Special Supplemental Letter from the Editor SpecGram Vol CLV, No ε Contents

A Short History of American Linguistics*

Tim Pulju

Reprinted, with permission, from Historiographia Linguistica, XVIII:1.221-246 (1991), with minor updates and a new afterword by the author.

*It has occurred to the Editor of this Journal [Historiographia Linguistica] that the History of Linguistics as an academic subject has sufficiently progressed during the past fifteen or more years to allow for this spoof to be printed in HL without being mistaken for proper scholarship. Indeed, after all the drudgery of historical research and the seriousness of reflection on matters of methodology and philosophical argument, we may be permitted to enjoy some lighter moments in our day-to-day activity as historians of the language sciences. —The Editor

0. Introduction

Suppose you were a patriotic young American linguist, interested in learning about the history of your chosen discipline in your beloved homeland. (Or you may not have to supposemaybe you really are a patriotic young American linguist. Good for you. Go team!) Maybe you’d look for a book on the topic. The two best-known histories of linguistics are Robins’ A Short History of Linguistics and Newmeyer’s Linguistic Theory in America. However, since Robins is British and Newmeyer is only interested in generative grammar, they leave us without a definitive history of American linguistics, written by an American from an American point of view. It is obvious that someone needs to write such a work.

That someone is not going to be me. It would take far too much work, and I just don’t feel like it right now. Instead, I am offering a sort-of history which leaves out a lot of things, like actual information about what linguistics was like earlier in this century. This sort-of history will concentrate on other matters, which don’t get mentioned in usual histories of academic disciplines but which are really, as we all know, just as if not more important. If you have read this far, you are probably a linguist and an academician, so you know that your own ideas about language are influenced far less by what seems to be the truth than by what can get you notice, prestige, and money, especially in the form of endowed chairs and government grants. You are probably also somewhat embarrassed by this, since you imagine that your fellow linguists are dedicated scholars seeking only after the truth. Ha! If that’s the case, why aren’t they living in bathtubs? No, the truth is, they’re just as hypocritical as you are. Not only that, your mentors, the revered scholars who first revealed the great truths of linguistics to you, were the exact same sort of charlatans. In fact, from Adam the namegiver onward there hasn’t been a single so-called “linguist” who was really interested in anything to do with language except as a means to the end of prestige and creature comforts. So why don’t we all just admit it? We don’t have to tell the rest of the world, of course; no reason to risk being thrown out into the cold. But if we admit it to ourselves, at least we can take a slightly more realistic look at the history of linguistics, not at the development of the trivial ideas themselves, but at the forces which really shaped their development.

That is what the work before you does. It begins with late 19th century European linguistics, setting the stage for the rise of linguistics in the US. It ends, more or less, with the transformation of linguistics by the Chomskyan generation, since Newmeyer’s book covers linguistics after that. This is not to say that Newmeyer does a good job of covering it, since he ignores all non-Chomskyan linguistics, but chances are you know a good deal about the realistic history of linguistics since around 1960, especially if you’ve been a part of it. But for now, settle into your armchair, put your feet up, and have a sip of coffee as you turn the page and journey through the mists of time to the Europe of one hundred years ago...

1. European Linguistics in the Late 19th Century

In the late 1800’s, Americans were too busy killing Indians and making steel to worry about linguistics. Oh, sure, the occasional scholar would pop up with a treatise on an American Indian language or a Sanskrit grammar, but everyone acknowledged that the real center of linguistics was Europe. More specifically, it was Germany, the homeland of the Neogrammarians, dedicated reconstructors of the Proto-Indo-European language, or, as the Germans preferred to call it, Indogermanic.

The Germans’ choice of name for a language that included among its descendants almost all of the languages of Europe should give the reader some idea of the German attitude to the rest of the people on the continent. This disregard was fully reciprocated by the non-Germans, especially the French, who had recently been involved in a disastrous war with Germany and were still peeved about it. Hence, the French would have given their eye teeth in exchange for a linguistic theory of their very own that would give them predominance in this scholarly field. Unfortunately, being French, they were unable to think of any. The best they could come up with was the idea of sending a man with the particularly silly name of Edmond Edmont around France on a bicycle.

The Germans, of course, just laughed at the French and continued to work on their reconstruction. They were acknowledged to be the smartest people in Europe in just about every field, even Roman history, despite the fact that they had never been part of the Roman Empire, unlike the French, the Italians, and British. Of these last three, the French, unable to come up with a good linguistic theory of their own and equally unable, for the most part, to master Indo-European studies, had to import a French-speaking Swissman, Ferdinand “Freddy” D. Saussure, to be their leading linguist. However, he immediately proceeded to propose the ridiculous theory that there were “sonantic coefficients” in Proto-Indo-European which had disappeared in all the descendant languages. After this fiasco, the French more or less faded from the scene. As a result they became very sulky and still behave rudely to foreign tourists.

The Italians were too busy eating pasta and hating the Austrians (Germans by another name) to think much about linguistics. It was left to the British, then, to challenge the German hegemony. Like the French and Italians, the British had an aversion to adhering to a theory in which the Germans were dominant, especially when Kaiser Wilhelm II started to build a big navy. The British were also kind of disgusted with Indo-European studies because they felt that the Germans had unfairly stolen them from England after their invention by the noted philosopher Sir William James. But there was no question that the Germans had Indo-Europeanism in their grasp now, so the British would have to seek elsewhere to regain the leading role in linguistics.

The field the British decided upon was phonetics. It was realized that the vast majority of Germans are somewhat deaf as a result of the continual shouting characteristic of German speech. Thus, this would be an ideal discipline. The two most important names in 19th-century British phonetics are Bell and Higgins, though by a neat trick these two names refer to three different people. The first, Herman Melville Bell, was a famous novelist who taught blind people to read in his spare time. This led him to develop a system of “visible speech”, which did not, however, replace audible speech, except in parts of Wales. His son, the prophetically named Alexander Telephone Bell, did work along the same lines. But then a terrible thing happened, from the standpoint of British linguistics, although the Bells were pretty happy about it. The Bells were Scottish rather than English, which probably accounts for their supraminimal intelligence, so they didn’t much like living in a kingdom dominated by people with non-trilled r’s. Thus, they emigrated to America, leaving British linguistics in a mess.

But lo, a linguist arose to replace the Bells, and, wonder of wonders, despite being English he was highly intelligent. To make up for this, he was very ill-mannered and overbearing; together, these two traits endeared him to his German fellow linguists, who recognized a kindred spirit. This man was of course Henry Higgins, made famous by his associate (not friendhe didn’t have any English friends) George Bernard Shaw in the play Androcles and the Lion. As made plain in this gripping melodrama, Higgins’ superior intelligence and superior attitude enraged the status-conscious dons of Oxford and Cambridge, who responded to his repeated efforts to secure a university post by beating him with sticks. Thus, Higgins was forced to earn a living as a flower girl, which left him little time for writing. Even so, he did some good work before he was killed in a bowling accident.

