Colloquium: The foundation of the Linguistic Society of America in an age of ‘scientific racism’

Margaret Thomas (Boston College)
Event time: 
Monday, October 2, 2023 - 4:00pm to 5:30pm
Luce Hall, Room 203 See map
Event description: 

The year 2024 marks the centennial of the Linguistic Society of America.  This presentation scrutinizes four texts written between 1923 and 1946—two letters, two short essays—in which Leonard Bloomfield promoted the creation of the LSA as a means of building solidarity among American linguists, and establishing linguistics as a science of language.
But what did it mean to be a ‘science’ in the United States in 1924?  The social-intellectual climate of the day was saturated with attitudes and practices we would now identify as racist, but which at the time were taken to be based on incontestable scientific evidence.  These included immigration restriction initiatives, eugenicist social engineering, laws constraining the rights of African Americans, and disregard for the autonomy of Native peoples.  Linguists may have sought professional and personal solidarity in the LSA as they weathered this uninviting climate.  But they may also have been agents, not merely patients, of racism.  My remarks close by addressing why it is worthwhile for modern linguists to reflect on these issues, and how recognition of the historical context contributes to our work.