A BRIEF ACCOUNT OF THE BEGINNINGS OF LINGUISTICS IN AMERICA
American linguistics was born at the beginning of the 20th. Century almost simultaneously with linguistics in Europe. Both shared their orientation towards Structuralism but their origins differ completely.
As we know, European linguistics was born as a reaction against the Historico-comparative approach to language analysis. To this exclusive way of looking at language – the diachronic- Ferdinand de Saussure proposed a synchronic view. Studying the history of languages in Europe and Asia was possible because most languages had written records and this allowed linguists to study them so as to compare and contrast the origin of languages and their evolution.
In America, the situation was different because the languages to be studied- the ones spoken by the Amerindians- did not have writing systems so the information about their culture, history and traditions was passed orally from generation to generation.
Once independence was declared in America in 1776, the original thirteen colonies started the process to “become a nation” and this led them westwards to conquer or to submit the aboriginal communities who had been living there for centuries. In this process, anthropologists played a crucial role since they were the ones who defended the communities not only because of humanitarian reasons but also because they were interested in studying them. These anthropologists were not linguists themselves but they inevitably needed to gather some knowledge about the languages of the communities under study so that they could get information about the issues they wanted to research. This was basal in the birth of American linguistics. On the one hand, since these anthropologists (linguists) could not count on written records, they worked mainly on the transcription of the utterances they heard and they analyzed them formally with the help of the native informants. This means they concentrated on aspects such as sound and grammar, especially syntax. On the other hand, they were worried about trying to relate culture/thought and language as the communities they were working in had a completely different outlook on life that seldom matched what they knew as westerners. On top of that, these communities were being segregated, marginalized or simply killed by the white people whenever they interfered with their expansion plans.
In 1850, the movement westwards dramatically increased because gold was found in the west: it was the popular Gold Rush. In this case the enthusiasm for settling in new lands was coupled by a strong desire for material wealth(Most Hollywood westerns depict these stories… Indians against white men).
In 1860, the Civil War broke out and this prevented intellectuals and scholars from getting involved in their studies. However, the anthropological studies continued because they were far from the battlefields. Franz Boas and Edward Sapir, who developed an extensive literature devoted to the question of language and thought, are memorable examples of this.
In the first quarter of the XX century, World War I was also ravaging Europe and this made many intellectuals migrate. Some of them went to America. That was the way in which many of the European ideas arrived in the new continent. Among these, we may mention De Saussure’s.
Wilhem Wundt, a psychologist favoring mechanicistic views on human behavior in the Pavlovian trend, paved the way for behaviorism. Sigmund Freud’s ideas on introspection and the human mind were also known and they later became the foundation of cognitive studies.
This is the background against which we should place Leonard Bloomfield, whose behavioristic and structural views on language lasted for more than thirty years.