Review of Fifty Key Thinkers on Language
AUTHOR: Margaret Thomas
TITLE: Fifty Key Thinkers on Language and Linguistics
SERIES TITLE: Routledge Key Guides
Julie Bruch, Department of Languages and Literature, Colorado Mesa University
This book presents a concise collection of articles representing the history of
linguistics and exploration of language problems. As the introduction to the
book states, it attempts to synthesize a ''vast … treasury of reflection on
language” (p. xiii). According to the author, the book is intended to be an
introduction to people's thinking about language over time, and as a reference
text for graduate or undergraduate students of “linguistics, literary and
cultural studies, foreign language, anthropology, philosophy, intellectual
history” (p. xiv) or anyone with curiosity about language. However, even
seasoned linguists who have not done much targeted reading in the History of
Linguistics will have the opportunity to make new connections and review key
ideas. One of the benefits for readers will be to gain a “big picture view,”
and it will inspire many readers to visit some of the primary sources on
linguistic thinking that students often read about only in footnotes.
Each chapter is limited to five pages, regardless of the fame of the person or
the depth of the contribution. The chapters are chronologically ordered in the
text, but listed both alphabetically and chronologically in the table of contents.
Among the fifty are some whose names are less frequently found in linguistics
texts. Their mention here may invite deeper consideration among students and
scholars of language. There are also several ancient and medieval names that
are virtually unknown to modern students of linguistics. However, the author
defends the importance of all of these past thinkers as a ''vital resource'' for
informing current thinking (p. xiii).
The key thinkers included in the collection include representation from the
following eras: four from B.C.E., four from the Middle Ages, two from the
14-15th centuries, seven from the 17th-18th centuries, fourteen from the 19th
century, and twenty-one from the 20th century. Nearly all are from the Western
tradition, and the author expresses regret at this heavy representation of
Europeans and Americans and the relative dearth of women and non-Westerners.
The sole representatives of these groups consist of one British woman and one
person each from India, Persia, and Korea.
The author explicitly addresses her inclusion strategies in the introduction.
She explains that her first choice group consists of figures of ''unquestionable
importance and influence'' (according to her, Plato, Saussure, Chomsky) (p. xv).
Her second round choices were considered on the basis of adding variety (such
as Cameron's work on gendered language), her third group included intellectual
rivals and intellectual descendants of the first two groups (Jakobson's stance
on Saussurean ideas), and her fourth round choices include less familiar
outliers (Sibawayhi or John Wilkins) that help to broaden the perspectives
represented by the first three groups. The introduction aptly compares the
decision-making process for inclusion in the book to the process of inviting
guests to a party. She makes the analogy of inviting student guests (readers)
who will be there to meet “established community members” (p. xv) who are the
key figures written about here. The author carefully defends her choice of
guests and makes a point of apologizing for groups left underrepresented
Each chapter contains: 1) brief biographical information about a key thinker, 2)
an overview of his or her broad questions and arguments, 3) a representative
example or two of specific work done, and 4) an indication of how the thinker's
work influenced others and is relevant to modern thought (including how modern
work has confirmed or rejected the ideas set forth). For example, in the
chapter on Whorf, Thomas describes some of the ongoing controversies surrounding
the so-called ''linguistic relativity principle,'' stating that results of
empirical work to date has been ''heterogeneous and contradictory'' (p. 199) and
suggesting that further work is needed. Chapters also contain coding in bold
letters of the names of figures who influenced each other, serving as an
intra-textual reminder of the cross-germination of ideas. Explanations of the
specific types of influences are reiterated when appropriate.
Primary sources (“major works”) and “further reading” are listed at the end of
each chapter so that readers gaining first exposure to some of the “key
thinkers” can easily follow up on ones in which they develop further interest.
A glossary of nearly twenty pages is provided at the end of the book. Many of
the terms can be found in any introductory linguistics text, but the glossary
will serve those from other fields.
The first four individuals presented here inhabited the ancient past: Panini,
Plato, Aristotle, and Marcus Terentius Varro who wrote the first descriptive
grammar of Latin (including etymology, syntax, and morphology) sometime before
27 B.C.E. A fifth chapter is dedicated to the writers of the Bible who showed
obvious early fascination with the origins and diversification of language.
Although Biblical mythology relevant to language is distinct from the
logic-based, theory-building ideas of others, the author claims that the
cultural authority of writing on language in the Bible has had widespread and
lasting influence on thinking about language through the ages.
The next six chapters jump to the Middle Ages and to Latin grammars by Donatus
and Priscian, and Sibawayhi’s Arabic grammar. There is an overview of the
writings and thinking of the anonymous so-called “First Grammarian,” who
described and justified the writing system of Icelandic, and a chapter on King
Sejong the Great, who created the “Hangeul” writing system of Korean. Also
included in this group is a chapter on the original, medieval “Speculative
[theoretical] grammarians” (including names such as William of Conches, Peter
Helias, and Thomas of Erfurt). The author describes the specific contributions
of the people in each chapter to cumulative human knowledge and shows the spread
of their influence into modern thought. For example, she points out that the
failure of the quest of the Speculative Grammarians for language universals
contributed to the formulation of questions about language while at the same
time showing how cultural parochialism can limit our thinking (p. 48).
Four characters from the Renaissance are represented in the following three
chapters: Antoine Arnauld and Claude Lancelot (Port Royal Grammarians), John
Wilkins (an inventor of one of the first artificial languages intended to serve
as a universal language), and John Locke, who was integral to the debate over
rationalism vs. empiricism. (Page 60 seems to contain a typo: ''Post-Royal
Grammarians'' instead of ''Port-Royal.'')
