From Inductivism to Structuralism: the ‘method of residues’ goes to the field

Michael Silverstein
University of Chicago

It should be clear to anyone who surveys the historical record that the “discovery” of the phoneme – that is, the codification of phonological theory and method – was key in linguists’ consciousness of a new disciplinary era, one that retrospectively ascribed a conceptual revolution to the sainted figure of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). The analysis of every plane of language, from word morphology to phrasal, clausal, and sentential syntax (and for some hardy structuralist souls, to stretches of discourse beyond) has been calqued from linguists’ experience of working with the phonological plane. The ironies of all this are supreme in relation to the available text of the 1916 Cours de linguistique générale, where “Saussure” – as reconstituted d’outre tombe by Bally and Sechehaye – has nothing of interest to say about synchronic sound systems as such, but really concentrates on the analysis of lexical and grammatical symbols.1

But the ironies do not cease there. The live and youthful Saussure of all of about 19 years of age had, in fact, glimpsed what morphological and morphophonological structure in the modern sense was all about in his Mémoire (1879) on the Proto-Indo-European vowel system. Working backwards from attested forms in the various branches he demonstrated that the logic of the phonological combinatorics of word-roots in their various derivations and inflections pointed unerringly to the prior existence of now-lost phonemic segments that left their traces in at first seemingly irregular vowel correspondences in the daughter dialects, at once made regular by the presumption of these “coefficients sonantiques” (later identified as “laryngeals”) that were absorbed by adjacent vowels, “coloring” them.2 Amazingly, despite the indirect confirmation by Jerzy Kuryƚowicz in his famous 1927 paper on Hittite ḫ (which occurs, for the most part, in several of the predicted syntagmatic positions), and despite the typological parallelisms in American Native languages such as Tonkawa, Nootka, and certain Salishan languages, “Laryngeal Theory” was still highly controversial among Indo-Europeanists down to my undergraduate days in the 1960s!

The point is, in a diachronic framework, Saussure’s brilliant youthful insight at once implicitly created, through a kind of convergent internal reconstruction, a model of the (morpho)phonological structure of the ancestral language at the same time he explicitly did what any Leipzig Neogrammarian – among whom he was at that very moment matriculated – would aspire to do: to render otherwise “irregular” correspondences “regular.” The first is the pre-condition for the second: some kind of abstract structural unit in syllabically framed distributions turned out to be the hero of “sound” change. Neogrammarianism and diachrony thus form the real framework we must consider to understand both the roots of synchronic structuralism and the profound continuities notwithstanding the reorientation of the disciplinary focus in method, in models, and (as my old teacher Van Quine used to say) in “ontic commitments” about language.

The story to be told here, thus far to my mind not clearly enough articulated, is the gradual emergence and Kuhnian “normalizing” of the mode of inductive study of the Indo-European languages individually and as members of a language family sparked by, and institutionally increasingly focused upon the facticity of autonomous phonological change, a.k.a. Lautgesetz ‘sound law’ (see Jankowsky 1972; Wilbur 1977; Morpurgo Davies 1994). Lautgesetze had both an epistemological and an ontological manifestation, not carefully enough distinguished either in the instance or in the later historiographic accounts of the late 19th century. To be sure, the continued disciplinary focus on the plane of phonology served as the work-space in which the transition without a rupture of discipline was effected between the comparative-historical linguistics of etymological forms-over-time and the descriptive-structural linguistics of system-internal relations-of-forms.

Note, then: in the context of German Sprachforschung, what becomes reflexively obvious to its practitioners around 1875-1880 is the mutual necessity of the ontological presumption of uniformitarian regularity of autonomous “sound change,” the great scientific discovery of the era about language history (see Pedersen 1931; Bloomfield 1933:346-368), and the epistemology of “the method of residues” (see Mill 1843; Wundt 1883; Venn 1889; Fowler 1893; Hibben 1912), one of the chief modes of “inductive” reasoning set out by all the philosophers of science of the time. Whether operating in the realm of a single language or across multiple languages, in this “comparative” approach to etymological investigation one gathers textual examples, occurrences of linguistic forms and one segments and sifts them seeking to extract a generalization about the forms considered to be members of a class insofar their class characteristic(s) would make of each of them an instantiation of the same property. The concordance was the research tool that gathered together under a lemma all instances of the property – common lexical root, common syntactic form, etc. – within a corpus.

