Old World vs. New World phonology

By some trick of the human mind, Eric’s recent apology to the ‘Old World folks’ reminded me of Stephen Anderson. In his beautiful 1985 book Phonology in the Twentieth Century, Anderson wrote:

If a paper on ‘the morphosyntax of medial suffixes in Kickapoo�, bursting with unfamiliar forms and descriptive difficulties, is typical of American linguistics, its European counterpart is likely to be a paper on �l�arbitraire du signe� whose factual basis is limited to the observation that tree means �tree� in English, while arbre has essentially the same meaning in French.

This is obviously a caricature (of the way things were in the 1930s), and a funny one at that, but it is also acurate even to describe the current situation. A ‘typical’ American linguistics paper seems to be much more concerned with getting the facts right, whereas ‘typical’ European linguistics seems more interested in the overall structure of theories. The ‘typical’ American phonologists of today is studying brain scans, while his Old World colleague struggles with the definition of interconsonantal government. It’s not clear a priori which of those approaches will turn out to be most fruitful, and there are of course exceptions to the rule — Alan Prince, for instance, has won an honorary citizenship of the European Union with his work of the past few years; and there are many fine linguists in many parts of the world who behave sometimes as Old World, and as New World at other times. It is a mystery to me what explains this different academic and intellectual culture, especially since it seems to have been true for such a long time.

(The only linguistic fact in this post is about tree and arbre. My apologies, New World folks!)

[Update 04/09/23: The discussion is continued at Language Log]

4 thoughts on “Old World vs. New World phonology

  1. Pingback: There’s a pattern here to see » Role reversal

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