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Descriptivist Linguistics

  The descriptivist approach to linguistic science is most closely associated with the American linguist Leonard Bloomfield (1887 - 1949). Descriptivism originated in America at the beginning of this century and was a major paradigm for research right up until the 1960s. The inspiration for descriptivism was the urgent need to produce a lasting record of the native languages of North America, since many of them were under immediate threat of extinction. To this end, the American anthropologist Franz Boas spearheaded an early survey and published the results in the classic Handbook of American Indian Languages, in 1911. Nowadays, it is no surprise to learn that linguists study all manner of strange and exotic languages from around the world. Yet it was only with the pioneering work of Boas that such languages were accorded equal status with more familiar objects of study like Latin, Greek and German. In this respect, descriptivism represented a sharp break with the traditions of European linguistics.

The initial surprise, which never ceased to impress descriptivists, was the enormous range of linguistic diversity they unearthed. Seemingly, each new language they came across possessed quite unique structures and categories. For example, it was discovered that in Kwakiutl, a language indigenous to British Columbia, verbs are not inflected to indicate the time of action, as in most European languages, but to indicate whether or not the speaker actually witnessed an event in person, or only learned of it from another person, from the available evidence, or even from a dream. Remarkably, these differences of perspective are encoded in the syntax of the language. In English we would require long, possibly unwieldy phrases to convey what, in Kwakiutl, would be encoded in the grammar via verb inflections.

In order to cope with the barrage of alien concepts and constructions in their analyses, descriptivists made strenuous efforts to set aside their preconceptions about language. Methods of analysis appropriate for Latin and Greek could easily give a distorted picture when applied to a native American language. A fundamental aim was to devise an objective approach, a set of ‘discovery procedures’, which could be applied to any language, in order to interpret it correctly and produce an accurate description. This technique failed in its assumption that any set of procedures or techniques of analysis are entirely independent of the object studied. In fact, it will always be the case in any science that the methods of investigation employed will reflect to some extent the expectations and prejudices of the scientist.

In contrast with current preoccupations in linguistics (see universal grammar), a notable feature of descriptivism is its disdain for the idea that certain universal linguistic concepts and categories are inherent in all human languages. Bloomfield asserted the opposing ‘infinite diversity’ view with the observation that the very next language one came across might well contradict any universal tendencies hitherto observed, and that it was therefore futile to study languages with a view to discovering underlying universal characteristics. MS

Further reading R.A. Hall, Leonard Bloomfield: Essays on His Life and Work; , D. Hymes and , J. Fought, American Structuralism.



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