Anyway, the effect of Higgins’ exclusion from mainstream British linguistics was that British linguistics as a whole remained unimportant in the eyes of the world. We should probably mention the status of linguistics in other parts of Europe, although to tell the truth the US was not very interested in these parts. Spain, of course, had no linguisticsshe had been too busy all century with the guerras carlistas, during which the Carlist rebels, showing a lot of pluck and tenacity if little sense or regard for their country’s welfare, periodically invaded the country in hopes of getting their candidate for the throne into power. They did this about five or ten times over the course of the century and never once came close to winning. So distracted were the Spanish by all this nonsense that they didn’t notice that the US was sneakily conquering the remnants of the Spanish empire until it was too late to do anything about it. Disgruntled, the Spanish decided to write novels and become a third-rate power. Linguistics was obviously right out.

In the east a few Slavs were busy making important contributions to linguistic thoughte.g., Baudouin de Courtenay, a Pole with a French name who taught in Russia. Baudouin’s identity problems were reflective of a general lack of confidence among the Slavs of central Europe, a problem fostered mostly by the fact that the Germans who ruled most of them based their governance on their knowledge that “Slav” and “slave” are etymologically the same word. Some Slavs, of course, refused to allow themselves to be oppressed by the Germans, or by the Turks, who also ruled some of them, but they were naturally too busy organizing secret societies and having luncheons to concern themselves with linguistics. There were also the Russians, who were not subject to foreign rule, but who were cheerfully oppressive toward non-Russian Slavs in their country. But the big problem linguistics-wise in Russia was that the government was corrupt and incompetent, which caused most of the brilliant young people who would otherwise have become linguists either to starve to death because the economy was lousy or to join revolutionary societies and be deported to Siberia.

So it befell that at the close of the 19th century, the great German linguistsBrugmann, Delbrück, Schenck, and many morewere masters of the field. And, looking around at the rest of Europe, they saw no reason to suspect that anyone would rise up soon to try to take their place. As for other parts of the world, such as the United States, they did not even consider them.

2. Franz and Freddy lay the foundation

One of the major problems with Germany was that it was autocratic. To make up for this, it had benevolent social policies, but many people still didn’t like the place. This had especially been true in the mid-1800’s, when localized repressionism caused a lot of unhappy subjects of various German states to run to the US, where they overcame early nativist dislike by brewing and distributing large quantities of beer. Now, one fellow who had been born in Germany but who immigrated to the US was named Franz Boas. Franz was interested in language, but you can bet your Mercedes that, having left Germany behind physically, he was not going to follow the German intellectual lead in linguistics. Obviously, then, he had to find a new field where he could excel and where the Germans would find it difficult to keep up.

For years, Franz was not able to come up with a solution to his problem. Then, one day while touring the Tippecanoe battlefield, he was struck by a thought. There were no Indians in Germany! Of course, there were not all that many in America anymore, either, so if Franz’s plan was to work he would have to get cracking. You have to remember that in those days most people thought the only good Indian was a dead Indian, so Franz was far from insane in thinking that he was likely to lose all the big old guys he wanted to get data from by the turn of the century. Anyway, get cracking he did. Stealing as much as he could from earlier work by anthropologists such as Colin Powell, in 1911 Franz announced the publication of the Handbook of American Indian Languages, which he had edited and for which he had written an introduction and several language descriptions. In the introduction, Franz laid out the fundamental principles of American linguistics, which were:

  1. No one can understand language unless he studies a lot of languages.
  2. We already know all about European languages, so we shouldn’t waste our time with them.
  3. African, Asian, Australian, and South and Central American languages are boring and can’t tell us anything new.
  4. Ergo, the only worthwhile sort of linguistics is that which concentrates on North American Indian languages.
  5. Ha ha.

Many American language scholars, such as W. D. Whitney, a Sanskritist best known as the inventor of the cotton gin, found Boas’ principles to be a bit extreme. Several of Boas’ best students agreed, although they wisely didn’t say so until after they got their PhD’s. Also, these linguists thought that if American linguistics was going to get any respect at all, American linguists would not only have to develop a separate approach, but would also but have to learn to beat the Germans at their own game, historical linguistics. One of these ambitious young scholars was named Leonard Bloomfield, who in furtherance of his goal traveled to Germany to study under Brugmann and others in 1913. Calling himself Blumfeld, he tricked the Germans into imparting their secret knowledge to him, and then returned to the US to write a book, An Introduction to the Study of Language. And there we will leave him for a moment, for we must turn now to the other scholar who, together with Boas, created the basis upon which American linguistics would later stand.

This hero was none other than Freddy Saussure, whom we last saw as a much-ridiculed Indo-Europeanist. Despite the general dismissal of his sonantic coefficients by the Germans, Freddy was recognized as a pretty good linguist. The Germans probably thought the reason for this was that, being Swiss, he had lived with German speakers for a long time. Anyway, he was the best the French had, and so he remained a professor of linguistics in Paris for many years. Finally, though, living with French people seems to have gotten to be too much for him, and shortly after the turn of the century he packed his bags and headed home. He soon landed a job teaching linguistics in Geneva, and it was there that he presented to the world a new approach to linguistics which was destined to shake the field to its very foundations. Actually, I say he presented it to the world, but as a matter of fact he only presented it to the very few people who took his linguistics courses. The reason for his failure to publish anything seems to have been the fear and hatred of mechanical devices which possessed him throughout his later life. Brought on by the death of his pet cat in an automobile accident, this Luddism led him eventually to reject the typewriter as a writing implement, and since his handwriting was virtually illegible no publisher would accept his works. As a result, he labored in obscurity, and when he died shortly before the outbreak of the Great War the linguistic community shrugged.

Yet, some of his associates had been impressed by his theories, not because they thought much of their intrinsic value but because they saw that they could be used as a weapon against the Germans, who had become increasingly obnoxious since the turn of the century. Deciphering Saussure’s notes, of course, would take a lot of work, but with a team of cryptologists working round the clock they thought they could finish the job within a few years. In fact, they did just that. Saussure’s posthumous Course in General Linguistics was published in 1916.

The alert reader will have noticed, if for no other reason than that I hinted at it before, that intervening between Saussure’s death and the publication of the Course was the outbreak of World War I. The French and the British, putting aside temporarily the mutual hatred engendered by a millennium of reciprocal attempts to conquer one another, joined forces with the Russians, who forgot that they were too poor and incompetent to fight a war, in an attempt to cut the Germans and their various allies and satellites down to size. In 1915 the Italians joined in with the Allies, making a contribution so sizable that if not for Ernest Hemingway we would never have known about it. Luckily for Saussure’s editors, Switzerland did not join in the war, so they were able to go ahead and publish their book.

