Introduction: The Best of Language
This three-volume work presents a selection of articles from the first ninety years of the Linguistic Society of America’s journal Language. To a considerable extent, the pages of Language can be viewed as a microcosm of the development of the field of linguistics from the founding of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) in 1924 to today. Our decision to divide the anthology into three volumes stems in part from the fact that it yielded three roughly equal thirty-year periods to deal with. More interestingly, this division – especially between volumes 1 and 2 – reflects a dramatic change in the intellectual foci of our discipline, from a heavy emphasis on historical linguistics (mostly but not exclusively Indo-European linguistics) to a broader scope with a sharp focus on cognitive and social aspects of language.
In Volume 1, which covers 1925-1955 (Language volumes 1-31), we see some articles that speak to issues of importance to the beginnings of the field of linguistics in the West in the 19th century, e.g. sound change and language classification, whose importance continued into the 20th century (and indeed continues today), as well as some articles that illustrate the emerging interest in language structure. Volume 1 also bears witness to the beginnings of themes that will become prominent in the next period. In particular, the last three articles in this volume, the one by Yehoshua Bar-Hillel and the two by Zellig Harris, address issues that will find much fuller expression with the advent of Noam Chomsky and his strikingly new theory of syntactic structure, generative grammar.
Volume 2 begins with two articles, both of them book reviews, that became famous and helped to introduce Chomsky’s ideas to the linguistics community. Although the next few decades saw an enormous amount of activity in generative grammar and a huge number of publications, especially in formal syntax, this activity is visible only to a limited extent in the pages of Language, and to an even more limited extent in this anthology. A major reason is that the founding of new linguistics journals, especially Linguistic Inquiry (1970), Linguistics and Philosophy (1977), and Natural Language and Linguistic Theory (1983), reduced the impact of Language in generative circles by siphoning off papers that might otherwise have appeared in Language. A parallel increase in the status of linguistics in American universities can be seen in the explosive growth in the number of linguistics departments nationally between 1955 and 1985. Another theme that can be seen in Volume 2 is how the expanding scope of the discipline gave rise to a broad range of novel domains of inquiry. Among the new or resurgent subfields that are represented in this volume are intonation (Bolinger), sociolinguistics (Labov, Dorian, Cedergren & Sankoff), and contact linguistics (Emeneau, Pfaff).
The transition to Volume 3 -- which will cover the period from 1986 to 2015 and will appear in 2016 -- will display no dramatic intellectual shift comparable to that between volumes 1 and 2. But we will see in Volume 3, among other changes, a clear sign of the emergence of research on, and concern for, endangered languages and their role in linguistics as a major new thrust of intensive research. Indeed, one set of closely-connected articles to be included in Volume 3, Ken Hale et al. (Language 68:1-42, 1992), is widely credited with bringing this topic to the foreground of linguists' attention world-wide.
The selection process that has resulted in these volumes has been long and difficult. In selecting articles we consulted a number of sources: a list of most-cited Language articles provided by the LSA Secretariat; the results of a survey of members conducted by the Secretariat in an effort to determine LSA members’ favorite Language articles; the 1957 anthology edited by Martin Joos, Readings in linguistics: the development of descriptive linguistics in America since 1925 (See Endnote 1), as a particularly well-known early compilation of key papers in our field; and the indices and issues of Language itself. Ultimately, however, we had to rely on our own judgment and our own assessment of the field and of the articles themselves. Most readers will probably disagree with one or more of our choices and some may even deplore one or more omissions from the anthology; such differences of opinion are inevitable in an enterprise of this sort.
The main selection criteria we have used are quality (of course!), importance to the field of linguistics, and the likelihood, for older articles, that they can be read with profit even now and for more recent ones that they will be read with profit in the foreseeable future, not just in the year or two after publication. Other less important criteria entered our deliberations occasionally; for instance, where a given author has two equally significant papers in the journal, we looked to the shorter of the two articles in order to save space.
The number of articles in each of the two first volumes is nearly identical: 17 in Volume 1 and 18 in Volume 2. The page counts for the two volumes, however, differ rather dramatically, due primarily to the fact that starting around 1980 Language articles began to be significantly longer than previously.
These figures add up to a high degree of selectivity. In fact, the chances that a Language article would get into this anthology are considerably less than the chances for a submission to get into the journal: the acceptance rate for Language submissions hovers around 11%, while the 17 articles in our Volume 1, for instance, represent less than 3% of the 602 articles published in the first thirty-one volumes of Language.
We were distressed to realize, once we had our lists compiled, that many of the most prominent and most influential scholars in the field of linguistics were omitted from the anthology. The reason for these gaps is that these scholars neglected to publish their most important writings in Language. Readers will therefore look in vain here for any of the much-cited works of Benjamin Lee Whorf (See Endnote 2), or Charles Ferguson’s ‘Diglossia’ (Word, 1959) or Edward Keenan & Bernard Comrie’s ‘Noun Phrase Accessibility and Universal Grammar’ (Linguistic Inquiry, 1977), or Emmon Bach & Robert Harms’s ‘How do languages get crazy rules?’ (in R. Stockwell & R. Macaulay (eds.), Linguistic change and generative theory, Indiana University Press, 1972). The review of Skinner (1959) is Chomsky’s only major publication in Language, and Ray Jackendoff’s influence comes mainly from his books, not from articles (at least not articles in Language).
Inspecting the tables of contents for the first two volumes reveals other somewhat surprising gaps too. The 1930s and the 1960s are represented by just one article each; the dearth of 1960s papers might possibly be explained by the old joke (“If you remember the ‘60s, you weren’t there”), but that explanation seems unlikely to apply to the 1930s as well. We attribute this gap in each case to mere chance and do not read anything substantive into it, however tempting it may be to try to do so. Now that the LSA has established an annual prize for the Best Paper in Language, readers might expect the winners to be automatic choices for inclusion in an anthology like this one. But a quick calculation will show that that would be impossible: the current article count is well below the number of years covered by each volume. Moreover, an article that wins Best Paper in one year may turn out in future years to have less impact than was originally expected. Thus, although we certainly expect some Best Paper winners to turn up in any similar Language anthologies of the future, they cannot be accepted on an automatic basis; the numbers just will not allow for that. We have enjoyed the opportunity to engage in this exercise and hope that those reading our selections will similarly enjoy the fruits of our labors.
-- Gregory Carlson, Brian Joseph, and Sarah G. Thomason
1.) This work was originally published by the American Council of Learned Societies (Committee on the Language Program). A later edition was published by University of Chicago Press but with a slightly different title (Readings in linguistics I. The development of descriptive linguistics in America, 1925-56), and a second volume, Readings in linguistics II, edited by Eric Hamp, Fred W. Householder, and Robert Austerlitz, was published in 1966, also by University of Chicago Press. The Press also published an abridged combined edition, Readings in linguistics I & II(edited by Joos, Hamp, Householder, and Austerlitz) in 1995.
2.) For instance, to mention just three, ‘The relation of habitual thought and behavior to language’, which Whorf wrote in 1939, first appeared in Language, culture and personality: Essays in memory of Edward Sapir, edited by Leslie Spier, Irving Hallowell, and Stanley Newman (Sapir Memorial Publication Fund, 1941); ‘Science and linguistics’ was published originally in MIT Technology Review 42.229-31 (1940); and ‘Language, mind and reality’, which was written in 1941, first appeared in print in The Theosophist 63.1.281–91 (1942).