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Darwin-L Message Log 7:21 (March 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.


<7:21>From sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu  Thu Mar 10 07:54:39 1994

To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Re: DARWIN-L digest 163
Date: Thu, 10 Mar 94 08:54:34 -0500
From: Sally Thomason <sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu>

   Matt Tomaso's interesting commments about the history of
structuralism in anthropology can't be extended easily to linguistics,
where it came from originally.  It's true that Ferdinand de Saussure,
the "father of structural linguistics", set synchronic linguistics
on something like an even level with historical linguistics, and
made it possible/respectable/fashionable to study a language in its
current state, not just in its development from an earlier state.

   But Saussure's structural thinking enabled him, at the age of 19,
to make one of the most dramatic contributions to HISTORICAL
linguistics that anyone has ever made: his Laryngeal Theory (not
his title, but his proposal).  This was in 1879 (I think -- one sees
different dates in the literature), decades before he launched
synchronic structural linguistics.  What he did was propose that
an immensely complex & messy set of phonetic alternations in Indo-
European languages, especially in verbs and to a lesser extent in
nouns, could be accounted for much more economically and in a way
that made much more phonetic sense, if one took the notion of a
simple basic structure seriously and posited the existence of a
set of sounds in Proto-Indo-European (the parent language of the
entire I-E family).  The trouble was that these sounds didn't
exist in any of the IE languages known in 1879, so the theory
required that they vanished from all the IE languages, making the
alternations phonetically & phonologically opaque (and accounting
for the messy state of things in the attested languages).

   The hypothesis was highly controversial for many years; the
structural argumentation, sans hard evidence in the attested
sources, was viewed with great suspicion by many I-E-ists.  In
the early years of the 20th century, however, the decipherment
of Hittite provided some dramatic confirmation of the Laryngeal
Theory: Hittite had a letter, transliterated with a kind of h,
in exactly those places (well, some of them) where Saussure
had hypothesized a "laryngeal" consonant.

   But in addition to the discovery of the "h" in Hittite,
evidence poured in...trickled in, anyway...in the form of excellent
principled explanations for other kinds of alternations that had
previously seemed totally bizarre, in light of pre-Laryngeal Theory
thinking.

   So it isn't true, for historical linguistics, that structuralism
was antithetical; structural linguistics has provided many useful
ways of attacking the problem of unraveling linguistic history,
though nothing as exciting as Saussure's Laryngeal Theory.

   Sally Thomason
   sally@pogo.isp.pitt.edu

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