Predictably, no one paid any attention. There are some things in life more important than linguistics, and World War I was one of them. For the same reason, no one in Europe paid attention to Bloomfield’s 1914 book. Yet there was still cause to hope. Although at first the war seemed to be going Germany’s way, as time went on it looked as though the Germans might actually lose. If this happened, then certainly their linguistic hegemony would be destroyed. Then would come the golden opportunity for another nation’s linguists to seize control of the linguistic future, to brand the flesh of linguistic theory with their own indelible mark. Bloomfield’s first effort had failed due to an accident of timing, but their next attempt, the American linguists vowed, would not suffer the same fate.

3. A Plan of Action

If the US was to become the new center of linguistics, obviously it needed a planBloomfield’s 1914 failure showed the futility of uncoordinated activities. In 1916, a secret meeting was convened whose participants included the fifteen or twenty top American linguists of the time. The details of what happened at the meeting are still uncertain, but the main outlines are clear. Over the course of three days, the coven of linguists resolved that:

  1. The only way the US was going to be able to take over the leadership of linguistics was if Germany collapsed. Hence, it was necessary for Germany to lose WWI, and to lose badly.
  2. To ensure Germany’s defeat, the US would have to enter the war on the Allied side.
  3. Germany’s defeat, however, would only remove an obstacle to American predominance; it would do nothing to promote it. Therefore, the Americans would have to be ready to seize the day soon after the German collapse.
  4. To ensure a unified effort, the Americans would have to choose one man to be their leader, one man who would spearhead the drive for mastery.

None of these articles, in themselves, were considered objectionable by any of the conspirators. However, as might have been expected, the question of who would be chosen leader, in accordance with article four, provoked considerable rancorous debate. The field quickly narrowed down to two candidates. First, there was the patient, methodical, cold-blooded Leonard Bloomfield, who promised to make American linguistics a science. Against him stood Edward Sapir, volatile, brilliant, and hot-tempered, who said that linguistics was and ever would be an art. For days, fearsome quarrels and vicious back-room politicking were the hallmark of the meeting. The debate came to a head on the seventh day of the conference, when Sapir, in a reference to the failure of Bloomfield’s 1914 book, argued that American linguistics could not hitch its wagon to the star of a man whose lack of an intuitive sense of timing, or of any intuitive sense whatsoever, would doom his spiritless organizing abilities. Bloomfield, rising calmly and speaking not to his opponent but to the assembly, replied that Sapir was “a 19th century medicine man whose superstitious shamanism and unpredictable emotionalism will destroy him as well as any who choose to follow him”. Bloomfield them moved for an immediate vote on the choice of leader, to which the convention quickly assented. By a vote of 17-9, the linguists chose Bloomfield as their leader. They then immediately voted to exile Sapir to Canada, hoping that several years in the cold would force him to toe the line.

The next order of business was plainly the embroiling of the US in the war. The linguists’ major contribution was the forging of the so-called Zimmermann telegram. Most of the linguists were fluent in German, so it was no trick for them to write a note which seemed to be authentically German, and in the register used for diplomacy, too. It is also suspected that the many interpreters in the US Foreign Service who had trained under one linguist or another were instructed to start translating messages to and from the Germans in deliberately insulting ways. For example, one diplomatic note sent by the German ambassador to an assistant secretary of state of the US which should have been translated, in part, as, “We are very grateful that you have compromised with us,” was in fact translated as, “We are very pleased that you have given in so pusillanimously.” It is hardly surprising in light of the increase in tension caused by such actions that the US eventually declared war on Germany.

Of course, the US won, and under the terms of the peace treaty Germany was crushed. Now was the time for the second phase of the Americans’ plan to be put into action: they would have to present their linguistics to the world. However, a surprising thing happened: the world wasn’t interested. The Swiss had come up with their own linguistics, that of Saussure. The British were continuing to work on phonetics. Eastern Europe was still full of turmoil. And the French were not interested in anything invented by Anglophones. Then, another problem arose. Sapir, supposedly safely out of the way in Canada, published a book entitled Language in 1921, which proved, to the chagrin of his exilers, to be a top seller. Promising young linguists looked to be in danger of following the man who had been proclaimed a heretic. If the rift were not healed, there was no chance that America would conquer the linguistic world.

Bloomfield recognized the danger. He recognized, too, that a secret, informal organization was insufficient to meet the needs of American linguistics in directing the scholastic war to come. He further realized that at present, American linguistics was seen as just a subbranch of language study, and linguists as unimportant members of the Modern Language Association, the American Philological Association, or other such groups. Accordingly, in 1924 he composed and circulated among the members of the secret group of leading linguists the Call to organize the Linguistic Society of America. Significantly, he also sent a copy to Sapir, asking him, like the others, to affix his name to it. It is not entirely certain what were the terms of the deal offered to Sapir in return for his signature, but it seems that Bloomfield agreed to grant Sapir the title of Poet Laureate of the Linguistic Movement, while he himself would be recognized as Chief Consolidator and Number One Linguist. To make up for Bloomfield’s higher rank, Sapir was accorded preeminence in linguistic anthropology. It was further agreed that neither man would serve as Secretary-Treasurer of the LSA or as editor of its journal, Language, since this would give the man so favored far too much power, relative to the other. The agreement was ratified by the members of the secret committee, and in late 1924, the LSA was officially founded. Now the battle could begin.

4. Forging an American Hegemony

As the year 1925 began, one thing was clearthe great opportunity of the immediate post-war years had been lost. While the Americans were dithering around and trying to put an end to the dissension in their own ranks, linguists of other countries had established independent traditions of their own. In France, Antoine “Tony le Tigre” Meillet was proving that Frenchmen could do Indo-European work as well as Germans. Even worse for the humbled Germans, a Pole, Jerzy Kurylowicz, was busily proving that Hittite, a newly deciphered Indo-European language, had sonantic coefficients just where Freddy had said they should be. No Pole would have gotten away with this in the old days, but Poland was independent now and had even beaten Germany in a sort of mini-war following WWI. Indeed, the Poles were now so uppity that they decided to invent a spelling system that no one but they could read, rightly thinking that this would annoy the haughtily precise Germans no end. You should have seen how mad those Germans got when they found out that {Jerzy Kurylowicz} was pronounced [yeži kuriwovič], while {Lodz}, {Gdansk}, and {Warsaw} were pronounced [wuǰ], [dantsik], and [kwɛtzlkoatl], respectively.

Indeed, these were trying times for the Germans, who responded by becoming artsy. Later on they decided this was not satisfying and decided to become totalitarian instead. But we’ll get to that later. In the meantime, the important thing is that the Germans were no longer the leaders in linguistics.

In fact, there was no nation with an undisputed leading role in linguistics at that time. The Russians had decided to become Communists and so were still not interested in linguistics. However, one of them, a fellow named Nicholas Trubetzkoy, left the Soviet Union to avoid being killed. (He was a princenot the best thing to be in post-Revolution Russia.) Fleeing to Prague, he was forced to set up shop as a linguist in order to make ends meet. Eventually, he and other linguists from the region took to meeting at the Boar’s Head Tavern Wednesday nights to have linguistics discussions. While most of the time they just drank a lot and hit on the waitresses, occasionally they came up with some brilliant linguistic ideas. Once again, this eminence on the part of Slavs was galling to the Germans.

