The Fathers of Modern Linguistics, Pt. 1: Saussure, Boas, and Bloomfield

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Although today linguistics is associated primarily with language structure, the grammatical nuts and bolts that seem to form both proper and improper speech, the development of this sub-field of anthropology is actually rooted in cultural studies, a funct

Although today linguistics is commonly associated with language structure, the so-called grammatical nuts and bolts that seem to form both “proper” and “improper” speech, the development of this sub-field of anthropology is actually rooted in cultural studies, a functional discipline intended as a means to an end to understand various hitherto unknown cultures around the world.

Never intended to dictate how people should speak--that would violate the very ethics of anthropological study--it has nonetheless evolved and taken many unexpected turns over the past century, with many renowned American linguists now at the forefront of the Standardized English debate and the contention that a formalized form of English must be imposed to establish a “standard” in American discourse.

Premier to the formal study of linguistics, as well many other language debates, are three men who saw the need for a formal branch of linguistic study, established the academic discourse concerning this study, and ultimately laid the groundwork for the study of linguistics as it manifests today. Those men were Ferdinand De Saussure, Franz Boas, and Leonard Bloomfield.

Ferdinand De Saussure

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Ferdinand de Saussure (November 26, 1857– February 22, 1913) was a Swiss linguist who taught at the University of Geneva, whose ideas about language laid the foundation for many significant developments in linguistics in the early 20th century.

Widely considered the founder of modern linguistics, Saussure’s perspectives evolved from a diachronic historical linguistic perspective (how languages change and branch off throughout time), to the introduction of synchronic linguistics (the study of a single language as it existed at a particular point in time), a perspective that ultimately changed the course of linguistic thought.  He believed that the study of linguistics should not presume to prescribe how people should speak, but simply describe how they do.

In that Saussure was opposed to the imposition of grammar books, his concepts have little application in modern linguistic textbooks today.  Even so, his perspective concerning semiotics (the signs and symbols inherent of a given language) has had a monumental impact on not just the formal study of language, but the humanities and other social sciences as well.

Franz Boas

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Franz Boas (July 9, 1858–December 21, 1942), the founder of American anthropology, was a German-American anthropologist who had the distinction of receiving the first American Ph D in anthropology.

Called the "Father of Modern Anthropology," Boas set out specifically to design a field of study to counter the influence of the cultural evolutionists who had taken Darwin’s biological theories and applied them to human society, deciding mistakenly that if animals had evolved from simple to complex forms over time, so too had cultures.

Stressing the concept of cultural relativity, the perspective that no culture is inherently superior or inferior to another, Boas laid the foundation for “descriptive-structural linguistics”--the approach that represents the standard today.

However, while his methods invariably led to “prescribed” language, his larger intent was simply to advocate the learning of language as a means to understand various cultures.  For Boas, culture was the destination, and language simply the path.  But in that Boas established linguistics as a discipline separate from cultural anthropology, he effectively opened the door for standardized language.

Leonard Bloomfield

Leonard Bloomfield (April 1, 1887–April 18, 1949) was an American linguist who led the development of structural linguistics in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s, based largely on Boas’ descriptive-structural linguistic principles.

His highly influential textbook Language, published in 1933, presented a comprehensive description of American structural linguistics which further separated linguists from it cultural application.  Bloomfield's approach to linguistics was characterized by an emphasis on the scientific, structural basis of linguistics, adherence to behaviorism (stating that semantics is psychology, not linguistics), with emphasis on formal procedures for the analysis of linguistic data.

While Bloomfieldian structural linguistics greatly effected linguistic discourse for over two decades, it ultimately gave away to Noam Chomsky’s theory of “generative grammar” in 1950s and early 1960s.


Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation, M. Agar

Images via except where credited otherwise (with my appreciation)

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