Mind, the history of linguistics, and a Western bias

From the beginning of my M.A. studies back in 2008, I have always approached language from a broadly cognitive/constructionist perspective, in the belief that within such a framework I could best account for the target linguistic phenomena. Throughout the years, I dedicated myself to gain a broad and in-depth knowledge of this paradigm and applied it to my case-studies with commitment and enthusiasm. However, by the time I was approaching the end of my Ph.D., something had changed. I had begun to see inconsistencies within the framework and to question many assumptions I had previously taken for granted. Therefore, I began to explore different frameworks and to consider how to combine insights from different approaches. Still, I was experiencing a general sense of dissatisfaction with regard to these theoretical frameworks. Then, one day, I came across a paper by the Finnish linguist Esa Itkonen entitled ‘On explanation in linguistics’, which boldly states at the onset, “[…] I have resisted here the utopian impulse which is all too common among the representatives of ‘theoretical’ linguistics: the present is thought to be full of promises that will be redeemed in the near future. As far as I can see, the reverse is true. If the present moment is experienced as less than satisfactory, it is so with respect to the past and not to the future. Is this view justified? Certainly, no one who is ignorant of the history of linguistics has the competence to answer this question.”

That was an eye-opener.

What did I really know about the history of my discipline? Very little, I had to admit. In my student years, I had never had the chance to attend a course in the history of linguistics and, whenever the ‘past’ was considered at all, it was just mentioned in passing (and normally these mentions referred to de Saussure or, at best, Franz Boas). The received view was that after the publication of Chomsky’s book ‘Syntactic structures,’ generativism replaced structuralism as the mainstream framework and, later on, a few competitors arose. So strong was the advent of Chomskyan linguistics, that some overenthusiastic scholar claimed that more knowledge about human language was gained in the 1980s than in the previous 2,500 years (!). Advocates of rivals traditions (such as construction grammar, functional typology, or sociolinguistics) generally maintained the same forgetful attitude toward structural and pre-structural linguistics.

As I read Itkonen’s paper, I grew intensely curious and decided to go on and read his books and the sources mentioned therein, in particular authors such as Eugenio Coşeriu and Raimo Anttila, among others. All these authors have in common a vast knowledge of the history of linguistics, as well as philosophy, classical languages, literature, and so on. Reading their work lead me to look for further readings, including both primary and secondary sources. In particular, I focused my attention on (especially American) structural linguistics, but I also explored in some detail the kind of linguistics which was practiced in antiquity and not only in Europe, but also India, China, and the Arab world. Becoming acquainted with the linguistics of the past was a really rewarding experience, which helped me see how distorted the general idea of linguistics as science we tend to have, at least in the Western world.

As a matter of fact, we tend to hold the belief that successive approaches replace the previous ones because of greater scientific merit, and that this change is relatively quick and sharp. This is far from accurate, as often pointed out by historiographers of linguistics such as, e.g., Dell H. Hymes or E.F.K. Koerner, whose calls generally tend to fall on deaf ears among theoretical/empirical linguists who do not share the same historically-oriented outlook. More importantly, knowing the past of the discipline is necessary to appreciate the many similarities, along with the differences, between contemporary linguistic approaches and past practices. To this end, it would be very important to teach the history of linguistics to students, although they may often find it hard to follow or, in the worst case scenario, see it as a waste of time (but it should not be too hard for the lecturer to help them change their mind). Even more importantly, it would be relevant to point out that the so-called (somewhat inaccurately) ‘paradigm shift’ which can be observed in the history of Western linguistics is not to be found in the history of linguistics in India, where the practice of grammar is still based on Pāṇini’s Aṣṭādhyāyī (c. 400 B.C.), a grammar of Sanskrit still unsurpassed today. A similar consideration also holds for Sībawayhi’s Al-kitāb fī an-naḥw (c. A.D. 760-796) in Arab countries.

As a consequence, it would be wise to adopt a less Western-centered and more inclusive approach to the teaching of linguistics. Indeed, while Pāṇini’s work, the oldest grammar of a known language, is often mentioned as a monumental intellectual achievement, it is normally only known by fame by non-specialists, in spite of the availability of exegetic sources (though admittedly not free from controversy). The significance of this work could not be stressed enough: this grammar, consisting of 3,959 rules on syntax, morphology, and semantics, composed and transmitted orally, was more advanced than any theory put forward in the Western world until the 20th century. As Itkonen suggests in the conclusion of his book ‘Universal history of linguistics,’ not only does this call into question the too often taken for granted Western ‘intellectual supremacy,’ but it would also suggest that we should revise our beliefs about the potential of the human mind, which we see through the lens of our culture. It is no chance that centuries ago certain Eastern societies developed the ability to exert control over one’s own thoughts and emotions, which is often still seen as a utopia in our hyperkinetic Western world. It may, therefore, be time for us to forget our egotism and dive into the adventure of exploring other traditions as well as our own past.