History of linguistics

History of linguistics

Linguistics as a study endeavors to describe and explain the human faculty of language.

Historically, linguistic study was motivated by the correct description of a liturgical language, notably that of Sanskrit grammar by IAST|Pāṇini (fl. 4th century BC). Also beginning around the 4th century BC, ancient Greece and China developed their own grammatical traditions. Arabic grammar and Hebrew grammar are a product of the Middle Ages.

Modern linguistics begins to develop in the 18th century and comes to flower in the "golden age of philology" of the 19th century.


Across cultures, the early history of linguistics is associated with a need to disambiguate discourse, especially for ritual texts or in arguments. This often led to explorations of sound-meaning mappings, and the debate over conventional versus naturalistic origins for these symbols. Finally this leads to the processes by which larger structures were formed from units.


Linguistics in ancient India derives its impetus from the need to correctly recite and interpret the Vedic texts. Already in the oldest Indian text, the Rigveda, IAST|"vāk" "speech" is deified. By 1200 BCE [Staal, J. F., "The Fidelity of Oral Tradition and the Origins of Science". North-Holland Publishing Company, 1986. p. 27] , the oral performance of these texts becomes standardized, and treatises on ritual recitation suggest splitting up the sanskrit compounds into words, stems, and phonetic units, providing an impetus for morphology and phonetics. Over the next few centuries, a great clarity is reached in the organization of sound units, and the the stop consonants get organized in a 5x5 square (c. 800 BCE, prAtishAkhyas), eventually leading to the very systematic alphabet, Brahmi, around 6th c. BCE.

In semantics, the early Sanskrit grammarian Sakatayana (before c. 500 BCE) proposes that verbs represent ontologically prior categories, and that all nouns are etymologically derived from actions. The etymologist Yāska (c. 5th c. BCE?) posits that meaning inheres in the sentence, and that word meanings are derived based on sentential usage. He also provides four categories of words - nouns, verbs, pre-verbs, and particles/invariants. He also provides a test for nouns both concrete and abstract: words which can be indicated by the pronoun "that".

IAST|Pāṇini (c. 4th century BC) opposes the Yāska view that sentences are primary, and proposes a grammar for composing semantics from morphemic roots. Transcending the ritual text to consider living language, Pāṇini specifies a comprehensive set of about 4,000 aphoristic rules (sutras) that
# map the semantics of verb argument structures into thematic roles,
# provide morphosyntactic rules for creating verb forms and nominal forms whose seven cases are called "karaka" (similar to case) that generate the morphology,
# take these morphological structures and consider phonological processes (e.g. root or stem modification) by which the final phonological form is obtained. In addition, the Pāṇinian school also provides a list of 2000 verb roots which form the objects on which these rules are applied, a list of sounds (the so-called Shiva-sutras, and a list of 260 words not derivable by the rules.

The extremely succinct specification of these rules and their complex interactions led to considerable commentary and extrapolation over the coming centuries. The phonological structure includes defining a notion of sound universals similar to the modern phoneme, the systematization of consonants based on oral cavity constriction, vowels based on height and duration. However, it is the ambition of mapping these from morpheme to semantics that is truly remarkable in modern terms.

Grammarians following Panini include Katyayana (c. 3rd century BCE, aphorisms on Pāṇini (Vartika) and mathematics), Patanjali (2nd century BCE, commentary on selected topics in Pāṇini's grammar (Mahabhasya) and on Katyayana's aphorisms, as well as according to some, also the author of the Yoga Sutras), and Pingala (prosody). Several debates ranged over centuries, for example, on whether word-meaning mappings were conventional (Vaisheshika-Nyaya) or eternal (Katyayana-Patanjali-Mimamsa).

The Nyaya Sutras specified three types of meaning: the individual ("this cow"), the type universal ("cowhood"), the image ("draw the cow"). That the sound of a word also forms a class (sound-universal) was observed by Bhartrihari (c. 500 AD), who also posits that language-universals are the units of thought, close to the nominalist or even the linguistic determinism position. Bhartrihari also considers the sentence to be ontologically primary (word meanings are learned given their sentential use).

