Language and Linguistics - The Structuralist Era
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 Language and Linguistics - The Structuralist Era

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مُساهمةموضوع: Language and Linguistics - The Structuralist Era   2011-11-17, 15:14

The father of structuralism (and many would say of the modern science
of linguistics) was the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure
(1857–1913). But Saussure was a reluctant father whose seminal Cours de linguistique générale
(Course in General Linguistics, 1916) was edited and posthumously
published by two colleagues and a student who assiduously took notes at
his lectures. The peculiar nature of its composition has resulted

in a work that is fraught with contradictions and puzzling self-doubts
cheek by jowl with superbly confident, dogmatic assertions. Despite all
the vagaries of its composition, Cours de linguistique générale
is a hugely influential work and has probably done more to establish
linguistics as an independent discipline than any other single book.

Although Saussure had a background in the historical study of
language and had made significant advances in the understanding of the
Indo-European vowel system, he was unusually critical of neogrammarian
philology, which he accused of being overly absorbed in diachrony (that
is, issues of the [color:4646=red ! important][color:4646=red ! important]evolution
of languages). Saussure also criticized traditional grammarians for
neglecting entire aspects of language and for lacking overall
perspective, but allowed that their method was fundamentally correct and
that they properly emphasized synchrony. Hence, whereas the discipline
of historical linguistics that grew up in the nineteenth century was
almost wholly diachronic in its orientation, linguistics in the first
half of the twentieth century—following the lead of Saussure—became a
largely synchronic enterprise. It was not long before European
structuralism crossed the Atlantic to become the predominant methodology
of American linguistics.

The German-born American anthropologist Edward Sapir (1884–1939) was
responsible for many enduring concepts in linguistic research. Author of
the landmark volume Language (1921), Sapir emphasizes that
language is tightly linked to culture. For Sapir, language is an
acquired function of culture rather than being biologically determined.
This view is diametrically opposed to that of the transformationalists
(see below), who believe (but have not proved) that human beings possess
a genetically determined predisposition for language—including many of
its most specific and distinguishing features—that is already present at
the moment of [color:4646=red ! important][color:4646=red ! important]birth.
Sapir is undoubtedly correct when he points out that, sans society, an
individual will never learn to talk in meaningful terms—that is, to
communicate ideas to other persons within a given community. This can
easily be demonstrated by observation of feral or mentally abused
children and in children suffering from autism or other psychological
disorders that affect the acquisition and manipulation of language.
Similarly, infants who are born into one linguistic environment but are
adopted into a completely different linguistic environment will
obviously not grow up speaking the language of their biological parents.
If there is any "hardwiring" of linguistic abilities, it occurs around
puberty, after which time it becomes increasingly difficult to attain
full fluency in a second language or to lose all ability in one's mother
tongue. Sapir, of course, could not have foreseen the degree to which
the transformationalists would divorce language from its social and
cultural matrix, but he would undoubtedly have been horrified by this
turn of events and would have regarded it as a fallacious approach to
language. While Sapir may not be around to point out the speciousness of
the transformationalists' so-called LAD (Language Acquisition Device,
also styled the "language module," "language instinct," and so forth),
which stipulates hardwired language ability at birth, that has been done
ably by Jerome Bruner (b. 1915) with his cognitive learning theory that
builds on the cultural-cognitive developmental model of the Russian
psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934).

Although Leonard Bloomfield (1887–1949) was a contemporary and
colleague of Sapir, and the two are widely regarded as the founders of
American structuralism, they were quite dissimilar in temperament and
outlook. Whereas Sapir was more dramatic and imaginative, Bloomfield
tended to be methodical and preferred as much as possible to rely
strictly upon evidence in formulating his positions. In 1914 he wrote Introduction to the Study of Language, which in later editions was called simply Language
(1933). Bloomfield was responsible for an enormously influential
synthesis that brought together three earlier traditions of language
study (historical, philological, and practical), and forged them into a
coherent whole. He was fiercely determined to establish linguistics as a
science. In particular, he wished to distinguish linguistics from the
speculative philosophers who assumed that the structure of their own
language embodied universal forms of human thought or even the cosmic
order. In addition to the speculative philosophers, Bloomfield censured
the grammarians of the old school tradition who strove to apply logical
standards to language, ignoring actual usage in favor of prescriptive
rules. Bloomfield was especially critical of those who took the features
of Latin as the normative form of human speech. He was much more
favorably disposed toward the grammatical studies of the ancient Indians
because the latter were themselves excellent phoneticians who had also
developed an intelligent systematization of grammar and lexicon.
In Europe, structuralism did not remain a monolithic linguistic
monopoly. The Prague School (which grew out of the Prague Linguistic
Circle) is a branch of structuralism, but with a difference. The members
of this school hold language to be a system of functionally related
units and focus on the observation of linguistic realia at discrete
moments. They are interested in language change, not in maintaining a
strict dichotomy of langue and parole (linguistic system
versus linguistic utterance)—a key tenet of Saussure—or of synchrony and
diachrony. The starting point of the Prague School is to clarify the
function of the various elements of actual utterances. The Prague School
has made a lasting impact upon many areas of modern linguistics,
particularly with regard to the analysis of the sounds of language and
their effect in literature.