The English, meanwhile, were content to continue working on phonology. The post-war period saw the genesis of the London School, so named because it was a school, under the leadership of Daniel Jones. Jones, a defrocked Catholic priest, brought to linguistics the concept of cardinal vowels, each of which he equated with one of the cardinal virtues. There were more cardinal vowels in Jones’ system than virtues in the traditional Catholic list, but as a matter of fact the reason that Jones had been defrocked was that he had kept preaching a different list of cardinal virtues than the accepted one, a list that included “being born an Englishman” and “treating your priest to a seven-course meal at a fancy restaurant”. So actually, Jones’ theological system and his linguistic system meshed very nicely, and since his theological system now included denunciation of Catholicism he became very popular in England.

Yet the most important of the postwar linguistics schools was undoubtedly the Geneva School based on Saussure’s Course. For Freddy had proposed a theoretical reason for abandoning German-style linguistics, unlike the other Europeans, who turned against the Germans simply because they hated them. This is actually probably why the Swiss turned against the Germans, also, but linguists, like most academicians, like to present an appearance of reasonableness and objectivity to the world. Freddy had argued that linguists ought to study the structure of living languages rather than reconstruct the Indo-European past. Obviously, if he were right, then the people who had wasted the entire last century on historical linguistics would look like real dolts. Since everyone wanted the Germans to look like real dolts, Freddy’s views were widely accepted.

The Germans muttered, grumbled, and snarled, but at the moment their economy and their military were both non-existent, so they couldn’t do much to change things. Unfortunately, many of them began to listen to a fellow named Adolf Hitler who promised to restore both their economy and their military, whereupon they would show the rest of Europe a thing or two.

But that was far in the future. For the present, the world of linguistics was divided into several separate schools, among which the American school was no more important than a number of others. Something had to be done, obviously. The secret planning committee of the LSA, headed of course by Bloomfield, knew that Bloomfield (1914) was too out of date to serve as the Bible of American linguistics, while Sapir (1921) was too erratic; besides, Bloomfield had been accepted as leader, so he would have to be the author of the Bible. Accordingly, a new text was planned. But the new campaign would not rely exclusively on the spur of the moment work of a single man, Bloomfield. Rather, it would be the culmination of several years of research and advice produced by all the great American linguists of the day. Also, it was decided that European linguists would not pay much attention to the work unless it seemed to have some relation to what they were already doing. So Bloomfield resolved to read representative works by European authors and incorporate what he read into a dazzlingly unified whole. This would be especially easy for him in historical linguistics, since he had training in that field already.

The plan swung into action immediately. In the first volume of Language (1925), Sapir wrote an article on phonology designed to capture the attention of the London School. 1926 saw the publication of Bloomfield’s four postulates for language study. And over the next few years, with Language as their outlet of publication, the Americans continued to work in as many different subtypes of linguistics as they could, thus drawing notice from all over the world. Finally, in 1933, Bloomfield published his textbook Language, which tied Saussurean synchronism, Brugmannian diachronism, Higginsien phonologism, and Boasyan field workism together into one volume. It did not include much from the Prague School, which had only recently gotten going. Hailed immediately by all of the well-primed rank and file of the LSA, the book also attracted favorable notice across the Atlantic. While it is true that most European linguists continued to work in their own traditions, they now acknowledged the superiority of the Americans. “These Americans, who can compete with them?” the Europeans would say at conferences over coffee and donuts. “Some of us do fine work in phonology, historical linguistics, theory of language, or such like, but they, they do all of these things together, and do all of them well. It would be foolish for us even to try to compete with them as Renaissance linguists. The best we can do is to offer our occasional insights in one of the subfields we find ourselves limited to.”

Such talk as this pleased the Americans so much that even the Great Depression failed to dampen their exuberance. They spent the next several years working on synchronic and diachronic phonology of American Indian and European languages, and were exceedingly happy. During this period, several young stars of the next generation began to come into their own: Bernard “Bobo” Bloch, C. F. “Chas” Hockett, George “El” Trager. There were, of course, a few dissidents, such as Benjamin Lee “Benjy the Brain” Whorf, a student of Sapir who made utterly unorthodox statements about language and culture, and the callow Kenneth “Kenneth” Pike, who dared to mix levels. However, the linguistic authorities usually managed to dispose of such malcontents by sending them to some God-forsaken backward region to do “long-term research as a working member of an American Indian society.” Whorf, for example, was sent to be a fire company inspector among the Hopi, while Pike became a preacher to several Mexican tribes.

There was a cloud to the silver lining, however. For while American linguists were recognized as preeminent by their fellow linguists, they were still little known by other scholars at the universities where they worked, with the exception of anthropologists. It was quite common for even Bloomfield to attend a university social function and, upon telling someone that he was a linguist, to be asked, “Oh, how many languages do you speak?” In fact, Bloomfield got this same question from the dean of social sciences at the University of Chicago so often that he eventually left the university.

By 1939, then, the Americans were ready to convince the non-linguistic world of their importance. The only question was how. As luck would have it, just then WWII broke out.

5. World War II

As mentioned earlier, the Germans had not been pleased to be squashed in WWI. After a brief revival, the Great Depression came along and dragged them into the pits again. Meanwhile, the Slavs of the Prague School were showing up the German linguists in much the same way as Slavic and other East European scholars were doing in other academic disciplines. And the Germans were mad about a lot of other problems they had, too. So it is no surprise that a lot of Germans were attracted by the promises of Adolf Hitler, who pledged to restore Germany’s economy, reduce the Slavs to slavery again, and make the German language numero uno. Although Hitler had only minority support when he first assumed a government office, he soon made good on a lot of his promises, especially economic ones, the result being that most Germans decided to do what he said. After a number of foreign policy successes, Hitler decided to invade Poland, despite the fact that this would certainly start another general European war. So, in September 1939, the German tanks rolled in, and World War II began.

The US did not immediately join the war, and at first the American linguists did not realize what a great opportunity lay before them. What they failed to see was that the war was not strictly a European war. The Germans had allied themselves with the Japanese, more out of a sense of totalitarian militarist brotherhood than out of any shared interests. The Japanese were embroiled in wars all throughout the East, in countries where people spoke languages that no MLA member or classical philologist had ever heard of. Since involvement in the war would naturally lead to a desire for some knowledge of these languages, as well as of better known but still little studied languages such as Chinese and Japanese, there would obviously be a great need for linguists to serve as analysts, instructors, and textbook writers.

Anyway, on December 7th, 1941, a date which shall live in infamy, the Japanese attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The US, considering this an unfriendly act, declared war on Japan, and soon was at war with Germany and Italy, another German ally, as well. And the American linguists quickly saw what they had to do.

