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A BRIEF ACCOUNT OF THE BEGINNINGS OF LINGUISTICS IN

AMERICA
.
American linguistics was born at the beginning of the 20th. Century almost
simultaneously with linguistics in Europe. Both shared their orientation towards
Structuralism but their origins differ completely.
As we know, European linguistics was born as a reaction against the Historicocomparative approach to language analysis. To this exclusive way of looking at
language the diachronic- Ferdinand de Saussure proposed a synchronic view.
Studying the history of languages in Europe and Asia was possible because
most languages had written records and this allowed linguists to study them so
as to compare and contrast the origin of languages and their evolution.
In America, the situation was different because the languages to be studiedthe ones spoken by the Amerindians- did not have writing systems so the
information about their culture, history and traditions was passed orally from
generation to generation.
Once independence was declared in America in 1776, the original thirteen
colonies started the process to become a nation and this led them westwards
to conquer or to submit the aboriginal communities who had been living there
for centuries. In this process, anthropologists played a crucial role since they
were the ones who defended the communities not only because of
humanitarian reasons but also because they were interested in studying them.
These anthropologists were not linguists themselves but they inevitably
needed to gather some knowledge about the languages of the communities
under study so that they could get information about the issues they wanted to
research. This was basal in the birth of American linguistics. On the one hand,
since these anthropologists (linguists) could not count on written records, they
worked mainly on the transcription of the utterances they heard and they
analyzed them formally with the help of the native informants. This means they
concentrated on aspects such as sound and grammar, especially syntax. On
the other hand, they were worried about trying to relate culture/thought and
language as the communities they were working in had a completely different
outlook on life that seldom matched what they knew as westerners. On top of
that, these communities were being segregated, marginalized or simply killed
by the white people whenever they interfered with their expansion plans.
In 1850, the movement westwards dramatically increased because gold was
found in the west: it was the popular Gold Rush. In this case the enthusiasm for
settling in new lands was coupled by a strong desire for material wealth(Most
Hollywood westerns depict these stories Indians against white men).

In 1860, the Civil War broke out and this prevented intellectuals and scholars
from getting involved in their studies. However, the anthropological studies
continued because they were far from the battlefields. Franz Boas and Edward
Sapir, who developed an extensive literature devoted to the question of
language and thought, are memorable examples of this.
In the first quarter of the XX century, World War I was also ravaging Europe and
this made many intellectuals migrate. Some of them went to America. That was
the way in which many of the European ideas arrived in the new continent.
Among these, we may mention De Saussures.
Wilhem Wundt, a psychologist favoring mechanicistic views on human behavior
in the Pavlovian trend, paved the way for behaviorism. Sigmund Freuds ideas
on introspection and the human mind were also known and they later became
the foundation of cognitive studies.
This is the background against which we should place Leonard Bloomfield,
whose behavioristic and structural views on language lasted for more than
thirty years.
Cris Martnez(2001)