October 14, 2007

Fitchifying the History of Linguistics

A few days ago Mark applauded the publication in Nature of several articles on linguistics, including one by W. Tecumseh Fitch, `An invisible hand' (a News and Views essay surveying the other two articles, which are quantitative studies of lexical change). Mark's right, of course, that it's good to see linguistics featured so prominently in such a prominent journal. But as far as Fitch's article is concerned, linguistics might have been better served by non-publication.

Fitch's view of the history of linguistics is distorted, and so is his understanding of language change. There are other oddities in his article -- his Just-So-Story explanation of the slide into pejoration of some English terms for women (hussy, wench, etc.), for instance -- but the main problems are historical. The misunderstandings are worth discussing because they aren't confined to Fitch, and because the real stories are instructive. Addressing the two topics will take some space, so I'll divide the discussions into two posts, starting here with the history of linguistics.

Taking August Schleicher and Jacob Grimm as his prime examples of 19th-century historical linguists, Fitch presents the intellectual transition from historical to synchronic linguistics this way:

Unfortunately, many historical linguists entertained quasi-mystical ideas: August Schleicher...believed that languages are living things, and Jacob Grimm posited a Sprachgeist -- an internal spirit of a language driving it to change along certain lines. Twentieth-century linguists rejected such fanciful notions, and emphasized the capacity of individuals to produce and understand utterances. Noam Chomsky famously characterized this as a conceptual shift from a historical preoccupation with `E-language' (a set of externalized utterances) to an emphasis on `I-language' (principles internalized by the language learner).

That is, according to Fitch, historical linguistics failed because its main practitioners had nutty ideas, so that it had to be replaced by the truly scientific linguistics of Noam Chomsky and his followers. What actually happened is more like this: modern synchronic linguistics got its start early in the 20th century and developed steadily for the next 50+ years, becoming increasingly more widely practiced (and more fashionable), until the publication of Chomsky's Syntactic Structures in 1957 launched the meteoric rise to fame and glory of generative grammar. Historical linguistics certainly stopped being the main game in town, even before 1957; but as a field it's still going strong, building on a very solid late-19th-century foundation. It is one of the most successful historical sciences you'll find anywhere.

Both Schleicher and Grimm were major contributors to the development of 19th-century historical linguistics, and their occasional flights of fancy are far outweighed by their substantive contributions. But -- and here's where Fitch's account begins to go off the rails -- both of them made their contributions before the great breakthrough that still ranks as one of the major achievements in the entire history of linguistics, and for that matter in historical science, period: the Neogrammarians' formulation of the regularity hypothesis of sound change, which led directly to the development of the Comparative Method, through which "genetic" relationships among languages (via descent with modification from a single ancestral language) are established and sizable chunks of long-vanished parent languages are reconstructed. Schleicher and Grimm were not Neogrammarians; the achievements of the Neogrammarians were not fanciful; and those achievements were neither replaced nor superseded by synchronic linguistics. Fitch might have realized this if he had not imagined that `[t]he crowning achievement of these early linguists [read: historical linguists] was a family tree of languages'. Schleicher is famous for his family tree, but it was the Neogrammarians, not Schleicher, who turned historical linguistics into a historical science by developing a rigorous and spectacularly successful set of methodological principles. And in any case, it was not intellectual flaws in late-19th-century historical linguistics that led to the rise of synchronic linguistics.

The actual story is more interesting. Ferdinand de Saussure is often, and with justice, called the father of structural linguistics: it was Saussure's early 20th-century work that inspired the emergence of a new synchronic science of language. His central idea (quoting from Wikipedia) was that `language may be analyzed as a formal system...apart from the messy dialects of real-time production and comprehension'. In other words, Saussure emphasized the importance of system -- structure -- in the study of synchronic language states. But long before he founded structural linguistics (and foreshadowed the distinction between E-language and I-language), Saussure was an Indo-Europeanist. He began his studies in Leipzig in 1876, the very place and year of the Neogrammarian manifesto, as expressed by the great Slavist August Leskien:

Die Lautgesetze kennen keine Ausnahmen!

(in English: Sound laws know no exceptions!)

In 1879, still a student, Saussure published his famous Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes (Thesis on the primitive system of vowels in the Indo-European languages). This is the initial proposal of the theory that later came to be known as Laryngeal Theory. The significance of Saussure's proposal (formulated when he was all of about 20 years old!) is hardly confined to Indo-European (IE) linguistics. It was in fact the first major structural analysis of a language in Western linguistics -- the language, in this case, being Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed ancestor of the many IE languages. Saussure took the extraordinarily messy and numerous patterns of IE vowel alternations, the so-called ablaut alternations, and reconstructed a much neater and simpler system for PIE by hypothesizing the existence of three consonants that had not survived into any of the then-known IE languages, ancient or modern. He could not have done this if he had not started with a profoundly structural notion of the language system; and the structural notion itself, though it was developed in a dramatic way by Saussure, was prefigured by the Neogrammarian breakthrough, the regularity hypothesis of sound change -- which also makes sense only if language is viewed as inherently systematic.

Saussure's Laryngeal Theory at first met with considerable skepticism from historical linguists. His approach was novel, to put it mildly, and the idea of reconstructing unknown, unattested consonants did not appeal to traditionalists. Acceptance came slowly over the next fifty years or so, aided especially by the decipherment of Hittite, which turned out to have retained some of the consonants that Saussure had reconstructed solely on structural grounds. The triumph of Laryngeal Theory also owed much to the fact that it turned out to be fruitful, permitting the explanation of alternations in morphemes and paradigms that had been wholly mysterious under pre-Laryngeal Theory reconstructions of PIE vowels.

The moral: Far from representing a sharp break with a misguided and inferior past, as Fitch would have it, the rise of synchronic linguistics was an outgrowth of the achievements of the late-19th-century Neogrammarians. Saussure learned Neogrammarian principles as a student at Leipzig; he applied the Neogrammarian structural concept to an essentially synchronic analysis of Proto-Indo-European structure; and thereafter he continued to develop his structural ideas until, in the last decade of his life, he earned his status as the father of structural linguistics.

Posted by Sally Thomason at October 14, 2007 01:15 PM