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This review is from: A Short History of Linguistics (Longman Linguistics Library) (Paperback)
A better title for this book might be "A Short History of EUROPEAN Linguistics." Although Indian and Chinese linguistics are mentioned, they are treated as sidetracks of chapters about Western thought. This is rather strange, given the tremendous insights of Panini, which Robins seems to suggest led to new breakthroughs once these works were discovered by Western linguists. Perhaps a more accurate approach would have been to start with the earliest Indian linguistic traditions, follow how these traditions led to Panini, and then spread to China. The wrong turns taken by various European linguists from the Greeks until the discovery of Panini by Europeans could then be treated briefly as a sidetrack.
Aside from these quibbles over the subject matter and orientation, I found this book rather hard to follow. On the back cover, a blurb by Language International states ". . . a clearly written history of the study of linguistics from Classical Greece onwards." I didn't find the writing clear at all. On numerous occasions, lack of proper connecting expressions makes the message hard to follow. For instance, we find on p. 175 "Much of what has been briefly noticed in ancient Indian speculation on semantics and the theory of language strikes chords already familiar in the western tradition, though their approach is often rather different. What is most remarkable about Indian phonetic work is its manifest superiority in conception and execution, especially in phonetics, as compared with anything produced in the west or elsewhere before the Indian contribution had become known there." Such a message could be expressed much more clearly by comparing directly the similarity of Western and Indian work on semantics with the dissimilarity of Western and Indian work on phonetics. Alternatively, the author could compare the equality of Western and Indian work on semantics with the inferiority of Western work on phonetics in relation to Indian work. But starting the second sentence, with "What is most remarkable about Indian phonetic work" leads the reader to assume that the previous sentence should have been extolling the more minor virtues of Indian phonetic work, and that what follows will be the greatest achievement of Indian phonetic work. Such lack of care with linking expressions requires the reader to stop and re-read the passage several times in order understand what is being said. Such potentially confusing passages permeate this book.
I found the final two chapters, devoted to the first and second half of the twentieth centuries exceedingly hard-to-follow. The first of these chapters has an extremely weak story-line, consisting mostly of short summaries of the work of individual researchers, without satisfactory connections being made. There is little sense of balance; the Prague School is barely mentioned while Firth gets six pages. The latter chapter meanders through the development of Chomky's theory without providing many satisfactory explanations. See, for instance, p. 261: "The emphasis on the explanatory goal of Chomskyan linguistics or of any linguistic theory inspired by him, is ever more strongly made. As a result the term transformational, so frequent in former textbooks, has now almost disappeared and the Chomskyan theory is now designated simply as generative linguistics." It may be true that Chomskyan linguistics increasingly emphasizes the goal of explanation, but it's hard to see how this emphasis directly caused the demise of the term "transformational". The material on Chomsky ends with Government and Binding theory; no mention is made of Minimalism or Optimality (in phonology or syntax), both of which were well established by 1997 when this edition was published. Coverage of developments in phonology ends with The Sound Pattern of English (1968). Developments in sociolinguistics are briefly mentioned in the final chapter, although Labov's name does not appear. The rise of new fields such as computational linguistics is not mentioned at all, nor are non-Chomskyan theories of syntax. The book concludes with "In striving towards the understanding and knowledge of language, man has throughout his intellectual history been seeking more fully to attain self-knowledge, and to obey the injunction that faced the visitor to Apollo's temple at Delphi, the centre of the ancient Greek world, where our civilization finds its source: (2 untranslated Greek words)." If you haven't had the benefit of a classical education, you're out of luck with this one.
Despite these shortcomings, this book is highly informative and well referenced. In addition to providing a brief background of the development of European linguistic science, it also gives an overview of general philosophical thought over the 2000 years covered by the book. If you're looking for a brief overview of European linguistics and philosophy, and you're willing to spend some time fighting with the text to understand the meaning, then this book may serve your purposes.
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