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Twentieth-century linguistics


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


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.

This extract from an obituary of Bloomfield, written by Bernard Bloch in
the journal Language in 1949 (p. 93), summarizes this scholar’s

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?????$??$???????rch: impersonally, precisely, and in terms that assume
no more than actual observation discloses to him.

Bloomfield’s opposition to unscientific impressionism in language
studies is neatly summarized by the wry comment he made on one occasion:
‘If you want to compare two languages, it helps to know one of them!’

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