Representing early Modern thought is an array of seventeen figures, starting
with Samuel Johnson and continuing on through Otto Jespersen. Several of these,
such as Etienne Bonnot, are names not commonly found in general linguistics
texts,. This era in language thought was a heyday of work in typology and
comparative/historical work evolving out of the study of Sanskrit and
projections of a Proto Indo-European language. Localization of language in the
brain by Paul Broca, foundational work in structuralism (Saussure), and emerging
conceptualizations of the phoneme are also part of this epoch.
Finally, there is an encyclopedic overview of twenty-one modern intellectuals,
starting with Daniel Jones and Edward Sapir and culminating with the most
recent, James D. McCawley and Deborah Cameron. This group shows the development
of work that explores a wide range of questions about language, including:
non-Indo-European languages, the relationship among thought, culture, and
language, descriptivism and language study as a formal science, the social
dimensions of language, language universals, generativism, and gendered language.
The author explains in her introduction that she has intentionally omitted most
twenty-first century leaders from this edition, assuming that the most recent
key figures in linguistics are already amply familiar to modern readers.
After reading this book, students of language will have an increased
appreciation for the inter-connectedness of thinkers, inquirers, and explorers
of the mind from different ages and regions of the world. While other, more
detailed histories of linguistic thought may focus on specific periods of time,
or specific branches of linguistics, or representatives from specific regions
(e.g., the Harris and Taylor volume ''Landmarks in Linguistic Thought 1'' and the
Robins classic ''A Short History of Linguistics,'' which both have a Euro-centric
emphasis), this briefer overview attempts to provide a more representative
selection of thought from a variety of traditions. However, some of the longer,
more expansive histories achieve even better representation. For example,
Lepschy's four-volume ''History of Linguistics,'' contains a chapter on Chinese
linguistic thought. The degree to which the author was successful here in her
attempt to be fully representative in a short space can be judged as quite
admirable. However, additional representation from other such traditions would
greatly enrich this collection. As illustration, the chapter on the ideas and
work of King Sejong of Korea is not only fascinating in and of itself, but also
highly significant in the overall historical development of thought on language.
Any choice of inclusion and exclusion in a collection of this sort is bound to
be problematic and controversial, and authors of ''Key Thinkers'' books typically
apologize for some of the important exclusions they are forced to make. Thomas
is no exception. She provides rationale for her final fifty choices that is
well-reasoned and sensitive to possible criticism. At the same time, readers
may still yearn to hear more about some of the figures who are mentioned in some
of the chapters without being given chapters of their own. (These include:
Chinese lexicographers and grammarians, William Stokoe of ASL fame, George
Trager, Sir William Jones, Rasmus Rask, Mario Pei, Bernard Bloch, Zellig Harris,
and George Lakoff.) A list of others who are not mentioned at all could go on
and on, but since prioritizing and excluding is inevitable, the author must be
forgiven, and her elegant apology accepted. As the saying goes, ''There is no
unbiased history!'' The author's final choice of figures and thoughts to include
or exclude will, of necessity, influence readers' perceptions of the history of
ideas about language, but all in all, Thomas' choices are well-balanced, and her
discussions successfully avoid framing ideas exclusively through the eyes of
The short biographical sketches in each chapter evoke lively images of the
people behind the names. The summaries of most important work done by each
figure are explained in easily accessible terms, as are the specific examples of
important details of their work and the influence of their ideas on others. The
analyses of implications of particular ideas and thinkers and their influence on
others are particularly helpful in demonstrating trends of the times and overall
development of ideas in linguistic thought. As an example, pages 122-123
contrast Whitney's thinking related to the ''superabundance of linguistic
evidence'' in child/first language acquisition (L1A) with Chomsky's ''poverty of
the stimulus'' characterizations. Another example comes from the deep parallels
between the thinking of Baudouin and Saussure (p. 137).
This collection will enable readers to more clearly comprehend the true origins
of various classic traditions in linguistics. For instance, how many readers
would know that the oft cited capacity of language to make ''infinite use of
finite means'' (p. 96) came originally from Humboldt rather than Chomsky, who
The author's decision to omit the most recent thought on language is laudable.
It is almost certain that she would have been strongly tempted to include some
of the paradigm-changing work currently underway (e.g., conceptualizations of
language as a complex adaptive system or the use of corpora in applied
linguistics analyses). However, current work is better left to a new edition of
''Fifty Thinkers'' to be published in fifty years.
In sum, this book is highly readable and of high interest to a broad range of
readers. It fills a gap in the currently available literature by providing a
usefully succinct overview for reference and introductory purposes, and a
representative introduction to a wide range of human thought regarding language.
As mentioned above, Thomas' survey of linguistic thought would be more
adequately representative if it branched out into additional areas of
non-Western language tradition. Nevertheless, it is an exceptionally concise
and informative work.
Harris, R. and T. J. Taylor. (1997) Landmarks in Linguistic Thought 1, The
Western Tradition from Socrates to Saussure. 2nd Edition. London/New York:
Lepschy, G. (Ed.) (1994) History of Linguistics (Storia della linguistica)
Volumes 1-4. London/New York: Longman.
Robins, Robert Henry. (1997) A Short History of Linguistics. 4th Edition.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
||Julie Bruch received her Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Kansas. She currently teaches Linguistic Diversity, History of English, Structure of English, and Beginning Japanese at Colorado Mesa University. Her principle research interests are cultural aspects of language, language diversity, and language change. |
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