Of the six canonical texts or Vedangas that formed the core syllabus in Brahminic educational from the first century AD till the eighteenth century, four dealt with language:
*Shiksha ("IAST|śikṣā"): phonetics and phonology (sandhi), (Gārgeya and commentators)
*Chandas ("IAST|chandas"): prosody or meter, (Pingala and commentators)
*Vyakarana ("IAST|vyākaraṇa"): grammar, (Unicode|Pāṇini and commentators)
*Nirukta ("IAST|nirukta"): etymology, (Yāska and commentators)

Bhartrihari around 500 AD introduced a philosophy of meaning with his sphoṭa doctrine.

This body of work became known in 19th century Europe, where it influenced modern linguistics initially through Franz Bopp, who mainly looked at pAnini. Subsequently, a wider body of work influenced Sanskrit scholars such as Ferdinand de Saussure, Leonard Bloomfield, and Roman Jakobson [Frits StaalThe science of language, Chapter 16, in Gavin D. Flood, ed. "The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism" Blackwell Publishing, 2003, 599 pages ISBN 0631215352, 9780631215356. p. 357-358 discuss the possible European impact of Indian ideas on language. After outlining the various aspects of the contact, Staal posits the theory that the idea of formal rules in language, first proposed by de Saussure in 1894, and finally developed by Chomsky in 1957, based on which formal rules were also introduced in computational languages, may indeed lie in the European exposure to the formal rules of pAninian grammar. ] . In particular, de Saussure, who lectured on Sanskrit for three decades, may have been influenced by Unicode|Pāṇini and Bhartrihari; his idea of the unity of signifier-signified in the sign is somewhat similar to the notion of sphoTa. More importantly, the very idea that formal rules can be applied to areas outside of logic or mathematics, may itself have been catalyzed by Europe's contact with the work of Sanskrit grammarians.

The South Indian linguist Tolkāppiyar (c. 1st century BC or AD) in his "Tolkāppiyam", presented a grammar of Tamil, derivatives of which are still used today.


The first important advancement of the Greeks was the creation of the alphabet based on a system previously used by the Phoenicians adding vowels and other consonants needed in Greek (see Robins, 1997). As a result of the introduction of writing, poetry such as the Homeric poems became written and several editions were created and commented, forming the basis of philology and critic.

Along with written speech, the Greeks commence its study in grammatical and philosophical bases. A philosophical discussion about the nature and origins of language can be found as early in the works of Plato. A subject of concern was whether language was man-made a social artifact or supernatural in origin. Plato in his Cratylus presents the naturalistic view, that word meanings emerge out of a natural process, independent of the language user. His arguments are partly based on examples of compounding, where the meaning of the whole is usually related to the constituents, although by the end he admits a small role for convention. The sophists and Socrates introduced also dialectics as a new text genre. In his platonic dialogs there are defintions about the meter of the poems and tragedy, the form and the structure of those texts (see the Rebublic and Phaidros, Ion etc.) [http://plato-dialogues.org/works.htm] .

Aristotle supports the conventional origins of meaning. He defined the logic of speech and the argument. Furthermore Aristotle works on rhetoric and poetics were of utmost importance for the understating of tragedy, poetry, public discussions etc. as text genres. Aristotle's work on logic interrelates with his special interest in language, and his work on this area was fundamentally important for the development of the study of language (logos in Greek means both language and logic reasoning). In Categories, Aristotle defines what is meant by "synonymous," or univocal words, what is meant by "homonymous," or equivocal words, and what is meant by "paronymous," or denominative words. It then divides forms of speech as being: * Either simple, without composition or structure, such as "man," "horse," "fights," etc. * Or having composition and structure, such as "a man fights," "the horse runs," etc.Next, he distinguishes between a subject of predication, namely that of which anything is affirmed or denied, and a subject of inhesion. A thing is said to be inherent in a subject, when, though it is not a part of the subject, it cannot possibly exist without the subject, e.g., shape in a thing having a shape. The categories are not abstract platonic entities but are found in speech, these are substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, action and affection. In de Interpretatione, Aristotle analyzes categoric propositions, and draws a series of basic conclusions on the routine issues of classifying and defining basic linguistic forms, such as simple terms and propositions, nouns and verbs, negation, the quantity of simple propositions (primitive roots of the quantifiers in modern symbolic logic), investigations on the excluded middle (what to Aristotle isn't applicable to future tense propositions — the Problem of future contingents), and on modal propositions.

