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Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Maria de Lourdes R. da F. Passos, Shriver Center, 200 Trapelo Road, Waltham, Massachusetts 02452, e-mail: ude.demssamu

Bloomfield"s “Linguistics as a Science” (1930/1970), Language (1933/1961), and “Language or Ideas?” (1936a/1970), and Skinner"s Verbal Behavior (1957) and Science and Human Behavior (1953) were analyzed in regard to their respective perspectives on science and scientific method, the verbal episode, meaning, and subject matter. Similarities between the two authors were found. In particular both asserted that (a) the study of language must be carried out through the methods of science; (b) the main function of language is to produce practical effects on the world through the mediation of a listener; and (c) a physicalist conception of meaning. Their differences concern the subject matter of their disciplines and their use of different models for the analysis of behavior. Bloomfield"s linguistics and Skinner"s functional analysis of verbal behavior are complementary approaches to language.

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Keywords: verbal behavior, Bloomfield"s and Skinner"s analyses of language, interdisciplinary approach to verbal behavior

Previous reports (Matos & Passos, 2004, 2006; Passos & Matos, 1998) have pointed to the influence of linguistic analyses (mainly the technique of writing, traditional grammar, and structural linguistics1) on Skinner"s Verbal Behavior (1957). Two of these influences were Leonard Bloomfield"s conceptions of the phoneme and analogy. Other reports have also pointed to the influence of Bloomfield"s teaching on Skinner (see, e.g., Joseph, Love, & Taylor, 2001, p. 110; McLeish & Martin, 1975; Passos, 2004, 2007), but the extent of this influence has not yet been fully evaluated. This paper examines more extensively this influence by comparing Bloomfield"s and Skinner"s formulations on the following topics: (a) the conception of science and of scientific method, (b) the act of speech or verbal episode, (c) meaning, and (d) subject matter. In the evaluation of possible influences, we look especially at four of the major characteristics of Skinner"s thinking: (a) verbal behavior as mediated by a listener to be effective on the physical world; (b) the physicalist, as opposed to mentalistic, conception of verbal behavior and meaning; (c) the functional analysis of verbal behavior, with environmental events as the ultimate determinants of verbal behavior; and (d) verbal behavior as operant behavior maintained by its consequences.

The following works were examined: for Skinner, Verbal Behavior (1957), his most important work on the issue of verbal behavior, and Science and Human Behavior (1953); for Bloomfield, the works we found cited by Skinner, namely “Linguistics as a Science” (1930/1970), Language (1933/1961), and “Language or Ideas?” (1936a/1970). (Although Skinner did not cite Bloomfield in Verbal Behavior, he did so in Contingencies of Reinforcement, 1969, p. 11, in his autobiography, 1979, pp. 150, 281–282, and in a paper by Epstein, Lanza, & Skinner, 1980.)


Leonard Bloomfield

Leonard Bloomfield (1887–1949) was a major influence in the shift of linguistics from the historical and comparative study of languages prevalent during the 19th century to the description of the structure of languages in the 20th century. He defined himself as a behaviorist. His work at Ohio University, from 1921 to 1927, put him in close touch with the behaviorist A. P. Weiss (1879–1931), and they greatly influenced each other (Hall, 1990, pp. 23–26). In addition to his intimate knowledge of Weiss" work, whom he deeply admired and frequently cited (Bloomfield, 1930/1970, 1931/1970, 1932/1970, 1933/1961, pp. 512, 515, 1935/1970, 1936a/1970, 1936b/1970, 1942b/1970, 1944/1970), he was also aware of some of Pavlov"s, Watson"s, and Meyer"s writings (Bloomfield, 1932/1970; 1936a/1970).

Coseriu (1986) considers Bloomfield “un lingüista ‘euro-americano’ conocedor de toda la tradición europea y americana … [en quien] confluyen todas las fuentes del estructuralismo” (“a ‘Euro-American’ linguist with expertise in all the European and American tradition … [in whom] flows together all the sources of structuralism”) (p. 149). To Bloomfield, more than to any other of his contemporaries, linguistics owes a certain and explicit methodological orientation: He “was the first to demonstrate the possibility and to exemplify the means of a unified scientific approach to all aspects of linguistic analysis: phonemic, morphological, syntactical; synchronic and diachronic” (Hall, 1950/1970, p. 549).

