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  • Language and its functions: A historico-critical study of views concerning the functions of language from the pre-humanistic philology of Orleans to the rationalistic philology of Bopp by Pieter A. Verburg
  • Jean-Christophe Verstraete
Language and its functions: A historico-critical study of views concerning the functions of language from the pre-humanistic philology of Orleans to the rationalistic philology of Bopp. By Pieter A. Verburg. Translated by Paul Salmon, in consultation with Anthony J. Klijnsmit. (Amsterdam studies in the theory and history of linguistic science 84.) Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1998. Pp. xxxiii, 577. $121.00.

This is the first published English translation of Pieter Verburg’s classic study Taal en Functionaliteit (Wageningen: Veenmann & Zonen, 1952), originally published in Dutch as the commercial edition of his doctoral dissertation (submitted to the Free University of Amsterdam in 1951). Language and its functions is a historiographical study that charts conceptions of functions of language in philosophical and linguistic theories from the twelfth century until the beginning of the nineteenth century. A possible source of confusion for readers is the fact that Verburg’s use of the term ‘function’ is different from the sense that is most widespread nowadays (as also [End Page 225] mentioned by the translator, xxii), viz. the notion of ‘things people do with language’ (as in function-based frameworks like those of Karl Bühler, Roman Jakobson, or Michael Halliday). This book is not a study of intellectual origins or precursors of functional theories of language: V explicitly defines the object of his study as ‘language itself as a function—a function of man or of the human intellect, for example’ rather than ‘the functions which may be observed in linguistic utterances’ (3). In this sense, this work is a more general survey of conceptions of language in Western thought from roughly 1100 to roughly 1800.

The study begins with a brief overview of conceptions of language in classical antiquity (Ch. 2). Chs. 3 and 4 deal with the Middle Ages, respectively with realist (e.g. Aquinas) and nominalist (e.g. Occam) views of language. Chs. 5 and 6 deal with the humanist period, briefly introducing the intellectual context and discussing the linguistic views of humanists both within and outside Italy. One particularly interesting aspect of this section is a brief overview of humanists’ early contributions to the comparative study of languages. Ch. 7 deals with the Renaissance, and Chs. 8–11 deal with ‘rationalist’ conceptions of language. For the latter, V distinguishes between what he calls ‘axiomatic’ rationalism (René Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz), which tries to capture language in terms of mathematical logic, and in terms of ‘pragmatic’ rationalism (Port-Royal grammar; Étienne de Condillac), which tries to uncover the internal logic of languages without reducing it to mathematical logic. The study ends with two shorter chapters about the move towards romanticism (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Gottfried Herder), the study of classics in the Netherlands, and the work of Franz Bopp.

This edition not only makes V’s classic study of linguistic historiography available in English but also includes interesting contextual information about the work, such as a biobibliographical sketch by Jan Noordegraaf, an introductory essay by the translator Paul Salmons, and a draft version of a revised introduction to Ch. 5, discovered among V’s papers by the translator.

Jean-Christophe Verstraete
University of Leuven


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