Stoics made linguistics an important part of their understanding about the cosmos and the human. The important role of the Stoics in defining the linguistic sign terms adopted later on by Ferdinand de Saussure like "significant" and "signifie" [http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/#Log] . The Stoics studied phonetics grammar and etymology as separate levels of study. In phonetics and phonology the articulators were defined. The syllable became an important structure for the understanding of speech organization. One of the most important offers of the Stoics in language study was the gradual definition of the terminology and theory echoed in modern linguistics.

Alexandrian grammarians also studied speech sounds and prosody, defined Parts of Speech with notions such as noun, verb, etc. There was also a discussion about the role of analogy in language, in this discussions the grammatici in Alexandria supported that language and especially morphology is based on analogy or paradigm, whereas the grammatic in schools Asia Minor consider that language is not based on analogical bases but rather on exceptions.

Alexandrians as their predecessors were very interested about the meter and its relation with poetry. The metrical "feet" in the Greek was based on the length of time taken to pronounce each syllable, which were categorized according to their weight as either "long" syllables or "short" syllables (also known as "heavy" and "light" syllables, respectively, to distinguish from long and short vowels). The foot is often compared to a musical measure and the long and short syllables to whole notes and half notes. The basic unit in Greek and Latin prosody is a mora, which is defined as a single short syllable. A long syllable is equivalent to two moras. A long syllable contains either a long vowel, a diphthong, or a short vowel followed by two or more consonants. Various rules of elision sometimes prevent a grammatical syllable from making a full syllable, and certain other lengthening and shortening rules (such as correption) can create long or short syllables in contexts where one would expect the opposite. The most important Classical meter as defined by the Alexandrian grammarians was the dactylic hexameter, the meter of Homeric poetry. This form uses verses of six feet. The first four feet are dactyls, but can be spondees. The fifth foot is almost always a dactyl. The sixth foot is either a spondee or a trochee. The initial syllable of either foot is called the ictus, the basic "beat" of the verse. There is usually a caesura after the ictus of the third foot.

Subsequently, the text "Tékhnē grammatiké" (c. 100 BCE, Gk. "gramma" meant letter, and this title means "Art of letters"), possibly written by Dionysius Thrax, lists eight parts of speech, and lays out the broad details of Greek morphology including the case structures. This text was intended as a pedagogic guide (as was Panini), and also covers punctuation and some aspects of prosody. Other grammars by Charisius (mainly a compilation of Thrax, as well as lost texts by Remmius Palaemon and others) and Diomedes(focusing more on prosody) were popular in Rome as pedagogic material for teaching Greek to native Latin speakers.

One of the most prominent scholars of Alexandria and of the antiquity was Apollonius Dyscolus [http://schmidhauser.us/apollonius/] . Apollonius wrote more than thirty treatises on questions of syntax, semantics, morphology, prosody, orthography, dialectology, and more. Happily, four of these are preserved—we still have a Syntax in four books, and three one-book monographs on pronouns, adverbs, and connectives, respectively.

Lexicography become an important study domain as dictionaries,thesauri and lists of special words "λέξεις" that were old, or dialectical or special such as medical words, botanic words were made at that period by many grammarians. In the early medieval times we find more categories of dictionaries like the dictionary of Suida that is considered the first encyclopedic dictionary, etymological dictionaries etc.

At that period Greek language was considered lingua franca i.e. the language spoken in the known world (from the Greeks and Romans) of that time and as a results prescription i.e. the definition of what is wrong and right in language become a trend, something that modern linguistics straggle to overcome. With the Greeks a tradition commenced in the study of language, Romans and the Medieval world will follow and their laborious work is considered today as a part of our everyday language think for example notions such as the word, the syllable, the verb, the subject etc.


