15.3397, Review: History of Linguistics: Koerner (2004)

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LINGUIST List: Vol-15-3397. Sat Dec 04 2004. ISSN: 1068 - 4875.

Subject: 15.3397, Review: History of Linguistics: Koerner (2004)                                                                                                                                                                  

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Date: 02-Dec-2004
From: Lorenzo Zanasi < lorenzo.zanasi at tin.it >
Subject: Essays in the History of Linguistics 

-------------------------Message 1 ---------------------------------- 
Date: Sat, 04 Dec 2004 05:05:47
From: Lorenzo Zanasi < lorenzo.zanasi at tin.it >
Subject: Essays in the History of Linguistics 

AUTHOR: Koerner, E.F.K. 
TITLE:  Essays in the History of Linguistics 
SERIES: Studies in the History of the Language Sciences 
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company 
YEAR: 2004 
Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/15/15-1850.html

Lorenzo Zanasi, Istituto Italiano di Cultura di Parigi

This book is divided into three main parts: 
1) programmatic papers in the history of linguistics; 
2) studies in linguistic historiography; 
3) historiographical and (auto)biographical sketches. 
The volume concludes with a complete bibliography of the work of Zellig 

In the first paper Koerner focuses on general themes of history of 
linguistics, exemplifying through particular cases. Very interesting, we 
think, is the opening paper on "the place of linguistic historiography within 
the sciences of language". History of linguistics is an alive and practiced 
activity in some European countries (Italy, Germany, France); it's less 
frequent instead in the American academic world. "In North America the 
situation does not look as rosy. The North American Association for the 
History of the Language Sciences launched late in 1987, counts fewer than 
one hundred members and that no more than a dozen papers are usually 
given at the annual meetings which are regularly held together with those 
of the Linguistic Society of  America (which itself counts about 4.000 
personal members)".

Moreover Koerner observes like this situation is anomalous respect to other 
fields of the knowledge as, for example, the history of medicine and history 
of science of  philosophy. "These are lively subjects in North America while 
no arrangement exists with regard to linguistics, a discipline, in which the 
coexistence of diverging theoretical views and possibly contrasting 
methodological procedures constitutes perhaps the most important 

The linguistic historiography in Koerner's terms may become more 
widespread with efforts in five areas: 
1) Introduction to the field of linguistics through its history. 
2) Historical knowledge of the subject as part a scientist's education 
furnishes the practicing linguist with the material for acquiring a knowledge 
of the development of his /her own field;
3) Historical knowledge as means of evaluating new hypotheses;
4) Historical knowledge as leading to moderation in linguistic theory: 
history of linguistic should serve as a guard against exaggerated claims in 
terms of novelty, originality, breakthrough, and revolution in our (re)
5) Historical knowledge as furthering unity within a complex subject: 
Koerner in this case proposes linguistic history itself as a unifying agent 
respect to the increasing specialization of linguistic research.

In the second paper the author writes about ideology, politics and social 
science scholarship, surveying connections between linguistics and 
ideology (such the National Socialism and Indian fundamentalism). For the 
Nazi period (1933-1945), Koerner shows that modern historians of 
linguistics have ignored, this topic for the most part: "This reticence, may 
simply have been because, until recently, many academics have felt 
uncomfortable with a close examination of the Nazi period". Then he 
describes and discusses some myths which that linguistics is supposed to 
have taken during the Third Reich: 

1) the presumed isolation of the field from international development;
2) the politicization of the discipline; 
3) the total worthlessness of the work done by scholars during that period.

As present-day instances of linguistic ideology, Koerner presents the case 
of Indian context. In particular he mentions the activity of the Hindi 
movement BJP in supporting nationalism. He says: "BJP is in the business of 
rewriting history, and their leaders would like to demonstrate that the 
Hindu population has always resided on the Subcontinent. As a result, the 
traditional view that the Indians (and the Iranians) had in fact migrated into 
the Indian Subcontinent some 4.000 years ago, and had not been part of 
the original population, must be bothersome to the ideologues, who want 
to lead their followers to believe that India means Hinduism." As result 
scholars who try to show the historical and linguistic role of the Dravidian 
population, are themselves under attack.

Finally, Koerner discusses the interesting way in which scholars are 
approached and entered in contact with ideology (tendency denominated 
Resonanzbedarf 'resonance need').

The last paper of this part examines the hidden connection and influence of 
Bloomfield's morphophonemics on Chomsky development of generative 
linguistics. "Chomsky developed a research program" Koerner 
concludes, "that many young men and women found attractive. That this 
program has turned out to be truly structuralist in conception and very 
Bloomfieldian in outlook may be regarded as the irony of his career and 
more often than not a regular occurrence in history and in human life: after 
all these efforts of our adolescence and early manhood to set out us off 
from our fathers, we end up being very much like them".

The second part is devoted to some studies in linguistic historiography:
1) Missionary linguistics in the Americas: the heroic period;
2) The place of geology in W. D. Whitney linguistic argument;
3) Toward a historiography of Polish linguistics;
4) Three Saussure - one "structuralist" avant la lettre.

Here I mention the second and the fourth of these papers. Whitney's work 
introduced the uniformitarian principles to historical and comparative 
linguistic. But he had taken an important interest in the natural sciences, in 
particular botanic and geology. Koerner focuses on the relation between 
linguistics and geology, showing as, for Whitney, even if linguistics is a 
historical or moral science and not a physical one, it's possible to have 
analogies with the geological investigation. 

In the last paper, Koerner examines the different phases of Saussure's 
intellectual thought, discussing the concept of 'système', and attributions of 
the famous passage "où tout se tient" to Saussure.


Essays in the History of Linguistics is a text that contains very interesting 
topic and ideas (especially the programmatic papers in the History of 
Linguistics). Sometimes (as in case of paper on "influence") the tone is a bit 
distant from the linguistic theme and it comes down too much in details 
related to academic community. I have appreciated, finally, the 
autobiographical sketches of the author (even if it's not perfectly clear to me 
their place in the book), because they describe an academic context that 
more human than is usually found. 


Lorenzo Zanasi is teacher of Italian at the Istituto Italiano di cultura in Paris. 
His 2004 doctoral dissertation in linguistics is about computational 
methods of representation in geolinguistics. Currently he is also involved in 
the study on computational linguistics at the University of Paris VII.

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