The volume you hold in your hands is considered by many
to be the most important general treatise on language ever
written. First published just fifty-one years ago, it towers
above all earlier works of the sort and, to date, above all more
recent ones. Its author systematically sets forth, in prose
poetic for its simplicity, the crucial findings of linguistics up
to that time, with a perceptivity and realism derived from
his own wide experience, monitored throughout by a reverent
respect for his predecessors and an intimate knowledge
of their achievements.
As a treatise this is an indispensable reference work for
every professional linguist. Beyond that, some of us open
the book occasionally and reread a passage at random, just
as a pleasurable way of refreshing our sense of participation
in a collective scientific endeavor in which we march today
alongside colleagues now long gone and colleagues yet unborn.
But the work is also a fine introduction, perhaps still the
best available. The reading, to be sure, is not always easy.
As a textbook it is suitable only for earnest learners whose
critical faculties are constantly on the alert. Even they must
be warned that our author always says exactly what he
means. Few writers do their audience that honor; we
are not accustomed to it, and can go astray by not quite
To grasp the startling historic significance of this book we
must glance at its antecedents.
Until early in the present century, the serious study of
language was carried on in several separate traditions.
Bloomfield, in his first chapter, speaks of only two, the
“historical-comparative” and the “philosophical-descriptive.”
But here we must split the latter into theoretical or
general linguistics on the one hand, practical or “field”
ixresearch on the other, on a par with each other as well as with
the comparative-historical tradition, thus distinguishing
three streams in all.
Comparative linguistics began about two hundred years
ago with the discovery of Sankrit by European scholars. At
first it was concerned almost exclusively with the history of
the languages of Europe and of those elsewhere, such as
Sanskrit, that are related to them. In the course of their
labors on these languages, however, the comparatists discovered
methods and principles that hold for all languages everywhere.
Their generalizations, tested repeatedly then and
since, form a precious though still far too little known part
of our scientific heritage from the nineteenth century.
General linguistics deals with basic issues : how language
works, where it came from, how it relates to other aspects of
human conduct — in sum, “the place of language in the
universe.” 1 As a variety of largely a-priori philosophizing
this has ancient roots. It was still mostly speculative at the
start of the nineteenth century, but then its practitioners
began to be influenced more and more by the empirical finds
of the comparatists and of the practical deseriptivists.
In his first chapter Bloomfield tells how these two streams
began to flow together at the turn of the present century, a
confluence marked by a great debate between the historical-comparativist
Berthold Delbriick and the philosopher-psychologist
Wilhelm Wundt. The participants may not
have realized the full implications of their arguments, but to
others it was soon clear that the positive features of the two
traditions, as highlighted by the debate, were complementary
and needed only to be properly joined together.
But there was still an important ingredient missing,
or present only in small measure : the findings of field linguistics.
Practical language study, with ancestry as archaic as that
of genera] linguistics, got such a boost from the expansion of
Europe that we need deal here with nothing earlier. For
almost half a millennium now, wherever European explorers,
xconquerors, missionaries, or colonists have penetrated,
the intellectually curious have gone along or followed
close behind, recording what they could of the speech and
conduct of the newly encountered peoples. The full story of
this has never been told, but some key features are clear.
Probably the principal motivation — certainly the commonest
public justification — has always been evangelism :
when Hernán Cortés had subdued the Aztecs in 1522 it was
the Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún who recorded their
speech and lifeways, and still today, in the last quarter of
the twentieth century, more reports on non-European languages
are filed by missionaries than by all other investigators
This interest in alien speechways is unprecedented. No
earlier imperial expansion had it. The Romans could not
have cared less. They studied only their own language and
Greek. As their empire grew, Latin supplemented or supplanted
dozens of tongues of which we now know, at most, the
names. There are no Roman grammars of any of them, and
the sole ethnographic report they bequeathed to us is the
Germania of Tacitus.
European scholars at the onset of the age of exploration
were thoroughly familiar with Latin, Greek, and Hebrew,
and were just beginning to pay attention to their own vernaculars.
Then here came first a trickle, then a growing
flood, of accounts from all over the world of languages that
differed from the familiar ones and from one another in
almost unbelievable ways. To be sure, most of the earlier
field reports are now known to be misleading, since the reporters
at first had no precedent other than the traditional
grammar of Latin and Greek and hence tended to force the
data from new languages into the classical mold whether it
fit or not. But slowly and surely, through successive generations,
they learned, so that by the opening of the present
century field methods were becoming more effective and reports
were beginning to be reliable.
The importance of this worldwide spread of information
is obvious. Ethnocentric speculation about the poverty of
presumably “primitive” non-European tongues had to be
abandoned when the true facts of their variety and richness
xibecame known. And when, against this broadened background,
the newly developed techniques of analysis were
applied to the old familiar languages of Europe, one perceived
important features of those languages that had theretofore
been taken for granted.
Leonard Bloomfield, born in 1887 in Chicago, began his
training in linguistics as did everyone of his generation: by
expertly guided study of the historical-comparative tradition
and careful reading of the psychologists and philosophers. 2
Initially his focus was on Germanic, though he early
acquired also a specialist's control of Greek and of Sanskrit.
