Daniel Everett dan at
Wed Oct 27 16:04:35 UTC 2010

It is a common myth that before Chomsky 'mentalism' was a bad word. Chomsky certainly brought mentalistm to a greater prominence in American linguistics than it had held previously. But he was not the first North American linguist interested in the mind by any means. Nor was he the dividing line between empiricism and rationalism in US linguistics.  It is not nor has it been the case that the field can be divided neatly into 'empiricists' vs 'rationalists', either pre or post Chomsky.

Sapir, for example, was very different from Bloomfield (or Harris for that matter). Chomsky is much more closely aligned with Bloomfield in his focus on structures. Sapir was concerned about what went on in the mind. But Sapir's take was partially that psychology should be a subdiscipline of anthropology and that we needed to see the developments of minds and languages as part of culture. And vice-versa (Sapir recognized that cognition, culture, and language interact and that each has causal relations to the other - these relations are not uni-directional).

Also, although Bloomfield was interested in semantics and in the mind, he seems in some places to have let them lie because he didn't believe that we were prepared to study them yet, because to fully understand meaning or thinking was to understand everything. And yet at the same time, Bloomfield's own study of morphophonemics in Menominee has a strongly mentalist flavor in parts. (See Bever, T.G. (1963). Theoretical implications of Bloomfield's 'Menomini Morphophonemics'.Quarterly Progress Report, R.L.E., MIT Press.)

There is an interesting correspondence between Sapir and Ken Pike about the perception of tones in tone languages, one letter leading Pike to distinguish contour vs. register tone systems, based on native speaker perceptions, if I recall (at least that is how Ken Pike explained it to me). I believe that the correspondence is on file at SIL Dallas. It is a pity for all of us that Sapir died so young. His Sterling Professorship at Yale was, after his death, occupied by his long-time rival/friend Bloomfield, who, as Sapir before him, moved to Yale from the U of Chicago (from the German department in Bloomfield's case). 

In some readings of his work, Sapir can be seen as skeptical about the professionalization of linguistics into departments of linguistics, rather than having linguists interspersed through other departments. My interpretation is that he feared a reification of language studies that would proceed independently of the study of actual languages or anthropology.


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