sabato 19 dicembre 2009

Is the American Century
(in linguistics) coming to an end?

After almost one hundred years, things begin to change
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Dear blog-friends,

I beg your pardon for disappearing for such a long time! My blog was left unmanned for months, in so far as it raised in someone the suspicion that its author had vanished! Nothing awful happened, fortunately. It was because of a terrific accumulation of things to do, overdue work et similia. Now, as the New Year approaches and I am gradually freeing myself from my things to do, I am back: my intention and hope is to be more present and to try to stimulate your reactions more frequently.

One idea that bothers my mind over these days is the following. The past one has been the American Century in Linguistics—undoubtedly. The first half of it, in reality, was marked by a strong Swiss, French, British, Russian and German presence (Saussure, Meillet, Firth, Vendryes, Jakobson, Trubeckoj, Benveniste [in the picture], Halliday…) with the addition of some other smaller “national representations” (several Danish, few Swedish, rare Italians and Spaniards…), but the bulk of it (from the Thirties on) has unquestionably been formed by US people. Various factors fostered such a situation, not excluded Second World War, which made recourse to linguists and linguistics to a previously unforeseen extent!


My friend Edward Stankiewicz, a superb specialist in Slavic linguistics, himself a Pole flown to US before the outburst of Nazi racial persecution and settled down at Yale, familiar (among other things) with Italy and Italian and provided like many Poles with an astonishing sense of humour, used to devote part of his Yale courses to subjects as “From Bloch to Bloomfield”. There he traced back with some joking the origins of the linguistic institutio in US as the starting point of the dissemination of it over the entire world. Nowadays the title of such a course should be integrated and form a long chain: “from Bloomfield to Chomsky and Langacker and Givón and Postal and Talmy and Bresnan and…” since the chain of American novelties in linguistics has bee and still is never-ending.


This is not a complaint, but a mere matter-of-fact remark. In part, American linguistics has had better ideas than ours (I mean—of us non-US, Europeans and other), in part they devised and spread new forms of cultural marketing to which we weren’t able to oppose anything, in part and finally the world submissiveness to any type of American stuff in any fields (from Coke to pop music through rollerblade, mountain bike and so on) facilitated the job enormously.

As a consequence of such diabolic ingredients, Europe and the whole planet got submerged by every kind of US made linguistics. Various of such “packs” were palatable, some of good quality; but—one can’t deny—an important part of such “commodities” were and are sheer gimmick or even hot air. In spite of this, almost everyone here stooped and paid homage, even if one after the other many novelties passed away.


Does any of us remember something called Stratificational Linguistics? It had some fortune in the Sixties, then faded away. Various non US linguists found good reasons to join it. And what about Relational Grammar? Some get converted to it, some still are. What about Generative Semantics (also dubbed “post-Chomskyan linguistics”)? It had course in the Seventies, some joined, a bulk of associated publications saw the light, many changed their mind quickly; then it disappeared, silently… Does some of us remember the earliest Generative, also called Transformational, Grammar? It was rejected after some years by its very supporters, who switched to the Extended Theory… Then, various other trappings: GB, UG, the Barrier-Phase, the X-bar phase, the Minimalist phase, the Phase-phase, and so on and so forth. And what about Formal Semantics? Or OT? And about Auto-segmental Phonology? Or the various forms of LFG (including the incomparable Stochastic LFG)?

The list of new brands and formulas, new recipes and trends, new directions and sub-directions, alas provided with a poor duration and lesser plausibility, could be longer than this. Meanwhile, on the other side of the street, functional linguistics, in its various forms, gave its own contribution to the multiplication of inventions, devices, publications—and chairs.

As a mirror of such a dependency there remain the huge heap of books translated over the past forty years: every type of American production, including opera minora, textbooks (as Bloomfield’s Language is), notes, interim reports, etc. Suffice it to remember that even the PhD thesis of Chomsky wife was translated into various languages, the classroom notes by Z. S. Harris in France, Labov’s opera minora and so on.

Meanwhile, new marketing forms were experimented from and by US colleagues. The main one is the annual or bi-annual road show: conferences, workshops and congresses centered on, dominated by or devoted to, such or such “starring figure”, which can this way disseminate world-wide its own ideas. No European scholar used this system ever: it is a pure US invention, many people swallowed…


Nothing was requested as a sign of reciprocity ever. Europe lifted her hands and surrendered. History turns, however, and the cultural destiny of the various parts of the world too. Various interesting enterprises are Europe-based; typology is giving a big contribution to this (although it has its own risks too…), several remarkable orientations of scholarship and research seem to be based in Europe or in other areas of the world: Central Europe, Far East, etc…


Will what remains of this century be a non-American epoch in linguistics (and in other fields)?