In the 4th c., Aelius Donatus compiled the Latin grammar "Ars Grammatica" that was to be the defining school text through the Middle Ages. A smaller version, "Ars Minor", covered only the eight parts of speech; eventually when books came to be printed in the 15th c., this was one of the
first books to be printed. Schoolboys subjected to all this education gave us the current meaning of "grammar" (attested in English since 1176).


Similar to the Indian tradition, Chinese philology, "Xiaoxue" (小學 "elementary studies"), began as an aid to understanding classics in the Han dynasty (c. 3d c. BCE). "Xiaoxue" came to be divided into three branches: "Xungu" (訓詁 "exegesis"), "Wenzi" (文字 "script [analysis] ") and "Yinyun" (音韻 " [study of] sounds") and reached its golden age in the 17th. c. AD (Qing Dynasty). The glossary "Erya" (c. 3d c. BCE), comparable to the Indian "Nighantu", is regarded as the first linguistic work in China. "Shuowen Jiezi" (c. 2nd c. BCE), the first Chinese dictionary, classifies Chinese characters by radicals, a practice that would be followed by most subsequent lexicographers. Two more pioneering works produced during the Han Dynasty are "Fangyan", the first Chinese work concerning dialects, and "Shiming", devoted to etymology.

As in ancient Greece, early Chinese thinkers were concerned with the relationship between names and reality. Confucius (6th c. BCE) famously emphasized the moral commitment implicit in a name, ("zhengming") saying that the moral collapse of the pre-Qin was a result of the failure to rectify behaviour to meet the moral commitment inherent in names: "Good government consists in the ruler being a ruler, the minister being a minister, the father being a father, and the son being a son... If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things." ("Analects" 12.11,13.3).

However, what is the reality implied by a name? The later Mohists or the group known as School of Names (ming jia, 479-221 BCE), consider that "ming" (名 "name") may refer to three kinds of "shi" (實 "actuality"): type universals (horse), individual (John), and unrestricted (thing). They adopt a realist position on the name-reality connection - universals arise because "the world itself fixes the patterns of similarity and difference by which things should be divided into kinds". [cite web
url = http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mohist-canons/
title = Mohist Canons
publisher=Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
author = Chris Fraser
] The philosophical tradition is well known for conundra resembling the sophists, e.g. when Gongsun Longzi (4th c. BCE) questions if in copula statements ("X is Y"), are "X" and "Y" identical or is "X" a subclass of "Y". This is the famous paradox "a white horse is not a horse".

Xun Zi (3d c. BCE) revisits "zhengming", but instead of rectifying behaviour to suit the names, his emphasis is on rectifying language to correctly reflect reality. This is consistent with a more "conventional" view of word origins ("yueding sucheng" 約定俗成).

The study of phonology in China began late, and was influenced by the Indian tradition, after Buddhism had become popular in China. The rime dictionary is a type of dictionary arranged by tone and rime, in which the pronunciations of characters are indicated by "fanqie" spellings. Rime tables were later produced to aid the understanding of "fanqie".

Philological studies flourished during the Qing Dynasty, with Duan Yucai and Wang Niansun as the towering figures. The last great philologist of the era was Zhang Binglin, who also helped lay the foundation of modern Chinese linguistics. The Western comparative method was brought into China by Bernard Karlgren, the first scholar to reconstruct Middle Chinese and Old Chinese with Latin alphabet (not IPA). Important modern Chinese linguists include Y. R. Chao, Luo Changpei, Li Fanggui and Wang Li.

The ancient commentators to the classics paid much attention to syntax and the use of particles. But the first Chinese grammar, in the modern sense of the word, was produced by Ma Jianzhong (late 19th century). His grammar was based on the Latin (prescriptive) model.

Middle Ages

Middle East

Due to the rapid expansion of Islam in the 8th century, many people learned Arabic as a lingua franca. For this reason, the earliest grammatical treatises on Arabic are often written by non-native speakers.

The earliest grammarian who is known to us is ArabDIN|ʿAbd Allāh ibn Abī Isḥāq al-Ḥaḍramī (d. 735-736 AD, 117 AH). The efforts of three generations of grammarians culminated in the book of the Persian linguist ArabDIN|Sibāwayhi (c. 760-793).

