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For linguistics, modernism came with the publication in 1916 of the Course in General Linguistics, compiled from lectures given by Ferdinand de Saussure. The separate directions of British, American and Continental linguistics from the 1920s onward (with significant mergers of the latter two after WWII) can be traced to their different reactions to the Course. For all of them, the centre of gravity was the phoneme, a sound unit capable of distinguishing meaning. For Saussure, the phoneme was a value generated by difference, an element defined by its place within a system of like elements, rather than anything directly linked to sound as such. The two principal British figures, Daniel Jones and John Rupert Firth, and their American counterparts, Edward Sapir and Leonard Bloomfield, each pursued his particular modernist path forward from the Saussurean system, which came to be called ‘structuralist’, in the face of opposition from voices on the margins of linguistics, notably C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards. The next transition came with the generativism of Noam Chomsky, though this was essentially a change of methods and rhetoric underlain by a continuity with the structuralist approach.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationModernism in the Social Sciences
Subtitle of host publicationAnglo-American Exchanges, c.1918–1980
EditorsMark Bevir
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9781316795514
ISBN (Print)9781107173965
Publication statusPublished - 17 Oct 2017


  • Saussure
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Leonard Bloomfield
  • Edward Sapir
  • J R Firth
  • Daniel Jones
  • generativism
  • structuralism
  • linguistics

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