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?


  1. One sensitive to colours can always configure his web browser to not respect the designer’s colour scheme.
    On my own site I use a dark green for blockquotes. I hope that that has never annoyed anyone.

  2. I’m not sure that the red would be a particular problem for colour-blind readers – it’s not as if the rest of the text is in green, & running the page through the simulations at http://www.visc (NOTE: your spam filter thinks this is questionable content, Hat, because it blocks a substring of the domain. Remove the space I’ve inserted to get the urls to work.) shows the words as still fairly distinct. A little more subtle, in the latter case, but that might actually be an improvement….
    I agree, though, that it’s a pretty strange choice.

  3. Warner Belanger says

    And Panini should be as well known as Plato or Aristotle.

  4. I’ve always been annoyed by the way that the move from historical to structural linguistics is sometimes portrayed as a move from error to truth, or from amateurism to science. It sounds as though the transformationalists have tried to do the same to the structuralists.

  5. I find even the notion that ‘scientific linguistics’ began with the NGs somewhat programmatic–it is not an either/or situation–linguistics had been getting steadily more rigorous for almost a century before the NGs.
    Even references to ‘flights of fancy’, which Thomason indulges, are all very well for us to mock now; but I wonder how many people 1,000 years hence will think Chomsky’s Universal Grammar a bizarre superstition? Grimm’s Sprachgeist, for instance, was a very logical extension of a principle widely held by extremely intelligent men all over Europe, even if it seems theological to us now.

  6. I already think Chomsky’s Universal Grammar a bizarre superstition. Ahead of his time, that’s LH! And of course you’re right about Geist theories being common currency in the 19th century.

  7. In addition, saying that fly has an alternative past tense flied misstates the case: flied [out] is the past tense of the denominal verb fly [out], where the noun fly is ultimately from the original irregular verb fly. All denominal verbs are regular, even if the noun is originally from an irregular verb.

  8. I wrote ‘programmatic’, but I meant ‘problematic’. Tellingly, though, ‘programmatic’ is actually better.

  9. hat,
    I already think Chomsky’s Universal Grammar a bizarre superstition.
    And that is why I would follow you to the gates of the Minimalist hell and back 🙂

  10. The fun thing about Mongolian is that you can verbalize a deverbal noun and then nominalize the verbalized deverbal noun….. and so on.
    I only know this from Lessing’s dictionary but I’d love to see someone write up a few word lists illustrating this principle.

  11. Jack Gibbard says

    Being as well known as the theories of relativity is not much to aspire to. I think most people only know the name, and very few indeed are able to articulte the ideas in any sort of depth, let alone do the mathematics. Perhaps if it were as well known as Al Gore’s theory of global warming we could be more satisfied.

  12. That’s why I said “if vaguely.” It would be silly to expect the wider public to be able to rattle off the actual laws of phonetic change in the Germanic languages (say); what I would love is if people had even a general awareness that language is systematic and arbitrary (rather than “logical”) and that it inevitably and regularly changes (rather than “degenerates”). Just that basic level of understanding would get rid of 90% of the idiocy that’s babbled about the subject.

  13. “This stuff should be as well (if vaguely) known to the public at large as Einstein’s theory of relativity”
    But this stuff is too easy to understand. It’s not as exotic or confounding as relativity.

  14. And yet nobody understands it!

  15. And yet nobody understands it!
    But everybody thinks they do.

  16. My considered opinion is that very few people understand either, but that the linguistic lacuna is easier to fill than the relativistic one.
    As for marking with red, that is indeed annoying. I have come to the conclusion that underlining should be used for emphasis that is added editorially (so neat!), or for similar special marking where resources like italics are already deployed for some other purpose. A splendid example of such rational and systematic practice is James Morwood’s Oxford Grammar of Classical Greek (2001). I use it in my own writing, too. But in this Fitch case, italics would have served perfectly well.

  17. The marking with red is outdone by the use of ` and ‘ for quoted text when a simple ASCII ” will do.

  18. David Marjanović says

    Al Gore’s theory of global warming

    He didn’t discover it. He didn’t even get Congress to fund it (unlike the Internet).

    But everybody thinks they do.

    I’ve heard much complaining about people who “think they are experts on language — after all they speak one”.

  19. Historical linguistics seems a lot more interesting than the scientific kind.

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