In 1914, only five years past the doctorate, he published his
first effort at a general treatise. 3 This remains of interest,
though it foreshadowed the present book only to a limited
extent. It showed control of only the first two of our three
streams, without a full understanding of the implications of
their confluence ; nor is there in it any sign yet of a meaningful
impact of field linguistics on his thinking.
But then he proceeded to master the third stream by himself
moving into it. The 1914 book out of the way, he undertook
research on Tagalog, a language of the Philippines,
using as informant a Filipino student at his university.
Shortly after that he began on the Central Algonquian languages
of aboriginal America, a project that was to continue
the rest of his life, first reading everything available in print
about them and then working directly with native speakers :
the summers of 1920 and 1921 were spent in Wisconsin with
the Menominee, that of 1925 with the Cree in Alberta. That
he became a true master of the new craft is shown by the
quality of his reports. His Tagalog texts, dictionary, and
grammar, which appeared in 1917, remain one of our finest
accounts of any Philippine language. His Algonquian texts
were published with little delay, but in preparing dictionaries
and grammars he set his standards so high that most
of the material remained unpublished upon his death in 1949
and had to be gotten into print by his scholarly heirs.xii
The historic significance of this book, then, is that it drew
together and unified, not just two, but all three of the earlier
traditions of language study, and that it did this so well. The
confluence that Bloomfield modestly ascribed to predecessors
was in reality his own crowning achievement.
Since 1933 most American linguistic investigation, and a
good deal of that done elsewhere, has borne the mark of
Bloomfield's synthesis. There is often no acknowledgement
of this, sometimes because the investigator is not aware of it.
Within limits such seeming neglect is not only valid but
constitutes the greatest reward a scholar can earn. After all,
chemists need not consciously evoke the spirit of Mendeleev
every time they use the periodic table, or bow to his statue
each morning as they enter the laboratory; he is enshrined
at the heart of their scientific thinking and they know it. It
is quite another matter to deny one's scholarly debt — to sell
one's birthright for a mess of pottage. One of Bloomfield's
crucial teachings was his insistence on the cumulative nature
of linguistics, as of any science. We ignore the achievements
of our predecessors not only to our individual detriment but
also greatly to the peril of our collective scientific enterprise,
and that is something no scholar has the moral right to do.
Bloomfield is still the giant to whose shoulders we must climb
if we are to see farther than he; that the ascent is not easy
is no excuse for abandoning the effort.
Not all practicing linguists in the world today are aware of
the points just made. If there were no other justification for
a reprinting of Bloomfield's magnum opus, this one would
Let us distinguish now between fundamental principles
and the examples used in this book to illustrate them. The
former change slowly, always with a degree of uncertainty at
the frontier. Obviously they are no longer just what they
were in 1933. But this foreword is no place for a critique of
Bloomfield's presentation of them in the light of subsequent
developments. For that, one must consult more recent treatises
and journal articles.
In the examples, on the other hand, there is a scattering of
errors and ineptitudes that were obvious when the book appeared.
An outstanding instance is Bloomfield's phonemic
xiiitranscription of English, which few of his contemporaries
liked. This and other points are discussed in the reviews
which followed the appearance of the book and to which the
reader can turn for further information. 4
At their most trivial, these faults are hardly more than
typographical errors; we note them here :
The language which Bloomfield calls Albanese (p. 62 and
elsewhere) is usually called Albanian.
Bloomfield's vocal chords (e.g., p. 94) are more generally
called vocal cords.
Apparently no one has ever used the English word thievess
(p. 238) ; nor is [elejpsa] (p. 363) to be found in our surviving
records of ancient Greek.
Page | Line | For | Read
59 | 11 | Faroese | Faroe
116 | 39 | nine | six
258 | 19 | this, (these), | this (these),
350 | 20 | [f, f, h]. | [f, θ, h].
390 | 39 | quinque | quīnque
391 | 21 | nūtri-trix | nūtrī-trīx
(same) | nūtrix | nūtrīx
391 | 22 | stipi-pendium | stīpi-pendium
391 | 23 | stipendium | stīpendium
396 | 29 | aller ‘to go away’ | va ‘goes away’
446 | 30 | [w:in] | [wi :n]
460 | 6 | companio | compānio
460 | 7 | panis | pānis
C. F. Hockett
Ithaca NY, March 1984xiv
1 The phrase is Bloomfield's; it occurs in the first paragraph of his article
“On Recent Work in General Linguistics,” Modern Philology 25 (1927):
211—230, reprinted in A Leonard Bloomfield Anthology (Bloomington:
Indiana University Press, 1970) pp. 173-90.
2 For biographical details see Bloomfield Anthology, pp. 524-53.
3 An introduction to the study of language (New York: Henry Holt, 1914) ;
reprinted with an introduction by Joseph Kess (Amsterdam: John Benjamins,
4 Reprinted in Bloom field Anthology, pp. 257-80.