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Review of  From Whitney to Chomsky

Reviewer: Pius Ten Hacken
Book Title: From Whitney to Chomsky
Book Author: John E. Joseph
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): History of Linguistics
Issue Number: 14.1369

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Date: Mon, 12 May 2003 09:21:17 +0100
From: Pius ten Hacken
Subject: From Whitney to Chomsky: Essays in the History of American Linguistics

Joseph, John E. (2002) From Whitney to Chomsky: Essays in the History
of American Linguistics. John Benjamins Publishing Company, Studies
in the Theory and History of Linguistic Science 103.

Pius ten Hacken, University of Wales Swansea

The book under review is a collection of nine essays. Although they
are by the same author and in the same subject field, they are very
different in length (from 12 to 36 pages) and breadth (cf. the
descriptions below). Each chapter can be read independently of the
others. None of the chapters is a reprint of an earlier publication,
but most are revised versions of or based on earlier articles
published 1988-1999.

Description of the individual chapters

Chapter 1 "The multiple ambiguities of American linguistic identity"
(1-17) contains some general thoughts on the development of the
meaning of the expressions "American language" and "American
linguistics" in the course of the past centuries. The main point of
the argument is that there are several possible interpretations and
that the prevailing one has shifted in the course of history.

Chapter 2 "'The American Whitney' and his European heritages and
legacies" (19-46) consists of two parts. The first is a general
characterization of Whitney's view of language and linguistics, which
shows a shift of emphasis from a set of conventions belonging to the
speech community to a tool for communication. The second traces
Whitney's influence on Saussure, focusing in particular on their
meeting in Berlin in 1879.

Chapter 3 "20th Century Linguistics in America and Europe" (47-70)
gives an overview of a hundred years of history of linguistics in
just 24 pages. The leading questions concern the continuity and shift
in the mainstream during this period and the opposition between
American and European linguistics. The mainstream (historical
linguistics, then structuralism, then generativism) worked towards
autonomous linguistics modelled on natural science. Each mainstream
movement also provoked a reaction (Humboldt, Croce, generative
semantics) emphasizing the human context of language. From the 1970s
the field has been too splintered to identify a mainstream. The
opposition between American and European linguistics is cultural
rather than geographic. It is sometimes hard to classify individual
linguists, but the distinction is real because it determines what
people read.

Chapter 4 "The Sources of the 'Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis'" (71-105)
argues that the common assumption that Humboldt's ideas are at the
origin of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is at least incomplete, if not
false. Since antiquity there have been two approaches to the
relationship between common language and knowledge, one seeing
language as metaphysical garbage to be disposed of, the other seeing
it as a magic key to knowledge, when interpreted adequately. Sapir
adopts the magic key perspective but is heavily influenced by the
work of Ogden and Richards, who take a metaphysical garbage view.
Whorf is influenced in addition by Madame Blavatsky's theosophical
movement. The contradictions produced by these influences and the
American structuralist position that language is autonomous were
never resolved, which explains why the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was
never explicitly formulated as such by Sapir or Whorf.

Chapter 5 "The Origins of American Sociolinguistics" (107-131)
investigates the use of the term 'sociolinguistics' and the pursuit
of sociolinguistic research before Labov's 1964 Ph.D. dissertation,
which is commonly taken as the start of modern sociolinguistics. It
concentrates in particular on the contribution by Paul H. Furfey and
his Ph.D. students George N. Putnam and Edna H. O'Hern. They have
been disregarded by later researchers because of Labov's disparaging
comments in his Ph.D.

Chapter 6 "Bloomfield's and Chomsky's Readings of the 'Cours de
linguistique générale'" (133-155) is devoted to an argument that the
apparent contradictions between early and late Bloomfield and Chomsky
in their interpretation of Saussure are the result of changes in
their agenda. In the first part of the chapter, the author argues
against Roy Harris's claim that Bloomfield was at first very
favourable to Saussure, but later considers him as continuing 19th
century psychologism. By a careful analysis of Bloomfield's writings
in the 1920s, in particular his review of the 'Cours', the author
shows that neither of Harris's claims is correct. In the second part,
the development of Chomsky's attitude towards Saussure is sketched
and explained as a result of an increasingly good understanding of
the text as well as a gradual shift in agenda. The chapter ends with
an emphatic statement that the existence of different interpretations
of texts and the influence of the personal agenda on the
interpretation of a text do not disqualify linguistics as a science.
They are inherent in any reading of any text.

Chapter 7 "How Structuralist was 'American Structuralism'?" (157-167)
considers the different meanings of structuralism and their
applicability to a number of American linguists. It is argued that
Bloomfield is not a structuralist, but Chomsky is. He is not the
earliest American structuralist, because Jakobson must be classified
as American as well.

Chapter 8 "How Behaviourist was 'Verbal Behavior'?" (169-180) takes a
fresh look at Skinner's book and Chomsky's famous review of it. For
two reasons it is strange that this review was generally taken by
Chomskyan linguists to be the central attack against
Post-Bloomfieldian linguistics. First, Skinner was not part of
mainstream linguistics, but an experimental psychologist. In fact,
much of Chomsky's criticism was shared by Post-Bloomfieldians, in
particular the emphasis on phonology and syntax rather than words and
collocations. Second, Chomsky actually shared with Skinner, as
opposed to the Post-Bloomfieldians, the view that linguistics should
come up with explanations rather than descriptions and should
concentrate on language in the individual rather than in the
community. The chapter ends with the suggestion that the question of
whether Skinner's ideas were in fact defeated by Chomsky's review is
more open than commonly assumed.

