Distributional method

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingEntry for encyclopedia/dictionary

Abstract / Description of output

The distributional method in linguistics has its origins in the work of the anthropologist Boas and the linguist Saussure, with additional impetus from behaviorist psychology. Its aim was to shift linguistic analysis away from dependency on meaning, and to determine the structure of a language based on the distribution of its forms alone. In the 1920s it received a new formulation in articles by Sapir and Bloomfield, the latter of whom became a proponent of behaviorism, which eschewed meaning as a “mentalist” hangover from metaphysics. In the 1930s the distributional approach was at the center of disputes over the nature of the phoneme. The 1940s saw an extreme version of the method developed by some of Bloomfield’s students, and it was to this version that the term “distributional method” was first applied. The retreat of behaviorism in linguistics following attacks by Chomsky did not however put an end to the distributional approach, the basics of which are still a core part of linguistic methodology in the 21st century.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe International Encyclopedia of Linguistic Anthropology
EditorsJames Stanlaw
Place of PublicationChichester & Hoboken
ISBN (Electronic)9781118786093
ISBN (Print)9781118786765
Publication statusPublished - 11 Jan 2021

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • phoneme
  • Boas, Franz
  • Sapir, Edward
  • Saussure, Ferdinand de
  • Bloomfield, Leonard
  • behaviorism
  • psychology
  • structural linguistics
  • modernism


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