For historians of language in particular the guiding principle of lemmatization is ultimately a statement of a particular “correspondence of form” across several dialects or languages or across stages of a single language. In turn, such correspondence is to be explained by an interpretative account of temporal process: how an earlier form must have altered under sound laws (including “no change”) specific to each of the corresponding dialects/languages/stages, producing, it would appear, the multiple attested forms gathered and systematized in the instance of correspondence. Observe that each word or set expression in a corpus will be lemmatized under as many different rubrics as there are correspondence sets in which it participates; and thus, historically speaking, each such form has its own proper etymological “biography” (as Antoine Meillet [1866-1936] was fond of saying) as the attested cumulative product of as many applicable phonological processes as explain it from some initial stage, its etymon.

Note that by following this logic iteratively in applying the inductive method of residues, exceptions at one level of generalization – those as yet inexplicably excluded from a particular lemmatization – become special cases the exceptionless regularity of which within their own, more circumscribed lemmatization one can come to discern when the exceptions, too, are gathered and sifted as their own group, implying a chronologically ordering of sound laws.3 This mutual implication of the covering-law regularity of chronologically ordered sound change and the success of the logical method of residues in iterated lemmatizations of sound correspondences is what came to acute reflexive consciousness in pronouncements by August Leskien (1840-1916), Wilhelm Osthoff (1847-1909), and Karl Brugmann (1849-1919) during the 1870s, as they formulated their dicta about method and theory.

Hence, two important corollary investigations emerged both for Neogrammarians and for their critics to give support (or not) to the ontological presumption that Lautgesetze, “sound laws” are truly “law”-like – Ausnahmslos ‘exceptionless’ – as irresistibly unconscious collective processes of phonetic modification applying to all applicable original stage 1 forms in chronological order so as to derive later, stage n forms in the historical trajectory of linguistic form transmitted over time within a language community. That is, such “laws” should apply purely as a function of the sonic shape of linguistic forms at the moment and in the community in which a change of sonic shape occurs.

It was realized that studying living, especially “exotic”, languages may reveal the out-of-consciousness phonetic and other tendencies in pronunciation when various sounds are produced/heard in rapid succession, the colorations that sounds undergo when uttered in sequence. Thus, to the degree to which we can gather empirical evidence, we might understand perturbations of the sonic realization of particular sounds put together in words with other particular sounds, to be the leading micro-diachronic edge of change, perhaps, in fact, akin to specific inductively inferred changes that have been posited to have occurred in the undocumented, prehistoric past of the ancient languages.4

But the really difficult question is, how does one – inductively! – find the units of “sound” of exotic, non-standardized and only spoken exemplars of Indo-European languages, let alone those of languages of non-European peoples in small language communities that have no experience of an orthographically fixed register? In the ancient languages philologists could simply rely on the apparent Buchstaben, the letters, of the alphabetic graphic modes of inscription or their syllabary-script equivalents. Transcriptional experience with such syllabaries of several Asian languages such as Sanskrit Devanāgarī had, as well, “reduced” them to representation in alphabetic letters. But notice how this practical matter – essentially inventing an alphabetic script for the “true” or “real” sound segments – presents a whole new epistemological problem for contemporary, “living” linguistic phenomena in their spoken manifestation: can we find help in achieving what we now term the “phonemicization” of a sound system and its representation in alphabetic graphic signs through the methods of philology as it had been constituted – to be sure, for comparative-historical investigation – as an inductive science?

Notice, then, what was at issue in the last quarter of the 19th century. As an inductive scientific project, Neogrammarianism – and with it, 19th century linguistics, note – was sent, respectively, to the natural science laboratories of the psychophysicist and the physiologist to investigate the phenomenon of “sound” in people’s production and reception of language, and to the ethnologist’s and folklorist’s field where languages lived in the spoken actualities of discursive communication. In short, the task of shoring up the very foundations of linguistic theory, notwithstanding its historical focus on reconstruction and classification in the heyday of Neogrammarianism, fell first to the phonetician and, second, to the field worker. We must observe that in the history of linguistics, the second, the empirical fieldwork track seeking out and describing “exotic” languages such as those of the indigenous Americas, of Africa, etc., led to descriptive and structural linguistics as we know it, yet built on continuity of methods that essentially survive the transition.

The first, the laboratory instrumentation of refined micro-measurement of articulated and audible sound for its own sake – a pointillist intellectual cul-de-sac for phonetics as it was for physics – was eventually reincorporated into linguistics only when it was seen through the ontological perspective of emerging structuralism, which led to the concept of the system of phoneme-segments and their combinatorics. This structuralist reimagination of what, in fact, are the “sounds” of (synchronic) languages played the central role in the birth of a new kind of inductivist linguistics in which findings about phonetic substance and process (articulatory—acoustic—auditory) – now in relation to ‘phonology’ or ‘phonemics’ – can take their place in explaining the physical and psychobiological affordances constraining possible language structures.

