Leonard Bloomfield (April 1, 1887 – April 18, 1949) was an American linguist, whose influence dominated the development of structural linguistics in America between the 1930s and the 1950s. He is especially known for his book Language (1933), which greatly influenced the subsequent course of linguistics in the United States for the first half of the twentieth century. His work helped establish linguistics as an independent scientific discipline. Avoiding cognitive processes and other non-observable processes, Bloomfield applied behavioristic principles to the field rejecting the view that the structure of language reflects the structure of thought. While his approach established linguistics as a scientific discipline, his isolation of linguistic phenomena from their non-linguistic mental and social environment, was a serious limitation, as human beings are social beings and language is an essential tool of communication.
Leonard Bloomfield was born on April 1, 1887, in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Juden Sigmund and Carola Buber Bloomfield. He graduated from Harvard College at the age of 19, and finished his graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin. His interest in linguistics grew after hearing lectures by Eduard Prokosch (1876–1938), a philologist in the German department. Bloomfield received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1909. He married Alice Sayers on March 18, 1909.
Bloomfield became instructor of German language at the University of Cincinnati in 1909, but stayed there only for a year, accepting the position of German instructor at the University of Illinois. In 1913, he became assistant professor of comparative philology and German at the University of Illinois, and remained there until 1921. He published his first main book in 1914, under the title Introduction to the Study of Language, dealing with the overall aspects of language.
Meanwhile, in 1913–1914 Bloomfield spent more than a year in Germany, studying at the universities of Leipzig and Gottingen under neogrammarian scholars August Leskien (1840–1916} and Karl Brugmann (1849–1919). He also completed his studies of Indian and Iranian languages. During the First World War he turned to a study of Tagalog, a Malayo-Polynesian language spoken mostly in the Philippines. In 1917, he published his second major book Tagalog Texts with Grammatical Analysis.
In 1917, he became interested in the Algonquian languages, and spent several years studying this family of languages. In 1921, Bloomfield became professor of German and linguistics at the Ohio State University, where he met behaviorist psychologist Albert P. Weiss, with whom he established a long-lasting cooperation. They both applied the logical positivist approach to science, and agreed that linguistics needed a more mechanistic and less mentalistic approach to qualify as a scientific discipline.
In 1924, Bloomfield, together with George M. Bolling (1871–1963) and Edgar H. Sturtevant (1875–1952) founded the Linguistic Society of America. The purpose of the organization was the scientific study of human language, the results of which were published in the society’s journal Language.
Bloomfield served as professor of Germanic philology at the University of Chicago from 1927 to 1940. In that period he published his masterwork, Language (1933), through which he achieved wide fame. The book produced such a strong influence that the period from 1933, when it was published, until the mid-1950s is commonly called the "Bloomfieldian era" of linguistics. He was the president of the Linguistic Society of America in 1935.
Bloomfield's thought was mainly characterized by its behavioristic principles, its insistence on formal procedures for the analysis of language data, as well as a general concern to provide linguistics with rigorous scientific methodology.
In his early career he came under the influence of the German neogrammarian historical philology, which emphasized the regularity of sound change in language. Every change, according to neogrammarians, can be accounted for and explained, while exceptions to the rule can be explained in terms of non-phonetic phenomena. Therefore, all changes are subject to certain rules. The neogrammarian theories brought much order into historical linguistics, replacing previous theories that saw sound changes as the result of random, meaningless processes.
In his work, Bloomfield adopted the concept of language structure from Ferdinand de Saussure. Similar to Saussure, Bloomfield held that languages at all times consisted of systems of interrelated elements: lexical, grammatical, and phonological. Bloomfield also took over Saussure’s distinction between a "diachronous" approach (where time is a variable) and a "synchronous" approach (where time is a constant). Bloomfield took an interest in both, arguing that language changes both throughout the course of history (diachronous), as well as at a specific point in time (synchronous).
Bloomfield was very familiar with the work of Franz Boas on the descriptive analysis of the contemporary non-Indo-European languages, especially those of Native American Indians. Bloomfield himself began with the study of one group of Indian languages, that of Algonquin Indians. He performed a genetic examination of the Algonquian language family and reconstructed the Proto-Algonquian language, the ancient language spoken before it diverged into several contemporary languages. In addition, he was able to show that the neogrammarian theory of the regularity of sound change could be applied beyond the Indo-European language family. Bloomfield’s seminal paper on the Algonquin family remains a cornerstone of Algonquian historical linguistics today.
Bloomfield published his Language in 1933, in which he argued that linguistics needs to be more objective if it is to become a real scientific discipline. He believed that the main target of linguistic inquiry should be observable phenomena, rather than abstract cognitive processes. He thus advocated for the establishment of exact descriptive methods through which the use of linguistics could be elevated to the level of a positive discipline.
In order to separate linguistics from any mentalistic theory, Bloomfield rejected the classical view that the structure of language reflects the structure of thought. He believed that spoken language is the only object of study and applied different analytic procedures to study language. He showed how to analyze spoken language, dividing it into its smallest units—phonemes (“vocal features”), morphemes (“stimulus-reaction features”), and combinations of those units that make higher lexical structures.
Bloomfield also emphasized that linguists need to study spoken language rather than documents written in a language, because language changes over time and the meaning of something today might be different from what it meant in the past. The documents thus cannot be adequate representations of a spoken language.
Besides Edward Sapir, Bloomfield is often regarded as the most prominent American linguist of the first half of the twentieth century. His scientific approach to the study of language emphasized observable phenomena and the spoken language rather than abstract mentalistic processes, which helped bring linguistics closer to an exact science.
Although his use of descriptive methods was not widely accepted, Bloomfield’s ideas were widely used. In the period after the publication of his Language, up to the mid-1950s, Bloomfield was considered the highest authority in the study of language. Together with his students, among others Bernard Bloch, Zellig Harris, and Charles Hockett, he established the school of thought that has come to be known as American structural linguistics.
After the 1950s, however, Bloomfield’s influence waned, as logical positivism ceased to be the main preoccupation of social sciences. Linguists again turned to more mentalistic attitudes and non-observable cognitive processes. With the emergence of the generative grammar approach to linguistics initiated by Noam Chomsky in the 1960s, structural linguistics completely vanished from the linguistic mainstream.
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