1 - Introduction  pp. 1-50


By P. H. Matthews

Image View Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Many readers will be familiar with the classic historiographic study by Walter Carruthers Sellar (Aegrot. Oxon.) and Robert Julian Yeatman (Failed M.A. etc. Oxon.), in which they set out ‘all the parts you can remember’ of the History of England (Sellar & Yeatman, 1930). What ‘Every student can remember’ of the history of linguistics is not perhaps so bad, and sadly less hilarious. But it would not be difficult to put together an account of ‘1957 and All That’, in which developments in the twentieth century are quite seriously garbled.

It would contain at most two ‘memorable dates’. One is that of the publication, in 1957, of Chomsky's Syntactic Structures, in which Structuralism, or (according to some authorities) American Descriptivism, was overthrown. The other date, which careful research might well reveal not to be memorable, is that of Saussure's Cours de linguistique générate. Before this, at the beginning of the century, linguists were only interested in the history of languages. But according to Saussure, who is known as the Father of Modern Linguistics, the subject had to be synchronic, and we had to study ‘la langue’, which is just an arbitrary inventory of signs. This was at first a Good Thing, since it led to a lot of important work especially on American Indian languages. But in the long run structuralism was a Bad Thing. One reason is that the structuralists did so much work with American Indians that they came to believe that languages could differ from each other in any way whatever.