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Prolegomenon to a New Primer on Language

Readers of this blog may be interested to know that a new book by its author is in preparation, a primer on language entitled The Logic of Language: A Semiotic Introduction to the Study of Speech. Herewith the Preface:

This book is intended as a companion volume to my most recent book, The Speaking Self: Language Lore and English Usage (2012; second, expanded ed. 2016), which incorporates revised versions of posts on my blog, www.languagelore.net. It is hoped that this new volume will serve as a basis for the exploration of language in a more systematic way. A college instructor wishing to use it as a textbook may consider assigning excerpts from The Speaking Self by way of exemplification of basic points and approaches to analysis. I believe that the two volumes used in tandem will provide a solid grounding in the observational science of linguistics, linking theory with practice in a way that will expand a student’s understanding of language as a global phenomenon.

My own conception of language is tinctured by my polyglot background and by my more than half-century experience as a research scholar and college teacher. I was born in Yokohama (Japan) before World War II and grew up speaking three languages simultaneously, Russian, Japanese, and English, in a family of Russian-Jewish émigrés who spent twenty-five years in Japan. My parents’ habitual languages were Russian, English, German, French, and Japanese, all of which they spoke fluently. Although my mother tongue is Russian, almost all my formal education was in schools in which English was the language of instruction. Having spent the war years in Japan, I immigrated to Los Angeles at the age of twelve and attended high school, college, and graduate school in America. The only exception was a postdoctoral year (1965-66) spent at Tokyo University, where I brushed up on my written Japanese and did some research on the contemporary language. After that I specialized in Slavic linguistics and poetics, in the first instance, and in semiotics (the theory of signs) thereafter, applying the whole philosophy of the American logician and scientist, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), as a framework for the analysis of language and literature.

Readers who are familiar with the history of linguistics in the twentieth century will recognize that the title of this book has been influenced by my namesake Edward Sapir’s classic book Language (1921)––with two important modifications: the insertion of the words Logic and Semiotic. (Shapiro and Sapir are variants of the surname Shpira, the Hebrew/Yiddish version of Spira [Hebrew: שפירא‎, pronounced Shpira], the medieval name of the city Speyer in Germany.) Here the reason may not be clear. It is in fact a nod in C. S. Peirce’s direction, whose conception of logic as a normative science amounts to regarding it as a theory of knowledge. The phrase ‘logic of language’ is, therefore, meant to show how I conceive the patterned relationships constituting the structure and history of language. The analyses of linguistic phenomena offered in this book will accordingly strive to make this conception clear in all of language’s aspects, but most notably in its variegated uses as the instrument of thought and speaking.

This book also systematically examines the facts of language as a semiotic structure––as a system of signs–– and as the passkey to all other human sign systems. By surveying the several major divisions of language (phonology, morphology, syntax, lexis, tropology) and explicating the way in which sound and meaning cohere in them, the book will guide students to an understanding of what makes language the sign system par excellence in the service of its most important function as the instrument of cognition and of communication.

I have also followed Sapir in keeping the technical paraphernalia of contemporary linguistic description to a minimum, without, however, utterly eschewing (as does Sapir) diacritics and other symbols needed for a thorough discussion of linguistic phenomena. Most of the examples in the book are from English, although a sprinkling from other languages will be cited when appropriate. References to “Further Reading” will be supplied at the close of each chapter for students wishing to pursue the subject in greater detail. This obviates the need for footnotes, which means that any controversies surrounding the examples discussed are silently elided in the interests of clarity and coherence of presentation.

Apropos, and given the dauntingly balkanized state of linguistics as a discipline today, it may be useful for readers to be given some clues in advance regarding the theoretical outlook that has influenced me in shaping my book’s orientation. Some biographical data are germane in this respect. I started my serious study of linguistics at the University of California, Los Angeles, under the tutelage of the late Anglicist Robert P. Stockwell (1925-2012), the best classroom teacher I ever had, bar none, who introduced me to the methods of American structural linguistics in his year-long course on the structure and history of English. I followed this by study at Harvard under Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), one of the founders of the Prague School of linguistic theory and arguably the most important linguist of the twentieth century, who directed my doctoral dissertation. Whatever else it may be, I consider my way of doing linguistics to be Jakobsonian at its root (even though he and I fell out publicly before we reconciled at the end of his life).

Perhaps an even more profound and lasting influence on my conception of linguistic analysis has been the work of Henning Andersen, who was my fellow-student at Harvard in the early 1960s. Although Jakobson is widely recognized as the first person to reveal the importance of Peirce for linguists, it was actually Andersen who pointed me in the direction of Peirce as the modern founder of sign theory whose semeiotic insights (I use the spelling semeiotic advisedly) I should explore in my investigations of linguistic theory. Despite the absence among his prolific oeuvre of a synoptic book summarizing his conception of language, Andersen’s own work over many years, principally in Slavic historical linguistics, has had an indelible influence on my thinking about language and on the conduct of my own investigations. When it comes to meticulousness and analytical acuity, Andersen has no peers among contemporary linguists and surpasses even our teacher’s accomplishments in this regard.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge the influence on my understanding of language as a product of history of my friend and former colleague at UCLA, Raimo Anttila, whose book Historical and Comparative Linguistics, with its semiotic orientation, remains the best introduction to the field and has been a beacon for me over the many years that its author and I have been friends.

This book is dedicated to the loving memory of my wife, Marianne Shapiro.


New York, NY
September 3, 2015


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