EUROPE AND AMERICA
Crystal D. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. –
New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. – pp. 407-408.
Two main approaches to language study, one European, one American, unite to form the modern subject of linguistics. The first arises out of the aims and methods of 19th-century comparative philology (§50), with its focus on written records, and its interest in historical analysis and interpretation. The beginning of the 20th century saw a sharp change of emphasis, with the study of the principles governing the structure of living languages being introduced by the Genevan linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857—1913). Saussure's early work was in philology, but he is mainly remembered for his theoretical ideas, as summarized in the Cours de linguistique generale ('Course in general linguistics'), which is widely held to be the foundation of the modern subject. This book was in fact published posthumously in 1916, and consists of a reconstruction by two of Saussure's students of his lecture notes and other materials.
The second approach arose from the interests and preoccupations of American anthropologists, who were concerned to establish good descriptions of the American Indian languages and cultures before they disappeared. Here, there were no written records to rely on, hence historical analysis was ruled out. Also, these languages presented very different kinds of structure from those encountered in the European tradition. The approach was therefore to provide a careful account of the speech patterns of the living languages. A pioneer in this field was Franz Boas (1858-1942), who published the first volume of the Handbook of American Indian Languages in 1911. Ten years later, another anthropologically oriented book appeared: Language by Edward Sapir (1884-1939). These works proved to be a formative influence on the early development of linguistics in America. The new direction is forcefully stated by Boas (p. 60): 'we must insist that a command of the language is an indispensable means of obtaining accurate and thorough knowledge, because much information can be gained by listening to conversations of the natives and by taking part in their daily life, which, to the observer who has no command of the language, will remain entirely inaccessible'.
Both European and American approaches developed rapidly. In Europe, Saussure's ideas were taken up by several groups of scholars (especially in Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, France, and Denmark), and schools of thought emerged based on Saussurean principles (notably, the Linguistic Circle of Prague, which was founded in 1926). The field of phonology was the first to develop, with later progress coming in such areas as grammar and style. Saussure's influence continues to be strong today, with his notion of a language 'system' becoming the foundation of much work in semiotics and structuralism.
In America, the development of detailed procedures for the study of spoken language also led to progress in phonetics and phonology, and especial attention was paid to the distinctive morphology and syntax of the American Indian languages. The first major statement synthesizing the theory and practice of linguistic analysis was Language by Leonard Bloomfield (1887-1949), which appeared in 1933. This book dominated linguistic thinking for over 20 years, and stimulated many descriptive studies of grammar and phonology. In due course, the Bloomfieldian approach came to be called 'structuralist', because of the various kinds of technique it employed to identify and classify features of sentence structure (in particular, the analysis of sentences into their constituent parts). It also represented a behaviourist view of linguistics, notably in its approach to the study of meaning. However, its appeal diminished in the 1950s, when there was a sharp reaction against the limitations of structural linguistic methods, especially in the area of grammar.