Turn to the history of linguistics
Noam Chomsky and Charles Hockett in the 1960s
In the 1940s and 1950s, the leading proponents of American synchronic linguistics showed little interest in the history of linguistics. Some attention to historiography occurred in subfields of linguistics closest to the humanities – linguistic anthropology, historical linguistics, modern European languages – but the ‘science of language’ developed by Leonard Bloomfield and his descriptivist followers demanded autonomy from other disciplines and from the past. Increasing American contact with European linguistics during the 1950s culminated in the 1962 Ninth International Congress of Linguists in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Here Noam Chomsky presented a plenary session paper that appeared in print in four versions between 1962 and 1964, each version incorporating an increasing amount of discussion of the early 20th-century precursors to the descriptivists and a number of 17th- and 19th-century studies of language and mind. Charles Hockett responded by organizing his 1964 presidential address to the Linguistic Society of America as a history of linguistics, emphasizing periods, figures, and ideas not included in Chomsky’s work. Historiographers of the time recognized a surge of American interest in the history of linguistics beginning in the early 1960s and most attributed it largely to Chomsky’s work. Historiographic publication increased significantly among the descriptivists; at the same time it emerged among the generativists, most of whom followed Chomsky in exploring pre-20th-century philosophical ideas or reconsidering concepts and practices of the descriptivists’ forerunners. The resulting visibility and impetus to the history of linguistics contributed to the foundation upon which linguistic historiography matured in North America in the later decades of the 20th century.
Published online: 16 September 2003
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