The journal WORD and the structural heritage of usage-based linguistics: Three functional tenets and an overarching principle

Enrico Torre
Università degli Studi di Genova

The first issue of WORD was launched in 1945, announced on its front cover as “the journal of the Linguistic Circle of New York, devoted to the study of linguistic science in all its aspects.” At the time, the only other general linguistics journal published in the United States was Language, the organ of the Linguistic Society of America, which – at least according to the received view – was firmly in the hands of mechanist post-Bloomfieldians. Indeed, under Bernard Bloch’s (1907–1965) editorship, most contributions accepted in Language were either papers on historical linguistics or strictly formal descriptions of linguistic phenomena. As scholars of the mechanist orientation were increasingly perceived as becoming elitist and the field seemed to be narrowing, a sense of discontent began to spread among fellow linguists who did not recognize themselves in that approach (Householder 1978).

It is, of course, possible that being WORD founded against this background, its opposition to Language (sometimes cast in terms of rivalry, see, e.g., Martinet 1994; Pike 1994) may have been overstated. After all, many scholars contributed to both journals and were not interested in the dichotomy at all (see Fowkes 1994). However, at the same time, it can hardly be denied that, in its early history, WORD was far more heterogeneous than Language, and it appealed to scholars more oriented to the European tradition and/or the work of Sapir rather than Bloomfield’s mechanistic approach.

Concerning inclusiveness, no topic and no theoretical framework or methodology were necessarily ruled out a priori, as long as the paper dealt with an aspect of language. While articles on aspects of meaning, culture, or poetry were disregarded in Language, they were suitable topics for publication in WORD. Moreover, from the very beginning, contributions from specialists in disciplines other than linguistics were also accepted (e.g., Lévi-Strauss 1945; Joffe 1948). In this regard, Mandelbrot’s (1954) physically informed account of the structure of texts and communication is particularly telling about the welcoming attitude of the journal toward contributions by non-linguist, even if their perspective on language may not – to a certain extent, at least – be familiar to linguists.

As for the European/Sapirian orientation of the journal, it shines through three recurrent tenets which can be observed in a substantial number of papers published in the early issues of WORD, although it is not to be understood as an ‘official’ position of the journal. The first of these tenets regards the persuasion that the function of linguistic units deserves to be brought to the fore in linguistic studies, at the same level as the form. Indeed, a description of the formal shape of linguistic elements and their distribution does not count as a full description of a linguistic system. Such an account may describe the formal relations among the elements of a system, but it cannot avoid missing out on the role of these elements within the system and their functional relationship with the other elements. As Martinet (1949) pointed out in his scathing criticism of Hall (1949), more generally directed to the dominant mechanist approach, the allocation of the forms of a language to a grammatical category based on their phonemic shape is misleading; the correct criterion for categorization is the type of syntactic combinations into which these forms appear, which in turn is motivated by their function within the syntactic construction.

The second tenet, strictly correlated to the first one introduced above, is the belief that the study of linguistic phenomena should be based on how speakers use them in real life, rather than on etymology or textbook rules. A satisfactory account of the formal and semantic structures of a language can only be achieved through the observation of the linguistic behavior of native speakers. Indeed, it is use which shapes language, and any description which conceals this fact is likely to be inaccurate. Martinet (1949) pointed out that a synchronically accurate lexicological account should be based on how lexical items are employed by speakers. Based on a careful analysis of the “Roland”, Hatcher (1946) proved a widespread assumption about the function of verb tenses in Old French epics to be wrong. Similarly, Nida (1945) emphasized that not only should the actual use of language be the base for descriptive and historical studies of a linguistic system but also for more practical activities such as translation, which needs to take into consideration how the target language is used synchronically and its broader socio-cultural context, in order to make sense for the intended audience. Although in a clumsy and misguided way (see Pickford 1956 for a detailed criticism), scholars such as Reed (1949) and Hayden (1950) even made attempts to apply statistical measures such as standard error to the data observed, and the importance of these studies should not be overlooked. Indeed, quantitative methods would prove their worth in linguistic analysis in later years, when skillfully used by scholars possessing an adequate knowledge of statistics (e.g., Labov 1972; Baayen 2006).

Third, the idea that the different levels of language analysis are not watertight compartments which should be separated by a dividing line; rather, they are interwoven. In particular, grammatical and phonological analysis can run in parallel, with one being able to benefit from the findings in the other, as explicitly argued by Pike (1947, 1952). The view is again connected to the idea that form and function are inseparable and that language should be studied in use. Indeed, both grammatical and lexical forms are coupled with specific functions. Phonemes do not have a function of their own, but they do play a role in determining the function of a grammatical or lexical unit. Again, a description of the system of the form-function couplings cannot fail to consider the way language users employ them.

