March 11, 2007

Linguistics in 1940

A couple of weeks ago ("A tale of two societies", 3/1/2007), I quoted a passage from Mary Haas's obituary:

For Haas, as for most of the other linguists of her generation, the watershed of her career was the onset of the Second World War. In 1940-41, as the United States moved toward entering the war, a cadre of field linguists was recruited to learn and teach the lesser-known languages of the European and Pacific theatres.[...] Recruited to study Far Eastern languages -- and ordered to produce practical handbooks, teaching grammars and vocabularies -- were such scholars as William S. Cornyn, who was assigned Burmese; Murray Emeneau, who was channeled into the study of Vietnamese; and Haas, who got Thai.

I wondered at the time how this process came about, and who organized it. Geoff Nathan sent some additional information from memory ("Bloomfield 'got' Tagalog, Swadesh 'got' Chinese"), and after returning home from some travel, he added more from two books. I also followed up some leads on my own, as detailed below.

Here's Geoff's note (with some interpolation by me in square brackets):

There's not much more in Seuren's book [that's Pieter Seuren, Western Linguistics, 1998] -- the project was coordinated by the ACLS [the American Council of Learned Societies], which contracted out to the LSA [the Linguistic Society of America].

However, in Martin Joos's idiosyncratic book Notes on the Development of the Linguistic Society of America 1924 to 1950, there's a couple of pages, including a reproduction of the "Report of the First Year's Operation of the Intensive Language Program of the American Council of Learned Societies", written by Mortimer Graves, Chairman of the National School of Modern Oriental Languages and Civilizations, and J. M. Cowan, Director, Intensive Language Program. Cowan seems to have been the leader.

It includes all the people who were working on the project, and what languages they were assigned. Interestingly, there are a number of Arabic names for the various Arabic 'dialects'. Didn't recognize any of them, although I certainly recognized most of the others--Frank Edgerton, Kemp Malone, Zellig Harris, Carleton Hodge, Fergie [that would be Charles Ferguson], etc.

The book was assembled by Hodge and Hockett in 1986, and I can't seem to find an ISBN number. I think LSA published it. It doesn't seem to be available any more [actually, has it here] -- anyway, it's not listed on the LSA site. If you need more info, or want to borrow our copy, you're welcome to, and we'll be good to your firstborn while it's here...

It's typeset in Joos's inimitable style--did you ever meet him? He was chair of Linguistics at Toronto when I was an undergraduate, and mighty weird then, although he was also in early stages of Alzheimer's, as we now know.

I never met Martin Joos, as far as I know, and I don't think I've even knowingly encountered his typesetting style. However, I've ordered the book, and will put up a scan of the relevant couple of pages after I get it.

Here's what Seuren says about the "Wartime foreign languages programme" (pp. 194):

Even before the United States got involved in the second world war the Administration started, for strategic reasons, a programme to promote the knowledge of foreign languages. In 1941 the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) sought contact with the LSA to set up an Intensive Language Program (ILP). When the US did step into the war, in December 1941, the ILP was greatly intensified and soon merged with the army Specialized Training Program (ASTP), which commissioned the writing of materials and crash courses in a number of languages that were considered strategically important, notably Russian, German, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Burmese. (This was the beginning of a period of collaboration between the American armed forces and the linguitic world, which would last for over twenty years, the former playing Dutch uncle to the latter.) Bloomfield took part in the ASTP and produced his Outline Guide for the Practical Study of Foreign Languages (1942), and two books on Dutch (1943, 1944-1945) (besides reluctantly putting his name to a Russian course to which he did not actually contribute).

I also located some "Discussion Notes" on "The Bloomfield-Jakobson Correspondence" (Morris Halle, Language 64(4) 737-754, 1988), which includes this passage:

During the war years, the American Council of Learned Societies had obtained a substantial grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for the training of teachers and the preparation of teaching material for foreign languages needed by the military. Bloomfield was a major participant in these activities. He wrote one of the two main manuals on methodology, the Outline guide for the practical study of foreign languages; he wrote both volumes of the Spoken Dutch course and co-authored (with Luba Petrova) the text of Spoken Russian as well as the grammatical introduction for the War Department's Russian Dictionary.

