August 30, 2019, by Brigitte Nerlich

Grace de Laguna: A forgotten pioneer in the history of the language sciences

Recently I was asked to write something about Grace de Laguna. Grace de what… I wondered… until I googled myself and found that I had written a few pages about her work in my 1996 book on the history of pragmatics. That was a blast from the past!

But this also made me think. I have recently been very much interested in science communication and the contributions women have made to the history of science and of science communication. I even fantasised about writing a book about some of them. That will never happen. But what about women in the books I have written in the past?

Women in the history of semantics and pragmatics

In my early academic life, when I was trying to become a historian of linguistics, I was lucky to have been surrounded and inspired by women philosophers, philosophers of language and historians of linguistics. To name just a few: Ingeborg Heidemann, Rebecca Posner, Brigitte Schlieben-Lange, Wendy Ayres-Bennett, Simone Delesalle, Vivien Law, Vivian Salmon, and Joanna Channel (who gave me a home here at the University of Nottingham at the end of the 1980s). My colleague Nicola McLelland, who currently works here the University of Nottingham, even organised a conference on women in the history of linguistics a couple of years, which I unfortunately couldn’t attend…..

But what about women in my books on the history of 19th and early 20th-century semantics and pragmatics? (Semantics deals with meaning as a feature of language; pragmatics deals with meaning as a function of the use of language in social interaction and in context). Did I mention any women, apart from Grace? Were there any women to mention? I should stress that these histories cover a lot of ground from philosophy to psychology, from sociology to anthropology, and from biology and anatomy to geology and beyond… all these disciplines fed, in some fashion, into the study of language as a form of action in context….

I went back to my books and had a good look through my indexes. There are hundreds of men and only a handful of women. Who were these rare creatures? Two have actually featured already in previous blog posts: the British philosopher Victoria, Lady Welby and the American psychologist Gertrude Buck and then there are two American philosophers: Susanne Langer and … Grace de Laguna. Were there others I could I have dug out I wonder…. I doubt it, but this invitation to write a few words about Grace de Laguna has given me a chance to do some digging in the future.

Grace de Laguna

What about Grace de Laguna?

Grace lived a long life. She was born in 1878 and died in 1978. She “spent over 60 years teaching philosophy to women at Bryn Mawr. She completed her undergraduate degree at Cornell University in 1903, at age 24, and went on to complete her Ph.D. there in 1906. In 1925, during her tenure at Bryn Mawr, she established the Fullerton Philosophy Club with her husband Theodore de Laguna, to foster philosophical discussion among philosophers and faculty members.”

Her writings initially explored core philosophical issues, but later in life she “became interested in communication and the social sciences, and to these she turned her philosophical skills. She worked at improving the theoretical foundations of psychology, anthropology and sociology.”

The social function of language

My own interest in her was triggered by reading her 1927 book Speech: Its Function and Development (1927). In this book she studied language, or rather speech, as a social phenomenon, from a behaviourist and functionalist perspective.

She stands in a long tradition of linguistic rebels (which I explored in my book) who argued against seeing the function of language purely as the expression of thoughts, ideas or representations. She stressed that:

  • Language, or rather speech, is not reducible to the “expression of ideas”. The “act of speaking” is a social act, much like buying and selling. It performs a function in society, a social function. This function is that of “coördinating the activities of the members of the group”.
  • Thought does not precede “conversation”, it is rather the other way around: conversation is the condition for thought .
  • The origin of language lies not in the wish to communicate ideas, but in efforts to coordinate actions.

According to her, the view that language is a “means of expressing or communicating ideas” (1927: 9) is not so much wrong as sterile and futile. Just like Alan Gardiner (and Philip Wegener before her), she asks: “For why should ideas be expressed or communicated?” (p. 10), or in the words of Gardiner: “But why do we go about troubling our neighbours with our units of thought? Why do we inflict our ‘complete thoughts’ or meanings upon them?” (Gardiner 1921-22: 353). The answer is: not to express thoughts, but to influence actions.

In her own words: “What does speech do? What objective function does it perform in human life? […] speech is the great medium through which human coöperation is brought about. It Is the means by which the diverse activities of men are coördinated and correlated with each other for the attainment of common and reciprocal ends. Men do not speak simply to relieve feelings or to air their views, but to awaken a response in their fellows and to influence their attitudes and acts.” (De Laguna 1927: 19).

The symbolic function of language

What about language used in the transmission of thought and knowledge? Although the ‘pragmatic’ function of language, that of triggering and coordinating actions, is evolutionarily primary (and with it the question and command as sentence types), the highest function of language is the symbolic function (and with it the statement, or as she calls it ‘proclamation’ as sentence type). As Charles Morris says in a review of Speech: “Language may turn back upon itself and rise to higher and higher degrees of indirectness of reference, and the origin of universals and the formal studies of logic and mathematics is to be explained in terms of this process.”

De Laguna in the history of science

There is much more to say, but this will be enough for a blog post. De Laguna was one of many pioneers in the history of pragmatics, surrounded by numerous other pioneers in philosophy, sociology, anthropology and psychology.

De Laguna was influenced by John Dewey and George Herbert Mead (see de Laguna, 1946) was reviewed by Charles Morris, corresponded with Edward Sapir, was praised by Karl Bühler – all giants in the history of science (pragmatism, semiotics, anthropology, linguistics, psychology). She knew about the work of other grand names in psychology, anthropology and sociology, such as Wilhelm Wundt, Bronislaw Malinowski, Émile Durkheim and so on….

However, there are also some gaps in her reading and associations. Some of her work overlaps with Erving Goffman’s but she doesn’t seem to have known him or his work, and the same goes for Marcel Mauss, Antoine Meillet, Alan Gardiner, Susanne Langer, and also Ferdinand de Saussure. And, most surprisingly, she doesn’t seem to have read Philip Wegener, with whom she shares many insights into speech acts, predication, the emergence of language from its use on situations, etc…

Although somewhat eclectic, De Laguna’s work, as Charles Morris said in his review, lifts “the discussion of language to a new level” and is “worthy of that rumination which according to Nietzsche is characteristic of cows and philosophers”.

I hope I can do her justice in the future, and, in the process, dig out some other women pioneers in the history of linguistic thought.

Image: Bryn Mawr College




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