Chapter 9 "The Popular (Mis)interpretations of Whorf and Chomsky:
What they had in common and why they had to happen" (181-196) aims to
explain why both Whorf and Chomsky became famous outside the field of
linguistics mainly because of versions of their ideas about
linguistic relativism (Whorf) and deep and surface structure
(Chomsky) they never intended themselves. It does so by showing how
public thought was influenced by discussions about propaganda and how
this general atmosphere affected linguistics.


The essays collected in this volume are all carefully researched, but
in different ways, depending on the scope of the question dealt with.
Archive material is used in particular for chapters 2, 4 and 5, and a
personal interview with Edna O'Hern is referred to in chapter 5.
Chapters 6 and 8 are based on scrutinizing published texts. In all
cases, the essays show the author's fondness for detail, which gives
the best results in instances where questions of a relatively small
scope are studied. In order to fully appreciate the book, the reader
has to enjoy following, for instance, the author's search through
Whitney's diary and correspondence in order to find out as many
details as possible about Saussure's encounter with Whitney.

In this reviewer's opinion, the same method has less fortunate
consequences in chapters with significantly broader topics. This
applies especially to chapter 3, based on a chapter of the
Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Asher (1994). Treating a
century of linguistics in 24 pages, the author still finds space to
mention that the Springarn Medal, awarded annually by the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is named for the
same Joel Springarn (1875-1939) who is the author of the unsigned
summaries of Croce's theory of aesthetics which appeared in "The
Nation". In this chapter in particular, but also in the others, the
author seems to have had the aim of referring to as many people as
possible with dates of birth and death. It might have been better to
mention these dates in the index instead of burdening the text of the
essays with them.

At some points, the formulations contained in the text might raise an
eyebrow, as in his discussion of misreadings on p. 134, where he
states that people who die before others compile their main ideas are
of particular concern here, "Such was the case with Socrates, with
Jesus and with Saussure." It seems unlikely that Saussure would have
felt happy with this sentence.

Even though the essays are generally very carefully researched, there
are some points where the impression remains that individual
statements are not quite correct. Thus at the start of chapter 8
there is a sentence implying that mentalism is compatible with the
assumption that linguistic theory assigns rather than describes the
structure of language. In this reviewer's opinion it would be a very
strange type of linguistics which claims that language is in the mind
of the speaker but that the theory of language assigns a structure to
it independently of what is in the speaker's mind.
In the presentation of Chomsky's theoretical development in chapter
6, there are also some formulations which seem to be at odds with
Chomsky's intentions as expressed in his writings. First, "a
three-way distinction between D-structure, S-structure and surface
structure" (p. 153) strikes this reviewer as a misleading
characterization of the Government and Binding (GB) model. In this
model, "surface structure" is not a technical term for a level of
representation on a par with D-structure and S-structure. Chomsky
(1980) refers to surface structure in order to position the new
GB-model with respect to the earlier model with deep and surface
structures. Chomsky (1986:65) refers to "actually observed forms with
their surface structures", which suggests that surface structure
belongs to performance rather than to a model describing competence.

The last remark leads to a second quibble which concerns the claim
that "By 1986, [...] 'competence' and 'performance' have disappeared
from Chomsky's lexicon" (p. 148). In fact, the reason why Chomsky
(1986) does not mention these concepts is that he is addressing a
different opponent, the conception of language as an abstract object
such as proposed by Quine and others, rather than the behaviourist
conception of language as a collection of utterances. This does not
mean that Chomsky has abandoned the concepts of competence and
performance or even the terms. The opposition between "knowledge of
language" and "the ability to use it" is extensively discussed in
Chomsky (1988:9-12), and Chomsky (1997:9) also uses the terms
'competence' and 'performance' for them.

A final quibble concerns the place of semantics in the GB-model. The
formulation "In 1986, when 'semantic content' (re-dubbed Logical
Form) has been reassigned to S-structure" (p. 154) suggests a rather
different role of LF than in Chomsky (1986:68). According to Chomsky,
LF is NOT semantic content, but only the interface between syntax and
semantics. It is a level of representation derived from S-structure,
not a type of information assigned to it.

The last few remarks should not give the impression that there are
many such problematic statements. Rather, the essays are in general
not only well-researched and thought-provoking, but also
entertaining. Therefore the book is not only to be recommended for
the specialist, but also for the linguist interested in the
historical background of the field. The intention is less to make a
particular linguistic point than to make sense of developments in the
field as a result of the contributions of so many linguists who tried
to select and integrate different observations about language into a
linguistic theory.


Asher, R. E. (ed.) (1994), Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics,
Oxford: Pergamon.

Chomsky, Noam (1980), Rules and Representations, New York: Columbia
University Press.

Chomsky, Noam (1986), Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and
Use, Westport, CT: Praeger.

Chomsky, Noam (1988), Language and Problems of Knowledge, Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press.

Chomsky, Noam (1997), Perspectives on Power: Reflections on Human
Nature and the Social Order, Montréal: Black Rose.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER Pius ten Hacken is a lecturer at the School of European Languages of the University of Wales Swansea. He has a Ph.D. in English Linguistics and a Habilitation in General Linguistics from the Universitaet Basel. His main research areas include the history and philosophy of Chomskyan linguistics, as well as morphology, translation theory, and computational linguistics.