Now, we must not assume that the linguists did what they did simply for the sake of their academic standing. After all, like most Americans, they believed that their enemies were nasty people who had to be stopped, and they wanted to make the most significant contribution that they could to the war effort. While there were many Americans capable of learning how to be infantrymen, e.g., MLA members, not many were capable of doing the sort of language work that was necessary. Therefore, the linguists suggested to the government that they be employed as language scholars. The government agreed, and soon the linguists were busily working to ensure the enemy’s downfall. Much of the important work they did fell under the auspices of the Intensive Language Program, directed from April 1, 1942, onward by J “No Period” M. Cowan. Why he took charge on April Fool’s Day is anybody’s guess. The ILP sponsored courses in African languages, Ameslan, Arabic, Burmese, Chinese, Modern Greek, Hungarian, Icelandic, Iranian, Japanese, Klingon, Korean, Kurdish, Malay, Mongol, Pashtu, Melanesian Pidgin English, Thai, Turkish, Volapük, and several others. The ILP was also responsible for a large number of language textbooks, many not actually published until after the war.

The work of the ILP was extremely important, but even more significant, in some scholars’ opinions, were the activities of the super-secret Language Decimation Corps. This special division of the Office of Specialized Services was charged with “causing confusion and disillusionment among the enemy through disruption of their languages.” LDC operatives infiltrated Axis printing facilities and made minor changes in innumerable publications. As an example of one of their successes, we may cite the 1942 Nazi propaganda tract We Fight for the Fatherland, in which third person singular verbs were changed to first plural, future tense was changed to pluperfect, {t} was in free variation with {r}, and all instances of unter and wieviel were eliminated. The effect upon the reading public was of course devastating: German wartime reports show a marked increase in migraine headaches and hypertension among the civilian population in the month of this tract’s publication. In another vein, the LDC published several articles in Romanian journals “proving” that Romanian was in fact a Slavic, not a Romance language after all. Bereft of the source of both their national pride and their hatred for their neighbors, the Romanians stopped fighting very hard. The LDC had little success in Japan, unfortunately, because the OSS, fearing that Japanese-American agents might defect if sent to Japan, instead sent Franco-Americans, on the theory that, “Hey, all those people look alike to us.” However, the Franco-Americans did not look like Japanese to Japanese, and all were quickly imprisoned. Interestingly, the Franco-American agents who survived the war banded together afterward to form a corporation which marketed the food which they had come to enjoy in prison, Spaghetti-Ohs.

Well, as most people know nowadays, the Allies won the war. The big winners were the Russkies, who deserved most of the credit for stomping the Nazis, and the US, which was mostly responsible for victory in the Pacific. The LDC and the ILP closed down, having rendered a considerable service to their nation and, as was soon to be seen, to US linguistics.

6. The Glory Years

As the dust raised by the World War began to settle. American linguists began to look around and find, to their delight, that they had achieved their dream of becoming respected and important. Before the war, they had two types of rivals, internal and external. The internal rivals were language scholars from different intellectual traditions, most notably those who had banded together in the MLA. Now, the MLA had many more members than the LSA but, as we saw in the last chapter, the LSA had proved to be much more valuable in the great patriotic war. In the postwar atmosphere, then, the government and the academic community saw the LSA as the organization of true language scholars, while the MLA, in the words of George C. Marshall, was “nothing more than an aggregation of pedantic mediocrities working with outdated and unproductive pseudo-theories.” One example of the new, superior status of linguists as compared to more traditional language scholars can be seen in the organization of the Division of Modern Languages at Cornell University. The administration at Cornell decided to take control of the introductory courses in various foreign languages away from the plainly incompetent specialists in French, German, etc., and award it to a group of soon-to-be-hired linguists. The linguists would of course also teach linguistics courses on general and language-specific topics. The foreign language professors, on the other hand, were left with only a few upper-level literature courses. Of course, the entrenched foreign language departmental staffs set up a howl, but in the new climate they were utterly ignored. American linguistics had triumphed over its domestic rival.

As for overseas rivals, there were none remainingat least, no credible ones. The Germans were obviously crushed. The Neogrammarians had become dead grammarians, while Hitlerism, the war, and postwar ruin and national division precluded the rise of any replacements. Hitlerism had also done for the Prague Circle: Trubetzkoy had been hounded to death by the Nazis, and the circle had broken up. In fact, one of the brightest young stars of prewar Prague, Roman Jakobson, who despite his first name was not Italian, had fled from the Nazis and eventually arrived in the US, where he added to rather than competed with the glory of American linguistics. The French, in almost as lousy shape after the war as the Germans, were in no shape to mount any sort of linguistic challenge to the Americans. In fact, essentially every country which had been the site of heavy fighting in World War II had its economic and serial infrastructure ruined, not to mention all the people killed, so that none of them had much hope or desire of contributing much to linguistics.

Britain, of course, had seen no land combat in the war, and while the damage due to bombing was severe it was not so great as to destroy British linguistics altogether. However, Britain’s economy and society were plenty messy, and to make things worse, the Empire was losing its overseas possessions. In short, it was obvious that Great Britain was a declining power, already not a major player and on its way to an even lower status, internationally. Accordingly, the world in general paid little attention to British linguistics, or any British intellectual trend. For a similar reason, the prestige of Swiss linguistics remained low. It had only really risen because it was seen as a way to combat the earlier German preeminence. Once it had served this purpose, no one from other nations wanted to follow the lead of this podunk nation of machine-gun bearing Calvinist yodelers. Now, if Europe in the postwar era had wanted to oppose American preeminence in linguistics, as it had wanted to oppose the Germans earlier, Swiss linguistics might have become more popular again. However, it happened that the US had recently helped the British and French defeat the Germans in the war, although in truth the Russians did most of the work. Now, it is perhaps true, especially when speaking of the French, that gratitude is dependent on the reasonable expectation of benefits yet to come. However, after World War II the US was giving the British, French, and other Europeans, even the Germans and the Italians, a lot of money to help rebuild their economies, and you can bet your Toyota that the Europeans wanted to keep the money coming. In short, then, Western Europe was not only unable to mount a credible challenge to American linguistics, but it really didn’t want to anyway.

The only nation which stood as a rival to the US in almost any field after WWII was Soviet Russia. About twenty million Soviet citizens died in the Great Patriotic War against Germany, and to make up for this Stalin took control of most of Middle and Eastern Europe. The USSR had the most powerful land army in the world, and soon it was working on making atomic bombs to counterbalance the US possession thereof. The USSR also had an ideology, Communism, with which to oppose the US’s democratic capitalism. Communism appealed especially to three kinds of people: 1) those ruled by corrupt authoritarian regimes supported by the West, for example the Chinese; 2) those ruled by Western colonial regimes, for example the Vietnamese; 3) those occupied by large numbers of well-armed and brutally efficient Soviet troops, for example the East Europeans. In any case, with all these things going for it, Russia (an acceptable alternative name for the USSR after Stalin repopularized Russian patriotism in WWII) was clearly the only nation with enough international power and prestige to have any chance of proposing a credible alternative to US linguistics.

