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  • Form and formalism in linguistics ed. by James McElvenny
  • Margaret Thomas
Form and formalism in linguistics. Ed. by James McElvenny. ( History and philosophy of the language sciences 1.) Berlin: Language Science, 2019. Pp. viii, 271. ISBN 9783961101832. $47 (Hb).

The nine essays in this collection do not dwell on the well-known contrast between 'formalism' and 'functionalism' in linguistics as discussed in Newmeyer 1998, although they are not irrelevant to that debate. What they do dwell on is various senses of the word form and its derivatives, as they have been used in Euro-American history and philosophy of linguistics since the nineteenth century. Together, the chapters form a mosaic of scholarship on studies of language that variously incorporate diverse meanings of the terms 'form', 'formal', and 'formalism'. The assembly of chapters does, indeed, have a mosaic-like character in that it comprises independent, nonoverlapping texts. Chapter authors sometimes remark on how the edges of their topic approach those of other authors, but the individual contributions have not been forced into a unified tableau. The text presupposes some exposure to the history of western linguistics and to the history of philosophy. It would make bracing, but not impenetrable, reading for linguists without that background. Although only one of the nine authors has an affiliation in the United States, most chapters center on the work of well-known US-based scholars.

Following a scene-setting preface by editor James McElvenny (iii–viii), Judith Kaplan's Ch. 1 (1–33) offers an analysis of 'formalism' in the sense of the diagrams or figures that comparativehistorical linguistics has used to visually communicate genealogical ('vertical') relationships among languages versus the ('horizontal') spread of features across languages spoken by adjacent populations. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Kaplan reports that scholars first conveyed these facts in words and verbal metaphors, then adopted lists, tables, and graphic displays. All of these are 'formal' moves in that they distill complex relationships (of descent and of influence) into tables, trees, waves, or Venn-diagram-like figures, where the strategic arrangement of data in twodimensional space implies a specific position of those data vis-à-vis neighboring data. [End Page 643]

Kaplan concedes at the beginning of her analysis that these diagrams or figures 'highlight certain notions of relationship while removing others from view' (3), because they typically prioritize either genealogical descent (e.g. trees) or crosslinguistic spreading (e.g. waves), and rarely both. She demonstrates how visual aids both reveal and conceal by analyzing their use in twentieth-century textbooks directed at beginning linguists. The chapter ends with an exposition of digital-era efforts to visualize vertical and horizontal relationships simultaneously in n-dimensional space while remaining faithful to the complexities of the data. Kaplan singles out multi-dimensional scaling as one promising technique. Unfortunately, her account of it is hampered by poor reproduction of the examples she cites (one in full color), as they appear both on the printed page (26, 28) and in the online version of her chapter (available at

Kaplan's case study of graphic representation in comparative-historical linguistics stands alone at the head of this collection as the only paper that takes 'formal' to mean 'amenable to summarizing complex facts and relationships in graphic form'. The attention Kaplan pays to student textbooks, however, returns at the end of the book. In between, the remaining eight chapters seem to fall into three sections.

Chs. 2 through 4 address specific figures in the history of linguistics who make provocative use of the concept of 'form', or the partially overlapping concept 'structure', in their analyses of language phenomena. James McElvenny contributes a study pairing Columbia University anthropologist Franz Boas (1858–1942) with German philologist Georg von der Gabelentz (1840–1893) (35–58). Both scholars responded to the then-current claim that speakers of so-called 'primitive' languages freely and unsystematically alternate in their pronunciation of speech sounds, so that their words lack the fixity that characterizes languages not considered 'primitive'. Boas denied that 'alternating sounds' existed in the Native American languages that he studied. He attributed the...