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Summary Article: Bloomfield, Leonard
from Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology: An Encyclopedia

Leonard Bloomfield (1887-1949) was an American pioneer of structural linguistics. Bloomfield came from a high-achieving intellectual family of Austrian Jewish origin and grew up in the hotel business. He was educated at Harvard and first specialized in Germanic languages, writing about Germanic secondary ablaut for his PhD. He continued to work on these topics through his career, teaching German at the University of Illinois, later teaching Germanic philology at Ohio State University and the University of Chicago, sometimes writing articles in German, and writing a textbook of Dutch (Bloomfield, 1944). He was later to turn his flair for practical linguistics to the U.S. war effort, producing a textbook and a grammatical sketch of Russian for the Army Specialist Training Program. He taught for most of his career at the University of Chicago, moving to Yale as Sterling Professor in 1940. Bloomfield wrote the Call, the academic proclamation that led to the founding of the Linguistic Society of America in 1925, publishing the first article in its journal Language. A paralyzing stroke in 1946 ended his career; and he died in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1949. His student Bernard Bloch published Bloomfield's obituary in the journal Language in 1949.

Cautious, reserved, uncharismatic but kindly (and with a whimsical and occasionally scabrous sense of humor), Bloomfield made quiet but massive contributions to general linguistics, and Austronesian and Americanist linguistics, all written in immediately comprehensible prose. His work in general linguistics includes two introductions to the field, An Introduction to the Study of Language, published in 1914, and the much longer Language, published in 1933; the latter work is still in print, and its account of processes in historical linguistics was long taken as the best introduction to the field. Bloomfield's earlier work reflects his interest in the psychological theories of Wilhelm Wundt; his later philosophical position was less dogmatic, and he showed much interest in behaviorism as posited by A. P. Weiss. Bloomfield's cautiousness about describing the semantics or system of meaning of a language with the same degree of scientific rigor as its grammatical structure was often misunderstood by critics as perpetuating an antimentalist view of language, in which semantics was excluded. This was not the case. He spent much time putting his ideas to practical effect, employing linguistic methods in attempts to enable English-speaking children to learn to read effectively.

His Austronesian works are few, principally comprising some work on Ilocano of the northern Philippines and a collection of texts, with grammatical description and glossary, of Manila Tagalog. Like the Ilocano sketch, this was based on fieldwork with a consultant, in this latter case a trainee architect at the University of Chicago, who dictated these texts to Bloomfield, and it achieves the linguistic ideal of descriptive adequacy because the use and sense of every form found in the text is accounted for and every feature of the grammar of the language attested in the text is explained. As a model of descriptive work, it has few equals.

From the 1920s, Bloomfield did much work on the Algonquian languages of Canada and the Great Lakes, producing an impressive collection of work, including texts, grammar, and dictionary materials, on Menominee, the Native American language once spoken around Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, where he had grown up (until then it had barely been documented). His major work on this subject is The Menomini Language, which was published in 1962, 13 years after his death. Bloomfield also visited Saskatchewan, collecting two volumes of texts of Plains Cree, which he published in 1934. His 1958 study of an idiolect of eastern Ojibwe, Eastern Ojibwa: Grammatical Sketch, Texts and Word List, ranks with his Tagalog work as an intellectual accomplishment of high descriptive adequacy. Bloomfield also did secondary work on the conservative Algonquian language Fox (Mesquakie), from the analysis of texts collected by Truman Michelson, and he later reconstructed much of the Proto-Algonquian language's sound system and morphological structure, although his construction of a Proto-Central Algonquian language, including Ojibwe, Cree, Fox, Nenominee, and Potawatomi (and Miami-Illinois and Shawnee), has not withstood the test of time.

Bloomfield's best work tends to be of considerable length, and much of this appeared posthumously or is still only accessible through the Human Relations Area Files. Charles Hockett, Bloomfield's literary executor and fellow Algonquianist, produced an anthology of his work in 1970, which contained most of the important short pieces but omitted much good work (e.g., almost all his Austronesian work). This was often due to its bulk, though the anthology's contents show Bloomfield as deeply humane. In 1990, Robert Hall also published an interesting volume about Bloomfield and his achievements, including memoirs by former students and colleagues and younger scholars in his specialty areas. His collected works remain to be assembled under one imprint.

Bloomfield's main contribution is the scientific systematization of linguistic study and the presentation of rigorous models for linguistic description, from phonetics and phonology to syntactic and sociolinguistic matters; his writings, especially his 1933 volume Language, provided the means with which to study linguistics (both descriptive linguistics and topics in more strongly historical, sociological, and psychological aspects of the field, and as a scientific subject at the university level). The Bloomfield Prize recognizes especially great achievements in linguistics.

See also Wundt, Wilhelm

Further Readings
  • Bloomfield, L. (1914). An introduction to the study of language. Holt New York, NY.
  • Bloomfield, L. (1917). Tagalog texts with grammatical analysis (Vol. 3, Pts. 2-4). University of Illinois Press Urbana.
  • Bloomfield, L. (1933). Language. Holt New York, NY.
  • Bloomfield, L. (1934). Plains Cree texts (Vol. 16). Stechert New York, NY.
  • Bloomfield, L. (1942). Outline of Ilocano syntax. Language, 18, 193-200.
  • Bloomfield, L. (1946). Algonquian. In Osgood, C. (Ed.), Linguistic structures of Native America (pp. 85-129). Viking Fund New York, NY.
  • Bloomfield, L. (1958). Eastern Ojibwa: Grammatical sketch, texts, and word list. University of Michigan Press Ann Arbor.
  • Bloomfield, L. (1962). The Menomini language. Yale University Press New Haven, CT.
  • Hall, R. A. Jr. (Ed.). (1990). Leonard Bloomfield: A life for language. Benjamins Amsterdam, Netherlands.
  • Hockett, C. F. (Ed.). (1970). A Leonard Bloomfield anthology. Indiana University Press Bloomington.
  • Anthony Grant
    © 2013 SAGE Publications, Inc

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