Leonard Bloomfield

Leonard Bloomfield (April 1, 1887 – April 18, 1949) was an American linguist who led the development of structural linguistics in the United States during the 1930s and the 1940s. His influential textbook Language, published in 1933, presented a comprehensive description of American structural linguistics.  He made significant contributions to Indo-European historical linguistics, the description of Austronesian languages, and description of languages of the Algonquian family.

Bloomfield’s approach to linguistics was characterized by its emphasis on the scientific basis of linguistics, adherence to behaviorism especially in his later work, and emphasis on formal procedures for the analysis of linguistic data. The influence of Bloomfieldian structural linguistics declined in the late 1950s and 1960s as the theory of Generative Grammar developed by Noam Chomsky came to predominate.

Bloomfield was Instructor in German at the University of Cincinnati, 1909-1910; Instructor in German at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1910-1913; Assistant Professor of Comparative Philology and German, also University of Illinois, 1913-1921; Professor of German and Linguistics at the Ohio State University, 1921-1927; Professor of Germanic Philology at the University of Chicago, 1927-1940; Sterling Professor of Linguistics at Yale University, 1940-1949. During the summer of 1925 Bloomfield worked as Assistant Ethnologist with the Geological Survey of Canada in the Canadian Department of Mines, undertaking linguistic field work on Plains Cree; this position was arranged by Edward Sapir, who was then Chief of the Division of Anthropology, Victoria Museum, Geological Survey of Canada, Canadian Department of Mines.

Bloomfield was one of the founding members of the Linguistic Society of America. In 1924, along with George M. Bolling (Ohio State University) and Edgar Sturtevant (Yale University) he formed a committee to organize the creation of the Society, and drafted the call for the Society’s foundation. He contributed the lead article to the inaugural issue of the Society’s journal Language, and was President of the Society in 1935. He taught in the Society’s summer Linguistic Institute in 1938-1941, with the 1938-1940 Institutes being held in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the 1941 Institute in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Bloomfield’s earliest work was in historical Germanic studies, beginning with his dissertation, and continuing with a number of papers on Indo-European and Germanic phonology and morphology.  His post-doctoral studies in Germany further strengthened his expertise in the Neogrammarian tradition, which still dominated Indo-European historical studies. Bloomfield throughout his career, but particularly during his early career, emphasized the Neogrammarian principle of regular sound change as a foundational concept in historical linguistics.

Bloomfield’s work in Indo-European beyond his dissertation was limited to an article on palatal consonants in Sanskrit and one article on the Sanskrit grammatical tradition associated with Pāṇini, in addition to a number of book reviews. Bloomfield made extensive use of Indo-European materials to explain historical and comparative principles in both of his textbooks, An introduction to language (1914), and his seminal Language (1933).  In his textbooks he selected Indo-European examples that supported the key Neogrammarian hypothesis of the regularity of sound change, and emphasized a sequence of steps essential to success in comparative work: (a) appropriate data in the form of texts which must be studied intensively and analyzed; (b) application of the comparative method; (c) reconstruction of proto-forms. He further emphasized the importance of dialect studies where appropriate, and noted the significance of sociological factors such as prestige, and the impact of meaning. In addition to regular linguistic change, Bloomfield also allowed for borrowing and analogy.

It is argued that Bloomfield’s Indo-European work had two broad implications: “He stated clearly the theoretical bases for Indo-European linguistics…”; and “…he established the study of Indo-European languages firmly within general linguistics….”

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