Myths, ideologies, and revolutions in linguistics


E.F.K. Koerner (Cologne)



At least since the publication of Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions of 1962, it has been common-place to speak of revolutions that have taken place in linguistics at various stages of its development, beginning with the establishment of the so-called ‘comparative method’ during the second half of the 19th century. Previous periods are usually characterized as ‘pre-paradigm’ periods when the study of language was not yet a ‘science’, or so the story goes. It is obvious that most linguists today look back on past events in their discipline in a presentist mode and tend to interpret that past in the light of their own Erkenntnisinteresse. While this attitude may be understandable for the linguistic practitioner, it does not represent linguistic history in a serious way. While the concept of ‘revolution’ itself has not been given an unequivocal interpretation, the tendency has been to hold an important turn in the field as having taken place when a fairly broad consensus has been reached among members of the craft that from a certain point in time onwards - often identified with a particular publication - both the general outlook of the discipline and the focus of research has undergone significant change. There may be big revolutions and small revolutions, partial as well as complete ones, and some applying to a subfield (e.g., phonology, dialectology, syntax, etc.) only. What is usually ignored in the discussion is that these changes do not simply constitute a retooling of the craft, so to speak, but involve a possibly subtle, but nevertheless consequential set of presuppositions that tend to be taken for granted (and are not seen as in need of justification) such as, e.g., the supposed existence of a ‘universal grammar’ with which each child is born and which only needs some exposure to a given language in order to unfold. That these presuppositions may be the result of an ideology is usually not recognized; instead, revolutions are simply accepted as a kind of Gestalt switch or the product of a coupure épistémologique precipitated by a new discovery or a supposedly completely new way of doing linguistics. (Those members of the field who do not recognize this change will simply be left behind.) Another point that is the subject of the present paper is the apparent need on the part of the authors of a revolution (and some of their close associates) to create foundation myths that tend to become widely, if not universally accepted by the scientific community. These usually involve the claim that the previous framework was either not scientific or not asking the right questions and hence has become obsolete. An important argument advanced by proponents of revolutions is the claim that there is no connection with the previous scientific world view or the positive work of its adherents; at the same time they are ready to identify ‘forerunners’ to the new cause that are remote from the debate, chronologically, epistemologically, or otherwise. One example out of many is the claim of a total independence of Chomsky’s linguistic theories from those of his structuralist predecessors. Others will be presented in the paper, too.