Sally Thomason at Language Log has an excellent post taking issue with a confused article by W. Tecumseh Fitch on the history of linguistics, which claimed (in Sally’s summary) that “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.” This got my hackles up for any number of reasons, and Sally does a superb job of demolishing it; anyone interested in intellectual history should read her post. This paragraph reawakened in me the impact—not just intellectual but emotional (it was almost like falling in love)—of learning about all this as I was in the process of deciding linguistics was what I wanted to do, several decades ago:
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.
This stuff should be as well (if vaguely) known to the public at large as Einstein’s theory of relativity (not to mention Freud’s pseudoscientific ideas); language is, after all, closer to us than the stars, and of more immediate importance in our lives than the speed of light.
Her followup, on Fitch’s misunderstanding of how language change works, is also worth reading. But I find the use of red for cited words annoying, and I imagine color-blind people would find it even more so (and there are probably browsers where it doesn’t show up as intended); why not use italics like everybody else?