In the second realm, that of fieldwork, Franz Boas (1858-1942) is the key figure in the transition. Boas, ironically, was trained in laboratory (psycho-)physics with an 1881 Kiel Ph.D. But by September 1886, undertaking his first Northwest Coast expedition after an exhilarating apprentice year in Berlin, even his field notebooks show that he had completely absorbed the working methods of inductivist philology and linguistics and what we would today term a relativist and cognitivist understanding of cultural – including linguistic – categorizations and “ontic commitments.” Boas’s linguistics was, of course, a component of a broadly conceived “anthropo-geography” or anthropology, a field then dominated by racializing, social evolutionary thinking about the variability within the human species of everything from head- and bodily-form, cultural artifacts, cosmogonic beliefs, and even linguistic categories – including the sounds of languages.

By 1889 he published a foundational paper, “On alternating sounds,” on the topic of the perceptibility of those in “exotic” languages, in the instance a shot-over-the-bow directed at existing evolutionary doctrine about American Native languages. Its anti-evolutionary stance in interpreting variation of categories across phonological systems was, in fact, the paradigm for his entire anthropological oeuvre focused on “The mind of [so-called ‘]primitive[’] man” (1911), shifting explanatory focus from diachrony to synchrony as it relocated variation in socio-culturally acquired norms of categorical response to the sounds of speech, i.e., phonemically biased hearing.5 Boas’s example of indefatigable fieldwork to document previously undocumented languages/cultures through the collection of native discourse (texts), his insistence on inductive philological methods of inference in creating concordances and grammars from them, and his decisive anti-evolutionary “emicization” of linguistics and cultural anthropology were foundations of his pedagogy at Columbia University: these frame as well the transition to his intellectual progeny dealing with living languages who worked out the ontology and epistemology of the phoneme, for them the foundational scientific entity of modern linguistics as a science of implicit cognitive norms in a community of speakers, as Bloomfield noted in 1927.

By this time, then, the earlier central substantive problem of the (pre)historical provenance and chronological development of the “sounds” of the words in languages with written records, had morphed into the substantive problem of what, precisely, are the “sounds” of a given language, and how they are organized by a set of mutually structuring relationships in a synchronic system. When we examine the work of the key figures of the wider Boasian tradition, we can observe that across the transition of theoretical focus from diachronic comparative philology to synchronic descriptive-structural linguistics precisely the same inductive methods carried over to create epistemologically corresponding but ontologically different theoretical entities. Scientific practices leading to inferences of etymological sounds at chronologically reconstructed stages carry over to those concerning phonemic (and morphophonemic) segments as opposed to their positionally (syntagmatically) variant realizations and neutralizations; phonetic changes or “sound laws” thus become structural (morpho-)phonological rules; earlier vs. later forms becomes “inner/organic” vs. “outer/inorganic”; chronological order of occurrence of changes becomes logical order of application of rules; etc.6


1 Interestingly, most of those who actually developed structural phonology in the earlier part of the 20th century – in America, the great masters, Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and Leonard Bloomfield (1887-1949), in Britain, Daniel Jones (1881-1967), and on the Continent Nikolai Trubetskoy (1890-1938) and Roman Jakobson (1896-1982), plus their immediate students – retrospectively ascribed to the Cours and to similar sources the raîson d’être for structural analysis, notwithstanding “Saussure’s” concentration on meaning-bearing lexico-grammatical form and not on phonological structure as such.

2 For a summary of the Mémoire and its context of appearance, see now John Joseph’s biography of Saussure (2012: 221-249).

3 Think of Grassmann’s Law of deaspirating the first of two aspirate stops in syllabic sequence in Indo-European roots [*DH …DH… > D…DH…] that explains certain otherwise glaring exceptions to Grimm’s Law regularities of how Indo-European stop types are realized in Germanic; or Verner’s Law of the apparently double shift of manner-of-articulation of Indo-European stop consonants that follow the word-stress in Germanic [*…V’ T… > …V’ D…], rather than the one predicted by Grimm’s Law [*T > Θ]. Bloomfield’s (1933:357-359) admiring account of these as a scientific whodunit is classic as an historiographic conflation of the logic of the method of residues with the actual history of investigation and discovery.

4 For example, a target k-sound in English is produced slightly differently, and sounds generally different, when an -i-sound follows and when an -a-sound follows; the k- is pronounced inevitably further forward in the mouth before -i-. Sure enough, many historical examples are attested among the world’s linguistic (pre)histories of so-called “palatalization” and even accompanying “affrication” of velar sounds like k,g, changing to more forward places of pronunciation, as in č [tsh], ǰ [dzh], resulting in historically later forms deriving from those in which the k-,g- sounds precede high and front vowels like -i- and -e-.

5 Wells (1974:445-50) treats this paper without the important wider intellectual contextualization informing Stocking’s (1968:133-60, esp. 157ff.) interpretation. See also Mackert (1993; 1994) on Boas’s invocation of hearing mediated by an “apperceptional” category filter.