Morris references J. Milton Cowan, "Peace and War", LSA Bulletin 64 28-34 as a source. Cowan's obituary in Language (71(2) 341-348, 1995) contains some additional information, starting with this interesting background:

At the university [of Iowa], Milt's affiliations were with the departments of psychology, dramatic art, and German. The records are sketchy, but in 1934 he was apparently a research assistant in dramatic art, which at that time was the appropriate department for the study of experimental phonetics; in 1936 he was an assistant research associate in the same department, with the same focus; and from 1938 through June 1940 he was assistant professor of German. Meanwhile he had earned his doctorate, with a thesis, "Pitch, intensity, and rhythmic movements in American dramatic speech" ...

In 1934 Milt had joined the Modern Language Association, in 1936 the Acoustical Society of America, and in 1937, as already noted, our own Society [i.e. the LSA]. In 1941 he was chairman of the experimental phonetics section of the Modern Language Association; in 1941-42, a member of the advisory board to the journal American Speech.

On July 13 [1937, at the LSA Linguistic Institute] he gave a luncheon-conference talk on intonation in English, French, and German; later, on Wednesdsay, August 11, he and Bernard Bloch gave back-to-back talks on the movements of the vocal organs during speech as revealed by special kinds of motion pictures ... A year and half later, at the 1938 annual meeting, the record shows a new pair of papers from the two of them, this time on phrasing and syntax.

In December 1940, Cowan became Secretary-Treasurer of the LSA, and in 1941 he became the "roving overseer" of the ACLS program in strategic languages:

As early as the mid 1930, F. Mortimer Graves, the secretary of the ACLS, had recognized that the United States was badly in need of people with competence in "strategic languages", including many not tuaght at any institution in the country. In 1941 he obtained a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, with which he established the ILP and began to sponsor a series of pilot courses in some of those languages. The courses were built on a triad of premises well known to us linguists but still unfamiliar to a distressingly large proportion of the general educated public: (1) the primacy of speech over writing, which means the learner must hear, imitate, and understand native (or near-native) speakers of the target language; (2) intensive concentration -- as many hours per day as possible; and (3) guidance by someone trained in linguistic analysis, in order to focus on the real differences between the learner's native language and that being acquired and to avoid the multitudinous time-wasting traps that arise from popular misconceptions about the nature of language. ...

Milt's role in the ACLS was as roving overseer of this enterprise, a project intitially small but very shortly expanded by the military authorities into the large-scale Army Specialized Training Program, involving thousands of soldier-students and many universities.

This obituary indicates that an expanded version of Cowan 1975 was published as "American linguistics in peace and war", pp. 67-82 in Konrad Koerner, ed., First person singular II, 1991.

The humanities certainly have changed since 1940. Aside from the different attitude towards cooperation with the government and the military, I'm surprised to learn that the MLA had an "experimental phonetics section", and that in the late 1930s, the "department of dramatic art" at the University of Iowa "was the appropriate department for the study of experimental phonetics". Back to the future!

[Roger Shuy writes:

Back in the late fifties up to the mid sixties, I belonged to MLA and went to the annual meetings between Christmas and New Years, alternating between Chicago and New York. I remember that there were sections on experimental phonetics at that time but they were very poorly attended.

I also recall the time that Cowan advised me, later verified by others, that he didn't like to have a period after his first initial. And at LSA, which was then housed at CAL, everyone called him Uncle Miltie.

I still have on my books shelves copy of a 1957 book called Applied Phonetics, by Claude Merton Wise, chairman of LSU's Department of Speech. His admitted audience included "actors,play directors, interpretive readers, radio and television speakers."

Too bad about the "poorly attended" part. That was the heyday of the Acoustical Society as the center of phonetics research, but there should have been plenty of reason to continue phonetics (and other aspects of linguistics) in the mix at the MLA.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 11, 2007 02:07 PM