Strukturalismus in der deutschen Sprachwissenschaft

Strukturalismus in der deutschen Sprachwissenschaft: Die Rezeption der Prager Schule zwischen 1926 und 1945. By Klaas-Hinrich Ehlers. (Studia Linguistica Germanica 77.) Berlin: de Gruyter, 2005. Pp. xii, 594. ISBN 9783110182644. $198 (Hb).

Reviewed by Marc Pierce, University of Texas at Austin

In the traditional account of the history of linguistics in Germany, it is often argued that linguists in Germany were slow to embrace structuralism, and it is normally suggested that this putative resistance to structuralism was due to a strict adherence to Neogrammarian doctrines and the general isolation of Germany from international scholarship during the Nazi period. In this exceptionally detailed and nuanced study, Klaas-Hinrich Ehlers effectively rebuts all of these ideas.

After a thorough introductory chapter, ‘Einführung’ (1–61), which looks at the worldwide reception of the Prague School and the depiction of Germany as a ‘Land ohne Strukturalismus’ (20), and presents a general introduction to the work as a whole, E turns to some of the main factors surrounding the reception of structuralism in the second chapter, ‘Äuβere Rahmenbedingungen der Strukturalismusrezeption international und im deutschsprachigen Raum’ (63–110). The first section of this chapter discusses some of the relevant political issues (e.g. the financial support provided to the Prague Linguistic Circle by the Czech government); E then turns to another possible barrier to the reception of the Prague School, namely the use of Slavic languages in their work, and concedes that this may have negatively impacted the spread of Prague School doctrines in some cases, but points out that the substantial amount of Prague School work written in German, French, and English certainly compensated for this. The chapter concludes with an evaluation of the role of the Prague School in the emergence of phonological theory.

Ch. 3, ‘Rezeption des Praguer Strukturalismus in der deutschen Sprachwissenschaft: Der Weg der Texte, das Netz der Kontake’ (111–276), looks at the spread of structuralist ideas into Germany. The presence of Prague School publications on the German book market is discussed (in 1931–1932 the Prague School reached an agreement with the German publisher Otto Harrassowitz), as are the distribution of Prague School publications through other channels (e.g. as review copies) and the presence of Prague School publications in German university libraries. The chapter concludes with an extensive, richly documented discussion of personal contacts between scholars in the German-speaking countries and members of the Prague Circle. Ch. 4, ‘Wirkung des Prager Strukturalismus in der deutschen Sprachwissenschaft: Vier Fallstudien’ (277–399), further develops the theme of personal contacts by looking at the impact of structuralist ideas on the work of four German scholars: Henrik Becker (who said of himself that ‘als Sprachwissenschaftler bin ich ein halber Tscheche’ (279)), Leo Weisgerber, Jost Trier, and Eugen Lerch.

The next chapter, ‘Rezeption und Wirkung des Prager Strukturalismus im deutschen Wissenschaftsmilieu der Ersten Tschechoslowakischen Republik’ (401–89), shifts the scene from Germany to Czechoslovakia. Here E looks at questions like personal contacts between Prague German scholars and the Prague Circle, the linguistic issue (again, what language(s) should be used in the Circle), and what he characterizes as the ‘Apartheid’ (409) of the Prague German and Czech scholarly arenas. The final chapter of the book, ‘Rezeption und Wirkung des Prager Strukturalismus im Kontext der allgemeinen Fachgeschichte: “Der Drang zur Synthese” in der deutschen Sprachwissenschaft’ (491–525), gives a more general assessment of the impact of the Prague School. An index of personal names and an extensive (50+ pages) bibliography complete the book.

The end result of E’s work is the following: linguists in Germany were in fact often very open to the new ideas represented by structuralist linguistics, and this openness can also be seen in the rejection of Neogrammarian ideas in favor of structuralist ones, as well as the extensive contacts between linguists from Germany and the members of the Prague School. Thus, the traditional view of the history of linguistics in Germany requires some revision. This excellent, carefully argued work is a major step towards accomplishing this task.