usage is all that counts

From the study of primitive tongues, linguisticians dervied a rule: usage is all that counts…

IN the United States the great anthropologist Franz Boaz of Columbia University made extensive studies between 1897 and 1908 of the languages of various American Indian tribes which, of course, had no script, no history, and had never before attracted scholarly interest. But it was not until the second and third decades of the twentieth century that Structural Linguistics came to full flower in the work of two men who are universally recognized as its American progenitors.

---Paulette Goddard reads.---

—Paulette Goddard reads.—

One was Boas’s brilliant student Edward Sapir ( 1884-1939), who investigated the language and culture of the Wishram and Athapascan Indians of the northern Pacific coast. The other was Leonard Bloomfield ( 1887-1949) of Chicago, a behaviorist, who first worked intensively on Menominee, a branch of central Algonquian, and later made a study of tagalog, the language of Luzon which became the official tongue of the Philippine Islands.

Their early studies were pursued with enormous patience in the face of significant difficulties, for the languages they undertook to master had no written script whatever. By the tedious process of questioning native speakers day after day, week after week, they eventually began to discern distinct forms and elements in what had seemed at first an impenetrable vocal blur. Many of the sounds articulated by the Indians could not be represented by the familiar letters of the Roman alphabet. The grammar, a term defined by Bloomfield as “the meaningful arrangements of forms in a language”- was utterly different from that of English, Latin, or any of the Indo-European tongues.

---André Kertész - Second Avenue, New York (man reading in antique store), June 1969---

—André Kertész – Second Avenue, New York (man reading in antique store), June 1969—

But the linguists discovered that the Indian languages shared certain elements not only with each other but with all other languages in the world. In short, they had found, and it was their most important accomplishment, a means of analysis that could be universally applied without reference to the terms and concepts of traditional grammar. From the pioneering work of Sapir and Bloomfield the more detailed methods and principles of Structural Linguistics subsequently evolved. Amid the fog of Academese that later engulfed the subject, a few of its basic ideas and details of methodology became distinguishable. ( to be continued)


(see link at end)…The basic thrust of Bloomfield’s semantics is descriptive. He for him linguistics should be concerned with describing the speech act alone (r…..s). … What is important to note, is that Bloomfield was not a rebel attempting to redefine linguistics but in fact provided a synthesis of a greater movement of the social sciences which had been growing within linguistics for several decades. It is not insignificant that Bloomfield was an enormous academic talent with the skills needed to command a central position in an emerging discipline. However, the question remains: was this the only valid approach to studying language scientifically?

We turn our attention now to what on the surface seems to be a very different tack on “the problem” of language. In 1933 Alfred Korzybski published a book entitled Science and Sanity (1958[1933]) in which he proposed a new discipline named general semantics. He was something of an outsider. He held no official post within academia and his formal schooling consisted of a chemical engineering degree. Yet Science and Sanity is well over 800 pages when introductory notes are included and it also includes 619 bibliographical entries. Although not a university academic, Korzybski was not isolated from great thinkers of the time; he routinely corresponded with and presented his work to s

of the top mathematicians, psychiatrists, neurologists, and physicists in North America.

His status as a ‘free intellectual’ in fact gave him a bit more room to spread his wings, to take positions that were not representative of mainstream language study. General semantics is at best criticized and ridiculed by professional linguists today, although very few seem to have made an earnest study of it, because of this it is hard to comprehend the immense popularity that it enjoyed in early years. Even in 1966, 33 years after Science and Sanity’s first appearance, J. Samuel Bois (1966) would note:

He had to have the book published at his own expense, and the sale of it took years to acquire momentum, but it is now recognized as an epoch-making classic. In 1964, at the occasion of its fortieth anniversary, Saturday Review asked twenty-seven historians, economists, political analysts, educators, social scientists, and philosophers to list “what books published in the last four decades most significantly altered the direction of our society and may have a substantial impact on public thought and action in the years ahead.” Of the 163 titles mentioned, only twenty-four were rated higher than Science and Sanity. (1966:xi)
Tomes could be written about the reasons for the relative obscurity in which it now rests; I will return to these issues in Chapter Four.

Alfred Korzybski grew up in Russia-administered Poland. As a young man it was determined that he had a particular ability with mathematics and he was sent to university to become an engineer. After this he served the Russian army in World War I, an experience which profoundly affected him and likely set the scaffolding for his life’s work. He was sent to North America on an intelligence mission near the end of the war and ended up immigrating to the United States where he lived until his death in 1950. Read More:

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