Willem J. M. Levelt, "A History of Psycholinguistics: The Pre-Chomskyan Era" (Oxford UP, 2012)


The only disappointment with A History of Psycholinguistics: The Pre-Chomskyan Era (Oxford UP, 2012) is that, as the subtitle says, the story it tells stops at the cognitive revolution, before Pim Levelt is himself a major player in psycholinguistics. He says that telling the story of the last few decades is a task for someone else. The task he's taken on here is to describe the progress made in the psychology of language between its actual foundation - around 1800 - and the point at which it's widely and erroneously believed to have been founded - around 1951. The story that the book tells is remarkable in many ways: not only for its vast breadth and depth of scholarship, but also for the number of misconceptions that it corrects. Levelt uncovers how many modern theories in psycholinguistics are in fact independent rediscoveries of proposals made in the 19th century, and charts the significant positive contributions made to the science by figures who are often overlooked or even derided now (we discuss a couple of such cases in this interview). He vividly depicts how the rapid march of progress was catastrophically disrupted in the early 20th century, by a combination of political strife and scientific wrong turns, before being restored in the 1950s. In this interview we talk about some of the recurring themes of the book - forgetting and rediscovery, the remarkably prescient nature of much 19th century theoretical and experimental work, and the collective misunderstanding of the history of the discipline. And we touch upon the intentional misunderstandings that allowed research in psycholinguistics to be exploited for financial gain or more sinister purposes.

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