Form and formalism in linguistics

James McElvenny  


"Form" and "formalism" are a pair of highly productive and polysemous terms that occupy a central place in much linguistic scholarship. Diverse notions of "form"  – embedded in biological, cognitive and aesthetic discourses – have been employed in accounts of language structure and relationship, while "formalism" harbours a family of senses referring to particular approaches to the study of language as well as representations of linguistic phenomena. This volume brings together a series of contributions from historians of science and philosophers of language that explore some of the key meanings and uses that these multifaceted terms and their derivatives have found in linguistics, and what these reveal about the mindset, temperament and daily practice of linguists, from the nineteenth century up to the present day.


  • Preface
    James McElvenny
  • Visual formalisms in comparative-historical linguistics
    Judith Kaplan
  • Alternating sounds and the formal franchise in phonology
    James McElvenny
  • On Sapir’s notion of form/pattern and its aesthetic background
    Jean-Michel Fortis
  • Linguistics as a "special science"
    A comparison of Sapir and Fodor
    Els Effers
  • The impact of Russian formalism on linguistic structuralism
    Bart Karstens
  • The resistant embrace of formalism in the work of Émile Benveniste and Aurélien Sauvageot
    John E. Joseph
  • Linguistics as a science of structure
    Ryan M. Nefdt
  • Formalism, grammatical rules, and normativity
    Geoffrey K. Pullum
  • Linguistic form: A political epistemology
    Nick Riemer
James McElvenny

James McElvenny is Newton International Fellow in Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on the history of linguistics.



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