and T. J. Taylor. (1997) Landmarks in Linguistic Thought 1, TheWestern 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 REVIEWERJulie Bruch received her Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University ofKansas. 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, languagediversity, and language change.

Page Updated: 25-Jan-2012