Bloomfield"s contributions were sophisticated and varied. With ample knowledge of the Germanic, Indic, Slavic, and Greek linguistic groups (Bloch, 1949/1970), he made clearly explicit theoretical principles of the study of the Indo-European group of languages, in addition to relating these comparative studies to the plan of general linguistics (Lehmann, 1987). In the field of non-Indo-European languages, his excellent work (Fought, 1999a; Wolff, 1987) on Tagalog in 1917 was the first complete structural description of a language made in American linguistics (Hall, 1990, p. 17). He applied the methods of historical and comparative linguistics to the non-Indo-European Algonquian2 languages, becoming a reference for later studies of these languages (Goddard, 1987) and allowing the questioning of the presumed superiority of Indo-European languages by demonstrating that the same mechanisms of regular phonetic change already established for them were also verified in the indigenous languages of America (Bloomfield, 1919b/1987; Fought, 1999a).

Conceiving of mathematics as having an eminently linguistic nature,3 he illuminated its linguistic foundations by analyzing its discourse as a corpus, as any other set of linguistic data (e.g., a set of texts from a language) (Bloomfield, 1935/1970, 1936b/1970, 1937/1970, 1942b/1970; Hockett, 1970a, 1999). According to Tomalin (2004), his linguistic interest in mathematics evolved from his knowledge of contemporaneous branches of mathematics and the debate over the foundations of this discipline among leading mathematicians, which reveals Bloomfield"s wide intellectual scope.

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He formulated theoretical and methodological principles based on structural linguistics for the teaching of foreign languages (Bloomfield, 1942, 1945/1970) and didactic material specifically for the teaching of Russian and Dutch (Cowan, 1987). He offered what was probably the first systematic, detailed, and complete application of structural linguistics to the teaching of reading, combining the analysis of the relations between alphabetical writing and speech with the knowledge of the structure of languages in general and of the English language in particular. He specified principles to be followed in the teaching of reading for alphabetical writing regardless of the language, and applied them in a program for English, with ordered lessons, from the first words through full texts (Bloomfield, 1942a/1970; Bloomfield & Barnhart, 19614). Behavior-analytic research on the teaching of reading would greatly benefit from the study of this material (Matos & Passos, 2006).

His textbook Language (1933/1961) treats, among others, the following subjects: history of linguistic studies since antiquity; a physicalist and behaviorist conception of language; speech communities and the various languages and families of languages; descriptive and synchronic linguistics (phonology, meaning, lexicon, and grammar, with syntax and morphology); systems of writing and the role of written records in linguistic inquiries; historical and comparative linguistics; dialectology; and practical applications of linguistic knowledge. Since its publication, the book has been celebrated for the extent and importance of the areas of linguistic knowledge covered, for always presenting the best available information in each of these areas, and for the clarity and order of its exposition (Bolling, 1935/1970; Edgerton, 1933/1970; Kroesch, 1933/1970; Sturtevant, 1934/1970). It continues to be evaluated as an important reference in linguistic studies (Hockett, 1984, 1999; Lepschy, 1982, pp. 84–85). Coseriu (1986) considers the book as important for linguistics as the Cours de Linguistique Générale by de Saussure. He stated that Language

es—por su equilibrio, por su coherencia, por la vastedad y seguridad de la información en que se funda, por la multitud de problemas que toca—el mejor y el más completo tratado de lingüística general que se haya jamás escrito (esto, independientemente de cómo se juzgue la postura teórica de su autor). (is—by its balance, its coherence, the vastness and soundness of the information on which it is based, by the multitude of problems it touches—the best and most complete treatise of general linguistics which has been written ever [this, independently of how the theoretical position of its author is judged]). (p. 149)

Language influenced linguistics deeply and lastingly (Robins, 1997, pp. 237–238). Until the beginning of the 1960s (Koerner, 2003), American linguists followed predominantly a Bloomfieldian orientation, particularly in respect to the methods and techniques of description. Although since the 1960s a good part of linguistics has adopted a predominantly Chomskyan perspective5 (Robins, 1997, p. 260), many linguists remained influenced by Bloomfield (Murray, 1991/1999), and some of them consider his works to be a more valuable source of linguistic knowledge than the ones of any of his successors:

Bloomfield"s descriptive linguistics and the system of elements and categories that expressed it had been broken up within his own lifetime by his heirs. Each adopted different subsets of its elements and quietly rejected the rest, while continuing to invoke Bloomfield"s name in their works. I have come to believe, however, that it was Bloomfield, not his heirs, who saw farther and more clearly. (Fought, 1999b, pp. 328–329)