The western classical tradition in linguistics

The western classical tradition in linguistics. By Keith Allan. (Equinox textbooks and surveys in linguistics.) London: Equinox, 2007. Pp. xiii, 351. ISBN 9781904768968. $29.95.

Reviewed by András Kertész, University of Debrecen

Keith Allan’s central claim is that the development of Western linguistics has been, from its beginnings to current trends (such as generative grammar, cognitive linguistics, and pragmatics), substantially influenced by different components of the ancient Greek tradition.

Ch. 1, ‘Linguistics and the Western classical tradition’, introduces the central thesis of the book and traces back the origins of linguistics to the earliest writing systems. In Ch. 2, ‘Plato on language’, A summarizes Plato’s ideas on meaning, grammar, particulars, universals, and abstract objects. Ch. 3, ‘Aristotle’s legacy’, besides discussing Aristotle’s thoughts on language, also reveals the relationship between the latter and the Gricean maxims. In Ch. 4, ‘The Stoics and Varro’, A argues that the Stoics significantly contributed to the analysis of propositional types, propositional structure, and valid inferences from propositions. Ch. 5, ‘Quintilian, Dionysios, and Donatus: The start of a pedagogic tradition’, deals with the prescriptive nature of pedagogic grammars. In Ch. 6, ‘Apollonius and Priscian, the great grammarians among the ancients’, it is demonstrated how syntactic analysis emerged in ancient linguistic thought.

From Ch. 7 on, the main organizing principle of the book is thematic rather than chronological. It means that certain topics are dealt with in several overlapping chapters, thus revealing the coherent networks of ideas shaping the history of linguistics. In Ch. 7, ‘Prescriptivism from the early Middle Ages on’, A’s main claim is that prescriptivism, although often questioned from a scientific point of view, should be dealt with as an integral component of the history of linguistics. Ch. 8, ‘“General” or “universal” grammar: From the modistae to Chomsky’, overviews the search for the common core of different languages. Ch. 9, ‘Phonetics, phonology, and comparative philology’, starts with a brief history of phonetics and phonology and then outlines the development of comparative linguistics in the nineteenth century. In Ch. 10, ‘Language and thought: From Epicuros until after Whorf’, the author traces back the origin of the Sapir-Whorf-Hypothesis, among others, to classic and eighteenth century philosophers, while its present-day representatives such as cognitive grammarians are also identified. Ch. 11, ‘Saussurean and functionalist linguistics: The study of language as human communication’, focuses on Saussure’s impact, which is not restricted to structuralism. Finally, in Ch. 12, ‘Paradigms for linguistic analysis: Bloomfieldian linguistics and the Chomsky revolution’, A argues for the fruitful combination of the inductive and the deductive method. The book also includes the ‘References’, a ‘List of figures, a ‘List of tables’ and an ‘Index’.

A’s monograph is an impressive scholarly achievement with many new insights and re-evaluations of known facts. It goes far beyond usual textbooks, although its clarity, originality, and readability will certainly make it a standard work on the student’s shelf.