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Darwin-L Message Log 7:28 (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.


<7:28>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Fri Mar 11 19:31:07 1994

Date: Fri, 11 Mar 1994 20:31:03 -0500 (EST)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: Structural and historical linguistics
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

Many thanks to all our linguists and anthropologists for their help
in elucidating the notion of structuralism in their respective fields.
Since the term is not a native one to my own field I am still trying
to get a handle on all its connotations in other historical sciences.
With regard to the idea of structuralism in linguistics, which comes
from Saussure, Sally Thomason wrote:

> 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).

My question for the linguists is this: What is it about this particular
historical inference of Saussure's concerning a set of lost sounds that
makes it "structuralist"?  If he had been doing purely historical linguistics,
without a structuralist component, couldn't he have made the same historical
inference?

Bob O'Hara, Darwin-L list owner

Robert J. O'Hara (darwin@iris.uncg.edu)
Center for Critical Inquiry and Department of Biology
100 Foust Building, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina 27412 U.S.A.

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