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Reviewed by:
  • Toward a history of American linguistics
  • Julie Tetel Andresen
Toward a history of American linguistics. By E. F. K. Koerner. (Routledge studies in the history of linguistics.) London: Routledge, 2002. Pp. x, 315. ISBN 0415300606. $155 (Hb).

E. F. K. (Konrad) Koerner is not only one of the premier linguistic historiographers in the world, but he has also been one of the prime movers in helping to establish over the past thirty-five years an international community of scholars devoted to the practice of reading the historical record of linguistics. Because the present volume gathers together mostly previously published and now updated articles on one (but not the only) of K's long-standing interests, those who are interested either in the development of K's thought or in the history of American linguistics will be greatly satisfied. The subject matter ranges from 'American structuralist linguistics and the "problem of meaning" ' (Ch. 5, first published in 1970) to 'On the sources of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis' (Ch. 3, first published in 1992), as well as to 'William Labov and the origins of socio-linguistics in America' (Ch. 10, first published in 1991). K also covers quite a bit of territory in between, meaning that much attention is given to the work and influence of Noam Chomsky. The ten chapters are well selected and well organized to give readers a solid narrative of American linguistics with an emphasis on the twentieth century. The volume's coherence is further assured by the addition of two chapters with no published predecessors, namely 'On the rise and fall of generative semantics' (Ch. 6) and 'On the origins of morphophonemics in American linguistics' (Ch. 9), and by an appropriate introductory chapter, 'The historiography of American linguistics'. The last chapter, 'In lieu of a conclusion: On the importance of the history of linguistics', should be read by all students of linguistics if only to learn where the concepts of 'mark' and 'markedness' and of 'drag chain' and 'push chain' come from (hint: not from Chomsky for the former pair and not from Labov for the latter; see p. 289). In always gentle and gentlemanly terms, K encourages linguists to know something about the history of their discipline in order to give their work depth and perspective, not to mention accuracy.

K's work can best be described as thorough and meticulous. When K is interested to investigate Chomsky's reading of Ferdinand de Saussure (Ch. 7, first published in 1994), he reads everything, and I do mean everything, including the mimeographed version of Chomsky's The logical structure of linguistic theory (1955/1956) and his eighty-five-page contribution to the Handbook of mathematical psychology entitled 'Formal properties of grammars' (1963), hardly a commonplace reference. Similarly, in 'The "Chomskyan revolution" and its historiography' (Ch. 8, first published in 1983), K does not overlook Chomsky's unpublished M.A. thesis, 'Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew' (1951; see n. 5 on p. 215 where K describes his failed attempt to track down Chomsky's undergraduate essay that Chomsky has evidently claimed to be the source of his M.A. thesis). This is to point out that, for whatever subject he is working on, K comprehensively reads the primary works both published and unpublished, tracks down sources, sifts through footnotes, compares varying versions and editions of published work, reads the relevant correspondence and other archival materials, and generally dots the i's. One such (almost throw-away) example is his remark to the effect that the mistaken date of 1915 given for Saussure's Cours by Leonard Bloomfield in his 1933 Language has served as the source for later, usually North American, copyists (70–71). [End Page 226]

K's thoroughness and meticulousness serve him well in achieving the goal of his historiography, which is, as he says at the beginning, a return to '(mere) history writing', as opposed to the more recent use of the term to mean a 'principled accounting of past developments and activities' (2). That is to say that, for K, the historian should stand at a certain distance from his subject, should have no personal stake in the outcome of his research, and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-0665
Print ISSN
0097-8507
Pages
pp. 226-228
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-29
Open Access
No
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