‘A term of opprobrium’

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Historians of linguistics frequently claim that their discipline is as old as the study of language itself. Yet general linguistics – the academic and institutiona­lised discipline – is no older than the twentieth century. In personal and institu­tional terms, general linguistics grew out of the philological disciplines, a process which crystallised in the first International Congress of Linguistics in 1928. Today, as the philological discip­lines are turned into national-language ‘Studies’ (‘English Studies’ etc.) philology has lost ground: it no longer plays a central role even in the discip­lines which the philologies themselves engendered. By 1936 the word ‘phi­lologist’ had in England become “a term of mild opprobrium”. And by the end of the century a leading American colleague could write “… it is not a good idea to describe oneself to a hiring committee as a philologist.” These facts demand explanation. Why were the ‘new’ linguists in 1928 not content to meet as they had before, in the context of the existing philological con­gresses? What were the forces driving the ‘new’ linguists to put more space between themselves and the ‘old’ philologists? The history of a single scientific discipline, as philology is, follows different routes in different countries, as it inter­acts with different cultural traditions and historical structures, so that a single all-embracing explanation is not possible. In England and Wales the process seems to have been controlled by the struggle of a new subject – English Literature – to establish itself as an independent discipline. Inevitably, in this process of evolution, fragmentation, and abstraction, both sides registered gains and losses. What did linguistics gain by cutting itself off from philology, and what did it lose? Historians of linguistics must have an immediate interest in these ques­tions. Finding answers to them should contribute to a better understanding of cur­rent relations between the disciplines concerned, and also throw light on the direc­tions in which the history of linguistics itself is likely to move in the foreseeable future.


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