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The Pu Metalanguage in Linguistic Historiography

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The historian of linguistic thought, who wants to contribute to the instruction of the practicing linguist of today and not simply cater to a specialist readership outside linguistics proper, may find him/herself in a quandry: On the one hand, s/he is motivated to render seemingly 'dated' theories accessible to the modern linguist; on the other, s/he feels him/herself constrained by his/her professional ethos to present them as objectively as possible, i.e., within their original intellectual context. In describing and analyzing past theories, the historiographer may find him/herself in a dilemma: either depicting them in the light of current research interests (and thus distorting them to the extent of engaging in presentism), or practicing an antiquarian activity which interests no one (because s/he may be engaging in an excessive historicism). Central to the historiographer's task is the careful treatment of the terminology past authors have employed to articulate their theories, i.e., their metalanguage. After presenting three instances where the issue of metalanguage has not been treated adequately — the use of Saussurean terminology in the description of medieval French linguistic usage, the application of our modern understanding of the term to the medieval concept of 'etymologia', and the misleading use of Praguean phonology in the interpretation of a medieval treatise discussing orthographic problems in Icelandic — the paper, while arguing in favour of a measured approach, makes it clear that the historian of linguistics must become more acutely aware of the potential pitfalls of his/her work if the question of metalanguage is not attended to properly.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 1993

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