Luckily for the Americans, the Russians decided not to propose a credible alternative. Instead, Stalin backed the linguistic theories of a real dingbat named A.N. Marr. Actually, Stalin had begun favoring Marr’s theories in the prewar period. At first, other students of language had tried to argue against them, but when Stalin pointed out to them how cold it was in Siberia they decided that their earlier objections had been silly. After the war, then, everyone in Russia was spouting the Marrist line, which would have been fine except that Marr’s ideas were stupid. In fact, they were so stupid that no one not potentially subject to being sent to Siberia would ever think of believing in them. There is still a great deal of question as to why Stalin supported Marr’s opinions, since Stalin, however disagreeable his style of rule, was not an imbecile. The best hypothesis is that the dictator, being a busy man (it takes a lot of time to sign ten million execution orders), never bothered to find out what Marr’s theories were. He simply accepted the author’s assurances that they were good, Marxist-Leninist stuff. He also seems to have been influenced by the fact that the name Marr is awfully similar to the name Marx, for, while not a religious man, Stalin did have a few quasi-religious superstitions, including a belief in reincarnation, as documented in his correspondence with the young Shirley MacLaine. Thus, he may well have thought that Marr was Marx reincarnated as a linguist, meaning, for a Marxist like Stalin, that Marr’s linguistic theories would be brilliant.

Imagine the mustachioed tyrant’s chagrin, then, when several years after the war, troubled by insomnia as he often was in later life when he ate too much pizza, he picked up a copy of one of Marr’s works from his coffee table and found that the USSR was the laughingstock of the linguistic world. Rumor has it that he was so mad that he coughed up several pieces of half-digested pepperoni. Anyway, shortly thereafter Stalin himself wrote an article pointing out that Marrism was inane, an article to which Marr’s principal followers were unable to respond because they were busy trying to keep warm on the freight trains taking them out East. (Marr himself cleverly avoided the same fate by means of having died some years earlier). Unsurprisingly, the rest of the Soviet linguistic community quickly concurred with Stalin. However, this event came several years after the end of WWII, and even then Soviet linguistics had been so ravaged by Marrism that it would take many years to recover.

As a result, American linguistics found itself utterly unchallenged after the war. Whereas before the war American linguists had been considered, overall, the best linguists among a large body of competing linguists worldwide, now they were seen as practically the only group of linguists of any importance at all. Moreover, the hated MLA had been reduced to the status of poor stepsister which the LSA had occupied before the war. In short, American linguistics reigned triumphant. It was even recognized by scholars in other fields as a discipline to be admired; “the most scientific of the social sciences,” Edward Teller called it, shortly before he blew off his left foot in an early H-bomb experiment. Whenever the American linguists heard such remarks, they cackled into their soup, if they happened to be at dinner; otherwise, they settled for chortling in their joy. “Chortle chortle chortle,” they said, and then went out to collect some more data. For far from resting on their laurels, the linguists were galvanized by the praise they received, especially that issued by hard scientists. No, hard scientists does not mean scientists with petrous skinit means physicists, chemists, biologists, geologists, H-bomb manufacturers, and other folks with lab coats and poor social skills. In the postwar era, no one was idolized more by the American people than these bespectacled men with poor posture (only a few of them were women, and most of them had good posture). And nothing pleased the American linguists more than to be classed among them, away from the pseudo-scientists and outright humanists of other university departments. To ensure that they would continue to be so classed, the linguists poured out a truly impressive collection of articles and whole books in the postwar era, many of which were devoted to making the goals and methods of linguistic research ever more rigorous and scientific. These efforts represent a lot of good, solid linguistic work. More importantly, they were well-received in the academic community. Little wonder that in 1954 Martin Joos, one of the most important figures in postwar American linguistics, was able to write, without fear of contradiction, “American linguistics ranks as the most successful and productive academic endeavor ever. That’s right, we bad.”

7. The Transformation of Linguistics

Little did the leading linguists of the 1950’s dream that soon their work would be turned upside down, and not by an enemy from the MLA or the Soviet Union, but by an upstart from within their own ranks. But before we turn to this pivotal figure in the history of American linguistics, we must examine the career of his mentor, the man who planted in his mind the seed of that forbidden tree, the mortal taste of whose fruit brought discord into the linguistic world and a great deal of woe, with loss of stature, till one greater man restore us, and we regain the blissful seat. The teacher to whom we refer is, of course, Zellig “The Chameleon” Harris.

Harris was a major figure in post-Bloomfieldian linguistics. He first gained prominence early in WWII as an ILP instructor. However, Harris, who was Jewish, hated the Nazis even more passionately than most other linguists, and he wanted to play a more active part in their downfall. He therefore joined the LDC and was assigned to Eastern Europe, where his knowledge of Slavic languages was sure to come in handy. Since the details of LDC operations remain highly classified even today, it is hard to know for sure what Harris accomplished in his secret duties. He is said to have been the mastermind behind a number of successful plots, such as the Minsk-Pinsk program, by which the Germans were convinced that there were two distinct cities with those names, whereas in fact the names are simply dialectal variant names of the same city. It is certain that Harris picked up his nickname, “The Chameleon”, during the war years, evidently a nom de guerre which incorporated reference to his well-known ability to blend in with the people of almost any occupied nation. He also seems to have picked up his radical leftism during this period, both as a reaction to fascism and because of his relationship with a female Soviet war commissar. Anyway, his service to the US was recognized by the War Department after Germany’s surrender, when he was given some sort of a medal and a gold watch.

Harris soon returned to his old job at the University of Pennsylvania, where he turned with renewed dedication to theoretical linguistics, for which he had perhaps the loftiest scientific hopes of any linguist. He immediately began work on a book, Methods in Structural Linguistics, by which he hoped to make linguistics even more rigorous and scientific than physics, chemistry, and anesthesiology. He soon had quite a bit written, enough that he needed to find someone to proofread the manuscript.

The natural choice was Avram Chomsky. Chomsky was a young Jewish radical from Philadelphia who, shortly after WWII, had been planning to go Israel to live in a kibbutz. His mother, desperate at the thought of having to nag at such a long distance, got Avram’s dad, a Hebraist, to ask his friend Harris to talk the lad out of it. Harris, accepting the challenge, simply pointed out to Avram that there was an ocean between America and Israel, which could be a problem for a guy well-known for getting seasick on long voyages. Young Chomsky saw the wisdom of the professor’s words and agreed not to go.

That could have been the end of it. However, in talking with Chomsky, Harris had realized that he was a very intelligent, perhaps even brilliant youth. Moreover, Chomsky’s political views were as wacked out as Harris’. Chomsky, for his part, needed something to do with his life now that he wasn’t going to Israel. The obvious step was to go to college, and the obvious place was the University of Pennsylvania, Harris’ domain. So Chomsky became an undergraduate linguistics major at Penn, and not much later he was hard at work proofing Harris’ early drafts of Methods.

