Biographical sketch of Leonard Bloomfield

by Suzanne Kemmer

Leonard Bloomfield, 1887-1949. Leonard Bloomfield was born in Chicago to immigrants to the United States from Austria-Hungary. He entered Harvard in 1903, finishing his degree in 3 years. At 19, with his Harvard A.B. in hand, he began graduate work in German studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he served as a teaching assistant. Here he met the linguist Eduard Prokosch, then a young instructor, and almost immediately determined to become a linguist. After two years of work at Wisconsin, he went to the University of Chicago to continue his studies in comparative-historical linguistics and Germanics. He also studied Sanskrit; his uncle was Maurice Bloomfield, a well-known professor of Sanskrit and comparative linguistics, from whom he possibly derived some of his interest.

After obtaining his Ph.D. in 1909 at the age of 22, Bloomfield taught German at the University of Cincinnati and then the University of Illinois. In 1913 he was appointed Assistant Professor of Comparative Philology and German at the University of Illinois, and taught there until 1921. At that point he accepted a professorship at Ohio State, where he taught until 1927. In the summer of 1925, he became an Assistant Ethnologist in the Canadian Department of Mines in Ottawa, a position that allowed him to carry out fieldwork on native American languages. In 1927 he took a prestigious position as Professor of Germanic Philology at the University of Chicago. In summers 1938-40 he taught budding linguists at the Linguistic Society of America Linguistic Institute at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 1940 he accepted an endowed Sterling Professorship of Linguistics at Yale University, where he remained until his death in 1949.

In 1914, while a young instructor in Urbana-Champaign, Bloomfield published An Introduction to the Study of Language, a scholarly yet popular book that went through many reprints. This book laid out his basic ideas about the nature of language, following on basic Boasian lines, which were becoming characteristic of Linguistics in the U.S.: a focus on spoken language as primary, written language as secondary; observation of language as a present-day reality to speakers, rather than from an external, historical point of view; and an interest in the variety of linguistic systems in the world and in drawing generalizations about human language in the process of observing them. In addition he included two chapters on language change, illustrated with examples from many languages. The book ended with a chapter on the relation of Linguistics to other sciences, a topic that would increasingly concern him.

His next major publication was Tagalog Texts with Grammatical Analysis in 1917, which showed how much he was extending his interests beyond the traditional Indo-European orbit. In 1922 he reviewed Sapir's book Language approvingly, finding it to be in accord with the theoretical principles of Ferdinand de Saussure, whose posthumous book he referred to in the review (and finally reviewed himself a few years later). It is clear that Bloomfield saw a new kind of Linguistics emerging, distinct from the comparative-historical tradition in which he was trained; a Linguistics which had a strong empirical focus, particularly on hitherto undescribed languages. We think of this field now as the field of modern descriptive Linguistics, which would come into its heyday under Bloomfield and his disciples. b

Bloomfield worked to develop the new field in various ways. He was instrumental in the founding of the Linguistic Society of America, writing the "Call for the Organization Meeting" for the organizing committee which called the LSA into being, which was published in revised form as "Why a Linguistic Society?" in the first issue of the LSA's new journal, Language (Bloomfield 1925). Second, he began systematizing axioms or postulates for Linguistics as a science, publishing "A Set of Postulates for the Science of Language" (in Language 2, 153-164, 1926). In this work he sought to place Linguistics on a scientific footing as firm as those of the natural sciences.

In his years at Ohio State in particular, Bloomfield came more and more under the influence of logical positivism and of its allied psychological movement, behaviorism, both directly in the main current of 20th century materialism. In the process, he cast off the earlier influence of the 19th century pioneer of psychology Wilhelm Wundt which was prominent in his 1914 book, because of its incompatibility with the new paradigm. In the early 1930s he decided to completely revamp his book and to incorporate behaviorist ideas centrally into it, particularly in the chapters on language use and meaning. The result, appearing in 1933 under the simplified title Language, became a classic in its own right and was used for a generation as a textbook in Linguistics.

Bloomfield was deeply concerned with the advancement of Linguistics as a science. He further developed in his fieldwork the methodologies of linguistic data collection and analysis pioneered by Boas. He used each of the language families he studied as a source of material for the development of linguistic theory, taking it in a rather different direction from Sapir, who assumed the possibility of analyzing semantics and conceptual structure generally. It was Bloomfield who took the new generation of linguists with him, becoming in effect the leader of the field.

In the course of his career, Bloomfield made important empirical contributions to three major subfields of Linguistics: Indo-European comparative-historical linguistics (including work on Sanskrit as well as Germanic); the study of the Malayo-Polynesian languages, principally Tagalog; and descriptive and comparative Algonquian linguistics. His monumental body of work on Algonquian languages forms the largest portion of the descriptive work that he produced, and is considered the starting point for any modern work on the Algonquian language family.

But Bloomfield's most significant influence in the field came from his ideas on the theory of Linguistics, which were carried on in basic respects by a new generation of American structuralists in the 1950s.

Sources and References

Bloomfield, Leonard. 1922. Review of Sapir's Language. The Classical Weekly 15, 142-143 (issue of 13 March). Reprinted in Hockett (1970), 91-94.

Hockett, Charles. 1970. A Leonard Bloomfield Anthology. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press.

[ jump to top ]