6 Jan Baudouin de Courtenay (1845-1929) had wondered about this in formulating a theory of morpho-phonological as opposed to mere phonetic “alternations” (cf. 1895). (Note that the Cours [1916:215-20; pt.III-ch.III-§§4-6] treats “l’alternance” as fallout from the application of diachronic sound laws.) A justly famous observation of Bloomfield’s (1939:105-106) is to the effect that the only analytically posited, “underlying” morpho-phonemic forms of his Menomini [Algonquian] phonological description in large measure recuperate the reconstructed pre-historical forms one would postulate on the basis of the comparison of this language with other Algonquian languages. The morpho-phonological rules, applied in stipulated logical order in order to derive the actually pronounced “surface” forms of Menomini words, in large measure duplicate the inferred “sound laws” that, applied in their inferred chronological order, would derive current Menomini from its earlier linguistic form, then generally known as “Proto-[Central-]Algonquian.” Later self-styled “generative phonologists,” e.g., Chomsky & Halle (1968:251), took note of Bloomfield’s observation and celebrated it as an adumbration of their own recapitulationist sense of ordered phonological rules – a position still not worked out in all its presumptions and entailments.


Baudouin de Courtenay, Jan. 1895. Versuch einer Theorie phonetischer Alternationen. Ein Capitel aus der Psychophonetik. Strassburg: Karl J. Trübner.

Bloomfield, Leonard. 1927. ‘On Recent Work in General Linguistics’. Modern Philology 25(2): 211-230.

––––. 1933. Language. New York: Henry Holt & Co.

––––. 1939. ‘Menomini Morphophonemics’, in Etudes phonologiques dédiées à la mémoire de M. le Prince N. S. Trubtezkoy. Travaux du Cercle Linguistique de Prague 6:105-115.

Boas, Franz. 1889. ‘On Alternating Sounds’. American Anthropologist (o.s.) 2(1):47-53.

––––. 1911. The Mind of Primitive Man. New York: Macmillan.

Chomsky, Noam, & Halle, Morris. 1968. The Sound Pattern of English. New York, Evanston & London: Harper & Row.

Fowler, Thomas. 1893. The Elements of Inductive Logic. 4th Ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Hibben, John Grier. 1912. Logic, Deductive and Inductive. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Jankowsky, Kurt R. 1972. The Neogrammarians: A Re-evaluation of their Place in the Development of Linguistic Science. The Hague & Paris: Mouton & Co.

Joseph, John E. 2012. Saussure. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kuryƚowicz, Jerzy. 1927. ə indoeuropéen et hittite, in Witold Taszycki et al., Symbolae Grammaticae in Honorem Ioannis Rozwadowski, vol. 1, pp. 95-104. Cracow: Drukarnia Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego.

Mackert, Michael. 1993. ‘The Roots of Franz Boas’ View of Linguistic Categories As a Window to the Human Mind’. Historiographia Linguistica 20(2-3): 331-351.

––––. 1994. ‘Franz Boas’ Theory of Phonetics’. Historiographia Linguistica 21(3):351-384.

Mill, John Stuart. 1843. A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive, Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence, and the Methods of Scientific Investigation. London: John W. Parker.

Morpurgo Davies, Anna. 1994. The Nineteenth Century. History of linguistics, vol. 4. Giulio Lepschy, ed. London & New York : Longman.

Pedersen, Holger. 1931. Linguistic Science in the Nineteenth Century; Methods and Results. John W. Spargo, transl. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. 1879 [1878]. Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes. Leipzig: B.G. Teubner.

––––. 1916. Cours de linguistique générale. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, eds. Lausanne & Paris: Payot.

Stocking, George W. 1968. Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. New York: The Free Press.

Venn, John. 1889. The Principles of Empirical or Inductive Logic. London & New York: Macmillan & Co.

Wells, Rulon S. 1974. ‘Phonemics in the Nineteenth Century, 1876-1900’, in Dell Hymes, ed., Studies in the History of Linguistics: Traditions and Paradigms, pp. 434-53. Bloomington & London: Indiana University Press.

Wilbur, Terence H., ed. 1977. The Lautgesetz-Controversy: A Documentation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Wundt, Wilhelm. 1883. Logik. Eine Untersuchung der Principien der Erkenntniss und der Methoden Wissenschaftlicher Forschung. Vol. 2. Methodenlehre. Stuttgart: Verlag von Ferdinand Enke.

How to cite this post

Silverstein, Michael. 2013. ‘From Inductivism to Structuralism: the “method of residues” goes to the field’. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, America, Article, Europe, History, Linguistics, Structuralism

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