Common tongues

History of Linguistics, Volume One - History of Linguistics, Volume Two
April 12, 1996

These books started life in Italian. The English edition "has been reorganised into four volumes", of which the first two volumes to be published are here under review; the introduction describes the contents of the other two volumes.

The involvement of 16 authors from at least five countries (Italy, Britain, the United States, Britain, France, Sweden) reflects the international character of today's study of the humanities, and more specifically of the history of linguistics. One of the major problems of this vigorously developing field is to define its area of study. Long gone are the days of naive unilinear evolutionism, when a history of anything might have been presented from Adam till today as one continuous story. We are now aware that the history of mankind and culture consists of many different stories which have only recently begun merging into a common story.

The editor Giulio Lepschy has attempted to overcome this methodological impasse by first defining the task of his contributors as "a history of linguistic thought, rather than an account of the development of linguistic science", as "a presentation of the prevailing attitudes towards language . . . [of] the linguistic interests and assumptions of individual cultures in their own terms, without trying to transpose and reshape them into the context of our ideas of what the scientific study of language ought to be". Second, he has made it a point to invite as authors "specialists in the individual areas", and "encouraged [them] not to enlarge on methodological problems posed by linguistic historiography but to concentrate instead on the presentation of facts, on the interpretation of texts which they considered relevant and interesting for the periods and cultures they were discussing".

The aim was to obtain "not an account of what is known, derived from current literature, but a series of original contributions based on first-hand study of the primary sources". In other words, it was a kind of experiment, an attempt to compose a general historiographical whole out of original research pieces based on specific expertise.

The first two volumes show that even if the result of the experiment is not an unmitigated success, it is very interesting and enlightening. They suggest that we are still far from being able to draw a general picture which would include all the varieties of "linguistic thought" of the various human cultures at the same level of understanding.

George Cardona, the leading western expert on the traditional Indian "linguistic thought", writes: "A great deal of research has been done . . . but . . . an enormous amount of serious thinking remains to be done, in order to understand more fully what . . . [Indian grammarians] accomplished . . . and to place these accomplishments in the framework of the history of linguistics in general".

Other contributors to volume one more or less agree with respect to their own fields, and so do many of those in volume two. They are Gran Malmquist on Chinese linguistics, Erica Reiner, Janet H. Johnson and Miguel Civil on linguistics in the ancient near East, Raphael Loewe on Hebrew linguistics, Henri Fleisch on Arabic linguistics, Peter Matthews on Greek and Latin linguistics, Edoardo Vineis on medieval linguistics, which includes a subchapter on the philosophy of language by Alfonso Maier.

These volumes have a Eurocentric slant, which may be expected to increase in volumes three and four, which will be devoted mostly to European (western) linguistics of the 15th-20th centuries. Volume two is only twice the size of volume one, even though the former treats at least six different traditions (Chinese, Indian, ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian, Hebrew and Arabic) and the latter basically one (European) tradition.

This probably reflects the relative sizes of the bodies of "linguistic thought" in these various cultures. Nevertheless a really universal and comprehensive history of linguistics (or linguistic thought) would require a different balance of European and non-European components. Especially disappointing is the chapter on Arabic linguistics. It is too technical, too compressed and gives too little general cultural context; and the English translation, prepared after the death of the author, leaves something to be desired. The charge of somewhat excessive technicality may be laid against several of the other contributions in volume I. Volume II is much smoother and more pleasant to read, except for the contribution of Alfonso Maier on the philosophy of language.

The editor in his introduction refers to two books in Russian on the history of linguistics, one of which, published in Moscow in 1975, is rather dated. He does not refer to a more recent series of books, Istoriya lingvisticheskikh ucheniy (History of Linguistic Theories), published by Nauka from Leningrad in the 1980s. There one may read contributions on eastern linguistic traditions in Armenia, Iran, Tibet, Burma, today's Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Japan and central Asia - traditions omitted from the books under review.

This history is not easy reading for a layman. It will hardly become a popular textbook for undergraduates either. But it has much to recommend it to postgraduate and even postdoctoral students specialising in the history of linguistics as well as in other branches of the humanities, in particular those interested in the comparative study of cultures. There are few (if any) explicit comparisons between different traditions, but an attentive reader will find much material for comparative thinking and research.

Sergei Serebriany is a research fellow, Russian State University for the Humanities, Moscow.

History of Linguistics, Volume One: The Eastern Traditions of Linguistics

Editor - Giulio Lepschy
ISBN - 0 582 09488 7 and 09489 5
Publisher - Longman
Price - £30 and £10.99
Pages - 203

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