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Review of  Essays in the History of Linguistics

Reviewer: Lorenzo Zanasi
Book Title: Essays in the History of Linguistics
Book Author: E.F.K. Koerner
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): History of Linguistics
Issue Number: 15.3397

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Date: Tue, 30 Nov 2004 12:30:01 +0100
From: Lorenzo Zanasi
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

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.