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American Structuralism  

Margaret Thomas

American structuralism is a label attached to a heterogeneous but distinctive style of language scholarship practiced in the United States, the heyday of which extended from around 1920 until the late 1950s. There is certainly diversity in the interests and intellectual stances of American structuralists. Nevertheless, some minimum common denominators stand out. American structuralists valued synchronic linguistic analysis, independent of—but not to the exclusion of—study of a language’s development over time; they looked for, and tried to articulate, systematic patterns in language data, attending in particular to the sound properties of language and to morphophonology; they identified their work as part of a science of language, rather than as philology or as a facet of literary studies, anthropology, or the study of particular languages. Some American structuralists tried to establish the identity or difference of linguistic units by studying their distribution with respect to other units, rather than by relying on identity or difference of meaning. Some (but not all) American structuralists avoided cross-linguistic generalizations, perceiving them as a threat to the hard-won notion of the integrity of individual languages; some (but not all) avoided attributing patterns they discovered in particular languages to cultural or psychological proclivities of speakers. A considerable amount of American structuralist research focused on indigenous languages of the Americas. One outstanding shared achievement of the group was the institutionalization of linguistics as an autonomous discipline in the United States, materialized by the founding of the Linguistic Society of America in 1924. This composite picture of American structuralists needs to be balanced by recognition of their diversity. One important distinction is between the goals and orientations of foundational figures: Franz Boas (1858–1942), Edward Sapir (1884–1939), and Leonard Bloomfield (1887–1949). The influence of Boas, Sapir, and Bloomfield was strongly felt by the next generation of language scholars, who went on to appropriate, expand, modify, or otherwise retouch their ideas to produce what is called post-Bloomfieldian linguistics. Post-Bloomfieldian linguistics displays its own internal diversity, but still has enough coherence to put into relief the work of other language scholars who were close contemporaries to the post-Bloomfieldians, but who in various ways and for various reasons departed from them. American structuralism has at least this much heterogeneity. This article illustrates the character of American structuralism in the first half of the 20th century. Analysis of a corpus of presidential addresses presented to the Linguistic Society of America by key American structuralists grounds the discussion, and provides a microcosm within which to observe some of its most salient features: both the shared preoccupations of American structuralists and evidence of the contributions of individual scholars to a significant collaborative project in the history of linguistics.