Sibawayh made a detailed and professional description of Arabic in 760 in his monumental work, "Al-kitab fi al-nahw" (الكتاب في النحو, "The Book on Grammar"), bringing many linguistic aspects of language to light. In his book he distinguished phonetics from phonology.

Traditionally, the Arabic grammatical sciences are divided into five branches:

*"ArabDIN|al-luġah" (lexicon) concerned with collecting and explaining vocabulary
*"ArabDIN|at-taṣrīf" (morphology) determining the form of the individual words
*"ArabDIN|an-naḥw" (syntax) primarily concerned with inflection ("ArabDIN|iʿrāb") which had already been lost in dialects.
*"ArabDIN|al-ištiqāq" (derivation) examining the origin of the words
*"ArabDIN|al-balāġah" (rhetoric) which elucidates construct quality


The Modistae or "speculative grammarians" in the 13th century introduced the notion of universal grammar.

In "De vulgari eloquentia" ("On the Eloquence of Vernacular"), Dante expanded the scope of linguistic enquiry from Latin/ Greek to include the languages of the day. Other linguistic works of the same period concerning the vernaculars include the First Grammatical Treatise (Icelandic) or the Auraicept na n-Éces (Irish).

The Renaissance and Baroque period saw an intensified interest in linguistics, notably for the purpose of Bible translations by the Jesuits, and also related to philosophical speculation on philosophical languages and the origin of language.

Modern linguistics

Modern linguistics does not begin until the late 18th century, and the romantic or animist theses of Johann Gottfried Herder and Johann Christoph Adelung remained influential well into the 19th century.

Historical linguistics

In the eighteenth century James Burnett, Lord Monboddo analyzed numerous primitive languages and deduced logical elements of the evolution of human language. His thinking was interleaved with his precursive concepts of biological evolution. Some of his early concepts have been validated and are considered correct today. In his "The Sanscrit Language" (1786), Sir William Jones proposed that Sanskrit and Persian had resemblances to classical Greek, Latin, Gothic, and Celtic languages. From this idea sprung the field of comparative linguistics and historical linguistics. Through the 19th century, European linguistics centered on the comparative history of the Indo-European languages, with a concern for finding their common roots and tracing their development.

In the 1820s, Wilhelm von Humboldt observed that human language was a rule-governed system, anticipating a theme that was to become central in the formal work on syntax and semantics of language in the 20th century, of this observation he said that it allowed language to make "infinite use of finite means" ("Über den Dualis" 1827).

It was only in the late 19th century that the Neogrammarian approach of Karl Brugmann and others introduced a rigid notion of sound law.

Descriptive linguistics

In Europe there was a parallel development of structural linguistics, influenced most strongly by Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss professor of Indo-European and general linguistics whose lectures on general linguistics, published posthumously by his students, set the direction of European linguistic analysis from the 1920s on; his approach has been widely adopted in other fields under the broad term "Structuralism."

During the second World War, Leonard Bloomfield and several of his students and colleagues developed teaching materials for a variety of languages whose knowledge was needed for the war effort.

This work led to an increasing prominence of the field of linguistics, which became a recognized discipline in most American universities only after the war.

Generative linguistics

Other subfields

From roughly 1980 onwards, pragmatic, functional, and cognitive approaches have steadily gained ground, both in the United States and in Europe.

ee also

*History of grammar
*History of communication


*cite book| author=John E. Joseph, Nigel Love, and Talbot J. Taylor |title=Landmarks in Linguistic Thought II: The Western Tradition in the Twentieth Century |publisher=London: Routledge|year= 2001|id=ISBN 0415063965
*cite book| author = Bimal Krishna Matilal
title = The Word and the World: India's Contribution to the Study of Language | publisher = Delhi; New York: Oxford University Press| year = 1990| id=ISBN 0195625153

* cite book| author = Robert Henry Robins
title = A Short History of Linguistics | publisher = London: Longman | year = 1997 | id=ISBN 0582249945

*cite book|author=Kees Versteegh|title=Landmarks in Linguistic Thought III: The Arabic Linguistic Tradition|publisher= London; New York: Routledge|year=1997 |id=ISBN 0415140625

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