- A short history of structural linguistics by Peter Matthews
Defining ‘structural linguistics’ has never been an easy task, despite widespread agreement that an approach bearing this name dominated much of twentieth-century linguistics in both Europe and the United States. Dell Hymes and John Fought, in what remains the most comprehensive account of American structuralism, discussed uses of the term ‘structural’ but never actually defined ‘structural linguistics’, except to note that it ‘stands in opposition to “historical” linguistics in the nineteenth [century]’ and that work within it ‘tried to gain an understanding of the systematic and structural character of language’ (1981:11). Charles F. Hockett, arguably the leading American structuralist at mid-twentieth century, toward the end of his career wrote: ‘I have never been sure just what structuralism is supposed to be . . . unless it is just a fancy way of referring to the twentieth-century emphasis . . . on system and pattern in contrast to the somewhat atomistic nineteenth-century approach’ (1987:133).
Peter Matthews dedicates this book to R. H. Robins, author of four editions of the standard textbook A short history of linguistics, from which M’s title derives.1 He begins by discussing the entries for ‘structuralism’ in several contemporary dictionaries of the English language, a peculiar opening for the professional linguist but perhaps not inappropriate for student readers. Not surprisingly, the results, when applied to structuralism in linguistics, are incomplete, possibly contradictory, and certainly inadequate. As M notes in his introduction (1–4), ‘linguists themselves do not apply these terms consistently’ (3), and he suggests that ‘structuralism has to be defined, in part, historically’ (ibid.). Even then, the situation is complicated by the fact that the term ‘structuralism’ cannot be found in the work of either Ferdinand de Saussure or Leonard Bloomfield, and yet both contributed to the foundations of this broad intellectual movement that by the late 1930s had been named in Europe. The name did not come into general use in American linguistics for another decade.2 [End Page 204]
M’s second chapter explores notions about ‘Languages’ (5–30). The ‘basic insight’ with which structuralism began—that a language is a system in which one part is related to other parts—came in the late nineteenth century. M cites an 1891 statement by Georg von der Gabelentz that ‘ “Every language . . . is a system all of whose parts interrelate and interact organically”. . . (Gabelentz 1901 :481)’, a clear precursor to the formula attributed to Saussure that ‘a language is “a system in which everything holds together” (“un système où tout se tient”)’ (6).3 M then introduces three prominent notions from Saussure’s Cours: ‘linguistics as a science of language systems’ (11), that is, langue, not parole; ‘the division between “synchronic linguistics” and “diachronic linguistics” ’ (13); and ‘the notion of a language as a system of “values” ’ (16), that is, the linguistic sign as both signifier and signified.
These ideas constitute the core of structuralism and of this book. M provides an account of their development and their roles in the work of both European and American linguists, particularly Louis Hjelmslev, Nikolai Trubetzkoy, and Roman Jakobson (mainly his 1930s work within the Linguistic Circle of Prague), and Bloomfield, Hockett, Zellig Harris, and Noam Chomsky. The main chapters are sequenced in the general order in which the topics engaged linguists’ attention during the twentieth century: ‘Sound systems’ (31–51), ‘Diachrony’ (on diachronic phonology, changes in norms, and universals) (52–73), ‘The architecture of a language system’ (morphology; phonology and grammar; deep structure and surface structure) (74–95), and ‘Internalised language’ (on generative grammar) (96–117). The next chapter, ‘Structural semantics’ (118–41), returns to Saussure and then more or less chronologically traces proposals for the study of meaning, including marked/unmarked oppositions, the notion of semantic fields, componential analysis, semantic interpretations of sentences, case, and truth-conditional semantics. The book concludes with ‘Structuralism in 2000’ (142–53), references (154–59), and an index (160–63).
Throughout, M artfully weaves European and American structuralism together into a nearly...