Another noteworthy structuralist school is the Copenhagen Linguistic
Circle. One of its leading theoreticians was Louis Hjelmslev
(1899–1965), whose Prologomena (1943; English edition 1953) is
intended as a series of preliminary statements essential for the
formulation of any theory of language. Laying down the most basic ground
rules for linguistics, Hjelmslev faults the humanities for being overly
descriptive and insufficiently systematizing. He is opposed to the
confusion of philosophy of language with theories of language. Hjemslev
views language as a self-sufficient totality of its own. He foresees the
emergence of an "algebra of language," which he calls "glossematics."
This novel linguistic approach, which strongly emphasizes form, is
intentionally designed to distinguish the ideas of the Copenhagen School
from more traditional forms of structural linguistics, such as those of
the Prague School. Hjelmslev does adhere to Saussure's basic principles
of structuralism, but attempts to make his theory more axiomatic,
having been influenced by the logical empiricism of Alfred North

Whitehead (1861–1947), Russell, and Carnap. With the ostensible goal of
eliminating confusion between the object (language) being studied and
the methodology used to describe it, Hjelmslev tries to create
noncontradictory descriptive terminology by employing carefully crafted
abstractions and mathematical logic.

Around the middle of the twentieth century, Morris Swadesh
(1909–1967), a student of Sapir, devised a statistical method for
determining the family relationships of languages and the probable dates
of their separation from a common parent. This technique, which is
called lexico-statistics or glottochronology, is premised upon the idea
that the vocabulary of a language is replaced at a constant rate, much
like the steady radioactive decay of carbon-14 that is used to date
organic remains. The Swadesh lists select a core vocabulary of one
hundred or two hundred words consisting of body part terms, lower
numerals, pronouns, primary kinship terms, common flora and fauna, words
for ordinary topographical features, and so forth. Widely used in the
1960s and 1970s, glottochronology provoked an emotional debate, with all
manner of objections being raised against it: the rate of decay is not
universal, cognates may be partial and may or may not be recognizable,
even core terms may be borrowed, and so forth. Despite the outcry,
glottochronology is still employed, but in mathematically increasingly
complex and conceptually more sophisticated models. For example, a
geographical dimension may be incorporated into the tree, and more
careful attention is paid to historical reconstruction.

Another controversial legacy of structuralism that continues to
attract attention is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis concerning the
relationship among language, thought, and culture developed by Benjamin
Lee Whorf (1897–1941), who was also a student of Sapir and who based his
hypothesis on the approach of his mentor. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
has two main facets: (1) linguistic determinism (the language one uses
conditions the way one thinks), (2) linguistic relativity (the complex
of distinctions made in a given language are unique and not to be found
in any other language). Both of these facets are somewhat at odds with
the Bloomfieldian notion (broadly ascribed to by modern linguists) that
all languages—like all people—are equal in their ability to express
whatever thoughts their speakers need or want to convey. Whorf did
intensive work on North American indigenous languages that have
dramatically different grammatical and lexical properties from
Indo-European languages, so it is altogether comprehensible that his
intimate familiarity with their distinctive outlooks would lead him to
develop the hypothesis that he did. While the two main facets of the
hypothesis would appear to be innocuous, commonsense propositions, they
are anathema to certain sectors of the modern political spectrum.
Furthermore, continuing the tinctorial theme, the strong form of the
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (that a given language determines the thought and
perception of its speakers) is seen by many to have been refuted by the
study of Brent Berlin and Paul Kay on basic color terms and their
supposed universality (1969). The conclusions of Berlin and Kay,
however, have not gone un-challenged: John A. Lucy and Richard Shweder
have demonstrated significant behavioral differences in regard to color
perception on the part of speakers of different languages. In any event,
the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis should be easily testable by extensive
investigation of the thought patterns of individuals who are thoroughly
bilingual (or multilingual) in markedly dissimilar languages. Simply
asking such individuals whether it is easier to think certain thoughts
in a given language than in another language, or whether it is
impossible to think the thoughts of one language in another language,
should go far toward determining the validity of the Sapir-Whorf

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