That’s not all he was doing, though. Harris’ political activism was stimulated by contact with his fervent young disciple. He thought that with Chomsky’s help, he might in the future be able to bring about a triumph of radical leftism in the US. Of course, in the climate of thickheaded anti-communist paranoia prevalent in the US at this time, it wasn’t a good idea to broadcast political ideas such as Harris and Chomsky’s too loudly. Moreover, Harris’ wartime experiences had made him secretive and plot-minded by nature. Hence, he created a secret organization, Leftist Linguists, which at first had only two members, Harris, the president, and Chomsky, the secretary-treasurer. They planned to recruit more members and eventually seize control of linguistics, with the exact methods of the seizure to be decided upon later. Harris suggested to Chomsky that he adopt a nom de guerre, as Harris had done earlier, in order to maintain the secrecy of the organization. However, Chomsky at the time didn’t know any French, so the following conversation took place.

Chomsky: “I should adopt a what?”
Harris: “Nomyou know, the name by which you’ll be known from now on.”

Chomsky was not yet given to questioning his teacher’s pronouncements, so he accepted the in his opinion rather odd edict that he hereafter be called Noam, as he spelled the unfamiliar word.

Anyway, The Chameleon and Noam continued to work on both linguistics and their secret agenda for the next several years. After Chomsky got his BA and MA at Penn, Harris sent him to Harvard to recruit disgruntled leftists there. This proved to be a fatal mistake for the wily war veteran. For, free of Harris’ influence, Chomsky began to develop his own ideas. It was plain that Harris’ plan was not progressing very well, and Chomsky began to doubt that any plan based on a covert movement would achieve much success. Readings in the history of linguistics revealed to him how the earliest American attempt to seize control of linguistics had failed precisely because it was organized by the shadowy secret coven of linguists. It was not until the Americans openly declared themselves, by forming the LSA, and rallied around a single definitive work, Bloomfield’s Language, that they had gained preeminence. Moreover, the two wars which had come along hadn’t hurt things anyand though the Korean War was winding down, Chomsky could always hope there’d be another war someday. In the meantime, Chomsky decided to create a non-covert revolutionary movement, which of course needed a text, a holy work which would inspire the Jihad. The obvious choice was Harris’ Methods, which had been published in 1951, but there were a couple of problems with this choice. First, Methods had not caused much uproar when it was published, mainly because it was within the general traditions of Bloomfieldian linguistics. One could hardly build a revolution around a non-revolutionary text. Second, Chomsky had come more and more to see himself in the role of the Prophet; Harris’ role in Chomsky’s vision was becoming smaller and smaller. For these reasons, Chomsky decided that he himself would have to write the definitive work. Rallying a cadre of dedicated followers around it, and using it to attract the linguists of the future, he would replace the reigning monarchs of linguistics in the same way as they had replaced those who ruled before them. And if a war happened to come along to allow him to augment and solidify his position, so much the better.

Chomsky’s PhD dissertation, The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory, was to be the comprehensive holy text of his linguistic movement. It incorporated many of Harris’ ideas, but stood them on their head in conscious imitation of Marx’s use of Hegel and Clausewitz. It attacked many of the fundamental bases of Bloomfieldian linguistics, bases which the Bloomfieldians claimed made their work scientific. At the same time, it claimed that Chomsky’s theories were the really scientific ones, because they seemed to involve the use of mathematics. This inclusion of math was a truly brilliant stroke on Chomsky’s part, for a couple of reasons. First, physics etc., which were still recognized as the Platonic forms of science, made heavy use of math, so there was a tendency among social scientists of the time to try to include math in their work. Second, many established linguists hadn’t studied math for a long time, since after all math doesn’t have much to do with linguistics, and so they didn’t understand modern math very well. Thus, by putting a lot of mathematical gobbledygook into his dissertation, Chomsky laid claim to being the most scientific linguist and also made himself immune from many counterattacks.

Yet the printing of The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory did not signal the beginning of Chomsky’s revolution. It was, after all, only a PhD dissertation. Chomsky, no dummy, realized that it would be better to wait until he was an established professor to begin the revolution. He therefore planned to get a revised copy of the work published in a few years. By then, he would also have been able to recruit a greater number of disciples. In the meantime, he circulated a limited number of copies of the dissertation among student linguists whom he hoped to win over. He scrupulously avoided showing it to any established linguists, since he knew they would disagree with it and would simply become alert to the danger he posed to them.

Chomsky soon landed a job at MIT by tricking the military into thinking he was going to build them a machine translator. By the way, despite the lack of significant achievement in the field of machine translation, this is still a good way to get money out of those who’ve got it. Soon thereafter, he sent his book off to a couple of publishers. To his chagrin, neither of them wanted it. Chomsky realized that the thing was too long and incomprehensible to be of much interest; indeed, he saw that even if he got it published, no one was likely to read it. He therefore decided to modify his plan a bit: he would publish a short, easy-to-read version of his theories which would win the masses over to his side. The comprehensive holy book would be made available only to initiates of the inner circle, who would hereafter refer to it by the sacred euphemism LSLT. So, in 1957, the great day arrived. Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures was released by, significantly, a non-American publisher, signalling the beginning of Chomsky’s revolution against the American linguistic establishment.

The book attracted a good deal of attention, but even more attention was attracted by Robert E. Lee’s review of it. Lee, a member of Chomsky’s inner circle who advised him on strategy and tactics, was chosen to write the review of Syntactic Structures which would lambast the established linguists and mark the new movement as a distinct, and hostile, force. The review, which appeared in the journal Language, accomplished all that it was intended to do. And a couple years later, Chomsky himself published in Language a review of the verbal behavior of B. F. Skinner that was similarly vicious in its attacks on non-Chomskyan linguistics. Meanwhile, Chomsky and his apostles were touring the country engaging in fierce debates with their opponents. Due to their well-honed rhetorical skills and the fact that, unlike the enemy, they didn’t feel obliged to be civil when they argued, the Chomskyans won most of these verbal wars.

The response of the established hierarchy to the Chomskyan tide was somewhat disorganized, and their efforts to stop it were rather Canute-like in terms of effectiveness. Can the unpreparedness and eventual failure of the Bloomfieldians be attributed to complacency, a complacency fostered by years of unchallenged supremacy and close-knit organizational unity? Perhaps, but there is also evidence of treason within the established linguists’ ranks. Bobo Bloch, editor of Language, gave the Chomskyans a lot of printspace in the early years. We need not suppose that he himself was a traitor. Rather, it seems that he was misled by a still-unidentified Chomskyan mole on the journal’s staff, who persuaded Bloch that Chomsky, who after all was a student of Harris, was firmly within the established boundaries of American linguistics. His theories, then, by extending Bloomfieldianism, would strengthen rather than weaken established American linguistics. In fact, Chomsky employed this strategy more than once, telling the established hierarchy that he was their friend while actively campaigning to get the young linguists to join in a crusade against them.

