Descriptive Linguistics

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Descriptive Linguistics


one of the schools of linguistic structuralism, which was dominant in American linguistics from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. The American linguists L. Bloomfield and E. Sapir, who reexamined the ideas of the neogrammarian doctrine, were the founders of descriptive linguistics. The trends in descriptive linguistics—one associated with Bloomfield (the works of G. Trager, B. Bloch, Z. Harris, C. Hockett, and H. L. Smith, Jr.) and the other with Sapir (the works of K. L. Pike, E. A. Nida, and C. Fries)—diverge in the nature of their research interests and in part in their theoretical aims but are similar in the area of methods of linguistic research.

The limitation to problems of synchronic linguistic re-search is caused by linguistic practice (the teaching of language) and the specifics of the material from North American Indian languages. Language appears to descriptivists as an aggregate of speech utterances, which were the main object of their research. At the center of their attention were the rules of the scientific description (hence the name) of texts: the study of the organization, the arrangement and classification of their elements. The formalization of analytical procedures in the area of phonology and morphology (the development of principles for studying language at different levels, of distributive analysis, and of the method of immediate constitutents) led to the posing of general questions on linguistic simulation. Lack of attention to the content plane of language, as well as to the paradigmatic aspect of language, did not permit descriptivists sufficiently fully and correctly to interpret language as a system. There was also no consistent philosophical basis. The overcoming of descriptivism is connected with sharp criticism of its methodological basis (in particular, its underestimation of the explanatory aspects of science) from the viewpoint of the theory of the generative grammar of language.


Sapir, E. Iazyk: Vvedenie v izuchenie rechi. Moscow, 1934. (Translated from English.)
Gleason, H. Vvedenie v deskriptivnuiu lingvistiku. Moscow, 1959. (Translated from English.)
Bloomfield, L. lazyk. Moscow, 1968. (Translated from English.)
Arutiunova, N. D., G. A. Klimov, and E. S. Kubriakova. “Amerikanskii strukturalizm.” In Osnovnye napravleniia strukturalizma. Moscow, 1964.
Readings in Linguistics, 4th ed. Edited by M. Joos. London-Chicago, 1967.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.