Taken together, these principles broadly correspond to the view of language of the editor, André Martinet, according to whom a description of a language cannot stop short of providing an account of how linguistic structures contribute to communication (for an overview, see Martinet 1962). This view, unpopular among American linguists of the mechanist persuasion, resounds with Nikolaj S. Trubetzkoy’s (1890–1938) claim that since structure is created and shaped by function, a study of structure cannot be pursued without regard to the study of function (Trubetzkoy 1969). At the same time, the attention paid to cultural issues and the anthropological background of many contributors can be seen as a legacy of the thought of Edward Sapir, whose view of language is broadly compatible with Martinet’s (Sapir 1921, 1933; but see Fortis 2014, 2018).

At a more general level, the basic principle which underlay a significant proportion of the early contributions to WORD is the adoption of a holistic perspective: the interconnection between grammar and phonology, the inseparability of form and function, the dependence of both structure and function on actual use, which takes place within a specific physical and socio-cultural environment. In more philosophical terms, the essence of this view may perhaps be traced back to the Humboldtian, and ultimately Kantian, nature of structuralism, mentioned by Cassirer (1945: 117-118) in his article which appeared in the first volume of WORD: “Without systematic unity there can be no experience and no science; experience is possible only by the idea of a necessary connection: ‘Erfahrung ist nur Durch die Vorstellung einer notwendigen Verknüpfung der Wahrnehmungen möglich’”. From this perspective, only functional structuralism would be proper structuralism (or, as Itkonen 2013 put it, paraphrasing Trubetzkoy: “structuralism is functionalism”).[1]

The reader familiar with present-day so-called ‘usage-based approaches’ to the study of language (including, at least to some extent, variationist sociolinguistics) will recognize the contribution of WORD to contemporary linguistics. Indeed, the orientation outlined above was either directly inherited or independently rediscovered by these approaches in the last few decades: the need to study language in actual usage events, the inseparability of form from function, and the interweaving of phonology, grammar, and the lexicon, and also the importance of the social and cultural context. Although this is rarely acknowledged,[2] structural linguistics of the kind described above may be unfashionable today but is far from relegated to the past; indeed, the three functional tenets and the overarching (loosely Kantian) principle mentioned above are still immanent in contemporary linguistic theory and practice (e.g., Langacker 1987; Croft 2001; Tomasello 2003; Bybee 2010; Tagliamonte 2012).


[1] If we accept this line of reasoning, by limiting the scope of the analysis to forms, the kind of mechanistic linguistics practiced by Bloomfield and his disciples would somehow paradoxically fall short of qualifying as structuralism “proper”; indeed, the emphasis on forms at the expense of function would miss the holism of linguistic units as they are experienced. Indeed, although without naming anybody, Cassirer (1945) claims that in all sciences ‘structuralism’ is opposed to ‘mechanism.’

[2] European functional linguists tend to be more generous in giving credit to structural linguistics than their American counterparts (e.g., Steen 2005; Willems 2011; Killie 2015).


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Bybee, J. 2010. Language, usage, and cognition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Cassirer, E. 1945. Structuralism in modern linguistics. WORD 1(2): 99-120.

Croft, W. 2001. Radical construction grammar: Syntactic theory in typological perspective. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

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Hall, R.A., Jr. 1949. Structural sketches I: French. Language Monograph 24. Linguistic Society of America.

Hatcher, A.G. 1946. Epic patterns in Old French: A venture into stylistics via syntax. WORD 2(1): 8-24.

Hayden, R.E. 1950. The relative frequency of phonemes in General-American English. WORD 6(3): 217-223.

Householder, F. 1978. Review of A. Makkai and V. Becker-Makkai (eds), The First LACUS Forum. Language 54: 170-176.

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Joffe, N.F., 1948. The vernacular of menstruation. WORD 4(3): 181-186.

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Labov, W., 1972. Sociolinguistic patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Langacker, R.W. 1987. Foundations of cognitive grammar, Vol. 1: Theoretical prerequisites. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Lévi-Strauss, C. 1945. L’analyse structurale en linguistique et en anthropologie. WORD 1(1): 33-53.

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Martinet, A. 1949. About structural sketches. WORD 5(1): 13-35.

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Nida, E.A., 1945. Linguistics and ethnology in translation problems. WORD 1(2): 194-208.

Nida, E.A., 1951. A system for the description of semantic elements. WORD 7(1): 1-14.

Pickford, G.R., 1956. American linguistic geography: A sociological appraisal. WORD 12(2): 211-233.

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Sapir, E. 1933. Le réalité psychologique des phonemes. Journal de Psychologique Normale et Pathologique 30: 247-265.

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Tagliamonte, S.A., 2012. Variationist sociolinguistics: Change, observation, interpretation. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

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Trubetzkoy, N.S. (1939) 1969. Principles of phonology. Translated and edited by A.M. Baltaxe. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Willems, K. 2011. Meaning and interpretation: The semiotic similarities and differences between cognitive grammar and European structural linguistics. Semiotica 185(1): 1-50.

Posted in 20th century, America, Article, History, Linguistics

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