Einar Haugen: In two hemispheres, about two languages, of two minds

Though American born, Einar Haugen was as well one of the most European of linguists; where others saw trans-Atlantic conceptual conflict, he professed comparability. While he rose to eminence within a structuralist episteme, his most imaginative contributions can now be appreciated through the lens of sociolinguistic process.

The 2015 Einar Haugen Lecture will be given by Michael Silverstein, and is open to everyone.

Einar Haugen (photo: news.harvard.edu)

Einar Haugen (photo: news.harvard.edu)


Here we celebrate the scholarly and scientific career of Einar Haugen by re-viewing some of his foundational work in the light of subsequent semiotic approaches to language, its conditions of use, and the processes involved in a politics of cultural value.

For example, though American born, Haugen was in many respects one of the most European of linguists. Where his coeval American colleagues, the Bloomfieldians, saw trans-Atlantic conceptual conflict, he recognized the comparability of local developments of structuralism in Europe and America, even though they were elaborated in distinct conceptual vocabularies.  And, while furthering such rapprochement, Haugen offered a cogent critique of the central theses of structuralism – assumptions we recognize even today in the doctrine of the ‘autonomy of syntax’ as both an ontological and epistemological commitment. Haugen called for the kind of linguistics grounded in substantively anchored categories of sound and meaning, as well as in formal, distributional universals.  This has turned out to be a linguistics that finds its elaboration in modern understanding of categorization and of the structure/usage dichotomy.

Himself natively bilingual in Norwegian and English, Haugen spent a lifetime investigating the dynamic forces both within and beyond their respective language communities. His investigation of The Norwegian Language in America documented changes in linguistic form over the century during which increasing, ultimately replacive bilingualism immersed this language community in the framing political and economic institutional landscape of the United States.  To understand this work, we introduce the conceptual distinction of the ‘language (or linguistic) community’ and the ‘speech community’ – a distinction this author formulated in one of Haugen’s seminars – and see how the projective interaction of the modern nation-state form and the language community, more or less unquestioned by Haugen, illuminates the historical phenomena in which he was interested.

Finally, we turn to the – as Haugen termed it – ‘schizoglossia’ of Norway’s politics of language, which resembles but does not quite fit into the condition of ‘diglossia’ that Haugen’s close colleague Charles Ferguson described as problematic and unstable in the modern nation-state.  Haugen’s Language Conflict and Language Planning – which this author first encountered in Haugen’s reading aloud of the galley proofs – can be re-conceptualized in terms of the semiotic processes through which ideological projects of “planning” focus on cultural forms like language.  We thus introduce the analytic concept of ‘indexical inoculation’, familiar to us from the linguistic reforms to English and other European languages emerged from Second Wave Feminism, and interpret what seems to have been at stake in the misfires of language advocacy in Norway in terms more conducive to a political sociology of identities.

Haugen’s most imaginative contributions can now be appreciated through the lens of a more frankly semiotic perspective on linguistic structure and sociolinguistic process.    

Michael Silverstein (photo: chicago.edu)

Michael Silverstein

Michael Silverstein is the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, of Linguistics, and of Psychology and in the Committee on Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities at the University of Chicago.

Read more on his staff profile.


Published June 17, 2015 12:29 PM - Last modified July 20, 2020 10:36 AM