Pierce lecture focuses on linguistics’ history

Matthew Adams

Marc Pierce, Germanic studies associate professor, discussed the influence of linguist Charles Hockett’s works on the field at a colloquium by the Department of Linguistics on Monday.

Pierce discussed the paper “Hockett 1965,” which he said is one of the most important papers in the field of linguistics. Pierce said, Hockett claimed in “Hockett 1965” that there have only been four major breakthroughs in linguistics: comparative method, the Neogrammarian hypothesis, phonemic theory and formal approaches to linguistics. Hockett’s final breakthrough was developed from the idea presented in “Chomsky 1957.” 

Many aspects of the study of human language did not exist at the time Hockett was publishing, such as the analysis of English sound recordings, according to Pierce.

Pierce said different features could be classified as “breakthroughs,” but, over time, those theories could also be abandoned. He said the first three breakthroughs all stem from Hockett’s involvement in historical linguistics and phonology. 

According to Pierce, the biggest thing Hockett took from Noam Chomsky’s work was the syntax tree. The syntax tree was well accepted by linguists, and Hockett’s acceptance of it was just a product of the era. However, Pierce said Hockett retracted his feelings later in 1967 in another work, “Hockett 1967.” 

Pierce said most of Hockett’s work is still relevant in the study of linguistics today, but some of Hockett’s work, as well as the work of Chomsky, has come under question by scholars in the field.

“[Chomsky’s work is] still a huge breakthrough; whether you buy it or not is a different question,” Pierce said.

Linguistics professor Richard Meier expressed his appreciation for Pierce’s work.

“It is a unique and interesting way that Pierce looks at the field of linguistics,” Meier said. “It is interesting that we can look back in history and get a better sense of language through the way people think.”

Linguistics assistant professor David Quinto-Pozos said the information Pierce provided will help people within the field of linguistics.

“Pierce dissects this in a way that many even within our field do not,” Quinto-Pozos said. “All of this historical information will help us better understand linguistics.”