By 1960, most of the Bloomfieldians were beginning to realize that Chomsky’s private assurances of good intentions did not match his actions. By then, however, it was too late. So well planned and executed had the Chomskyan revolution been that the Old Guard had already been cast aside by the vast majority of young linguists. The veterans of WWII still maintained their control of established departments of linguistics and of the LSA and its journal, Language, but in the eyes of the masses they were dinosaurs waiting to join the Neogrammarians in the ashcan of history. The Chomskyan revolution had triumphed.

8. Linguistics since 1960

In keeping with my promise from the introduction, I shall have little to say about post-Chomskyan linguistics. I will, however, note that Chomsky did not succeed in displacing his enemies from their citadels of power, so instead he created rival power bases such as new linguistics departments, new professional societies, and new publications in an effort to render the Old Guard obsolete. He was not entirely successful, as the Old Guard continued to influence some young linguists, but for the most part the youth joined the revolution. Perhaps one reason they did so was that Chomsky, in keeping with the tradition of linguistics, made use of a US war, that in Vietnam, although as a good radical he opposed it rather than supported it. By speaking out often against the war, he attracted many of the youth of the sixties who also opposed it, especially academically-inclined youth. However, Chomsky never kept his movement as well organized as Bloomfield had his, with the result that it soon began to fragment. As the divisions within Chomskyanism began to multiply, non-Chomskyan linguistics began to rebound, though not in any unified fashion, as such students of the surviving Bloomfieldians as Sydney Lamb sought to emulate Chomsky’s success by advertising themselves as similarly brilliant innovators. The Bloomfieldians also called back formerly dangerous-seeming freethinkers such as Kenneth Pike, who now seemed to be almost orthodox in comparison to the Chomskyans. In short, the unity which was so central to the American hegemony earlier was collapsing.

Meanwhile, linguists in other countries which were no longer dependent on US aid were becoming bolder, especially Michael “Mack” Halliday, an Englishman who was plainly more intelligent than the average Brit, since he eventually left the country. Schools of linguistics were popping up all over Europe, in fact, in France, Italy, the USSR, and elsewhere (even Copenhagendon’t ask me why). Recognizing the danger, Chomsky desperately tried to win over foreigners as well as Americans, and he scored some notable successes, especially in the Netherlands and Japan. But he was unable to heal the divisions within his own house, and American linguistics lost more and more of its privileged position. For a time the decline was disguised by the rapid growth in number of linguists, but now even that has been seen to be more of a curse than a blessing, as inferior students who never would have gotten past old style screening tests now regularly become PhD’s. Who among us has not experienced the growing impudence of MLA-types, no longer the grovelling lower-class citizens of yesteryear now that they regularly encounter linguists who are their intellectual inferiors? And we all know about the snide comments foreign linguists make about us behind our backs at international conferences. Such is the legacy of Chomsky, who proved capable of seizing the empire but incapable of ruling it well. Indeed, many of his adherents have long since abandoned him, especially since he now fancies himself more of a political scientist than a linguist. Yet he has never brought about the political revolution which he hoped would parallel his linguistic revolution. The dream which seemed to be almost in his grasp in the late 1960’s had vanished by the 80’s, when President Ronald Reagan exiled him by executive order. Chomsky spent his exile wandering about such leftist-governed foreign countries as Italy, Nicaragua, and finally Massachusetts, where he has taken up permanent residence.

In his absence, no American linguist has arisen to unify the field and humiliate our rivals once again, nor does it now seem that any ever will. Sadly, the days of glory seem to be vanished forever. Perhaps if there were some other purpose to our efforts than the garnering of wealth and status, the decline would not be so bitter. Alas, we have no other purpose. Still, we should not despair. It seems most likely that American linguistics will eventually settle into the same sort of position as that occupied by history, geology, anthropology, and other fields whose glory days have passed. Like these, their colleagues, linguists of the future will no doubt labor in comfortable obscurity, turning out boring articles and occasional interesting books, none of which will be read by anyone outside the field, whose major purpose will be to prove to deans that the linguists are still doing something. At the end of the day, the linguist will go home to his or her spouse in the pleasant little cottage which they share with a pet beagle and make pleasant conversation over a bland but non-threatening dinner. We may not get paid as much as communications profs, but we will be happy.*

*The author would like to thank all those who commented on earlier versions of this paper, in particular “Little Orphant Annie” (you know who you are). He has decided not to reveal the true names of these people, since he cannot be sure whether they’d like to have themselves associated with such a scurrilous tract. He thanks them anyway.


Author’s Notes (July 2008): As noted at the beginning of this reprint, the original version of this article was published in Historiographia Linguistica Vol. XVIII, No. 1 (1991), pp. 221-246. A couple of years ago, Keith Slater (Doctor Admirabilis) and Trey Jones (Editor Potentissimus) suggested reprinting the article online under SpecGram's auspices. I said sure, so long as I could make a few minor changes to the text, and so long as HL gave us permission to reprint it. HL’s permission having been granted, here’s the article with only a few changes here and there. If, for some unfathomable reason, you want to read the original version, you can probably find HL in your local university library. (For those who are currently undergraduate students and thus don’t know what a university library is, it’s that big, deserted building near the center of campus that the tour guide took you and your parents to when you were visiting as a prospective student, knowing that your parents were old enough to be impressed by all the books contained in the library (books being an obsolete type of information technology that you can read about on Wikipedia if you want (but some of us old timers, the same people who get our news from The MacNeil-Lehrer Report instead of The Daily Show, still have a nostalgic affection for books, which we like to read while listening to LP’s on the hi-fi (yes, I know it’s called The News Hour nowadays, but you’re dealing here with a person who thinks even “Constantinople” is a newfangled affectation, let alone “Istanbul”which, by the way, whatever it may have been in the 1920’s, struck me when I visited it in its bustling 21st-century incarnation as no more of a country for old men than was West Texas circa 1980)))).

Warning to the unwary reader: many of the facts in here are factual, but some of the other facts are not as factual as they could be. Names, dates, places, and events may have been changed/invented to protect the innocent, or, more likely, just to make a better story. In addition, seeing as this article was written almost twenty years ago, some statements may be out of date.

Additional reference: The first paragraph of the above article lists only two well-known histories of linguistics, by Robins and Newmeyer respectively. A list drawn up nowadays would have to include Randy Allen Harris’ 1993 book The Linguistics Wars, which describes the post-1960 antics of Chomskyan linguists in highly entertaining fashion. Definitely worth reading if you’ve got the time and the interest.

Last note: “Little Orphant Annie”, mentioned at the end of the article, is a pseudonym for Charles Hockett, who, by teaching a course on the history of linguistics to me and some other students in 1989, inspired me to write this article in the first place. Hockett, whose picture appears on the front cover of this issue of SpecGram, died several years ago, so I guess it’s okay to give his real name now. Hockett was also the person who suggested I submit the article to Konrad Koerner (author of the editorial note from the beginning of the article) for possible publication in Historiographia Linguistica. I’m indebted to both of these eminent scholars for their appreciative response to this decidedly unorthodox bit of linguistic historiography.

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