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A History of Linguistic Thought


...It would hardly be a waste of time if sometimes even the most advanced students in the cognitive sciences were to pay a visit to their ancestors. It is frequently claimed in American philosophy departments that, in order to be a philosopher, it is not necessary to revisit the history of philosophy. It is like the claim that one can become a painter without having ever seen a single work by Raphael, or a writer without having ever read the classics. Such things are theoretically possible; but the 'primitive' artist, condemned to an ignorance of the past, is always recognizable as such and rightly labeled as naïf. It is only when we consider past projects revealed as utopian or as failures that we are apprised of the dangers and possibilities for failure for our allegedly new projects. The study of the deeds of our ancestors is thus more than an atiquarian pastime, it is an immunological precaution.

-Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, page 316


Any thorough understanding of linguistics requires an understanding of not only modern linguistic theory, but also a history of linguistic theory and of events that have shaped language and our understanding of language and linguistics.

Unfortunately we are not able to include information on non-European linguistic traditions, some of which enjoy an even longer continuous and coherent history than does the present European tradition.

A Concise Outline of Linguistic History

The following is a general outline of the history of linguistics as described in R.H. Robins's book A Short History of Linguistics (4th Edition, 1997, Longman: New York), Pieter A.M. Seuren's Western Linguistics: An Historical Introduction (1998, Blackwell Publishers: Malden, Mass.), and Theodora Bynon and F.R. Palmer's Studies in the History of Western Linguistics (1986, Cambridge Press: New York).


"Indian linguistics was not itself historical in orientation, though its roots lay in the changes languages undergo in the course of time. But the topics covered by modern descriptive linguistics: semantics, grammar, phonology, and phonetics, were all treated at length in the Indian tradition; and in phonetics and in certain aspects of grammar, Indian theory and practice was definitely in advance of anything achieved in Europe or elsewhere before contact had been made with Indian work. The stimulation afforded by Sanskritic linguistic scholarship carried by Buddhist monks into China has already been noticed. European scholars realized immediately that they had encountered in India a mass of linguistic literature of the greatest importance and stemming from an independent source, even though their interpretation and full appreciation of it was in part halting and delayed" (Robins 1997:170).

"General linguistic theory was debated by Indian scholars as it was by scholars in the west, though before the end of the eighteenth century there was no contact between them. Language was considered against the background both of literary studies and of philosophical enquiry; and a number of the topics familiar to western scholarship, and almost inevitable in a serious examination of language, were also familiar to Indian linguists from early times" (Robins 1997:171-2).

  • Pānini: wrote a grammar of Sanskrit (between 600 B.C. and 300 B.C.) called Astadhyāyī (literally 'eight books').

  • Tolkāppiyam: early grammar of Tamil written around the second century B.C.

  • Bhartrhari: wrote Vākyapadīya (5th-7th Century A.D.), which states that the sentence should be interpreted as a single unit - which "conveys its meaning 'in a flash', just as a picture is first perceived as a unity, notwithstanding subsequent analysis into its component coloured shapes" (Robins 1997:173). In other words, the sentence is not understood as a sequence of words put together, but the full meaning of each word is only understood in the context of the other words around it.

  • Indian linguistic theory set out three requirements for a string of words to be considered a sentence: (1) (ākānksā) the words are members of suitable grammatical categories with appropriate morphology (inflection), (2) (yogyatā) the words must be 'semantically appropriate' to one another, (3) (samnidhi) and the words must be uttered as a concatenation.

    The Greeks

  • Herodotus

  • Plato's Cratylus

  • Aristotle

  • "Language is by convention, since no names arise naturally" (De interpretatione 16a 27).

    "Speech is the representation of the experiences of the mind, and writing is the representation of speech" (De interpretatione 16a 4-5).

  • The Stoics: Words/naming are/is intrinsic.

  • Epicurus: Word forms are intrinsic, but are modified through use (i.e. through convention).

  • Sextus Empiricus: Distinguished between the gender (masculine, feminine, and neuter) of nouns. Such classification was a remarkable insight for the time, however, it should be noted that distinguishing animacy markers by human gender is not the best way of looking at noun classification. In other words, the nouns that fall into the feminine gender don't necessarily have female characteristics (ex. the Greek word for battle helmet is feminine).

  • Apollonius: made a "tentative development of the formal concept of syntactic government between transitive verbs and nouns" (Robins 1997:47).

  • The Romans

    "Roman linguistics was largely the application of Greek thought, Greek controversies, and Greek categories to the Latin language" (Robins 1997:60).

    The Medieval Period

    Most of the linguistic work from the Middle Ages was focused on grammar, emphasizing Latin and Greek analyses.

    "Latin remained the language of learning, and its authority was increased by its use as the language of patristic literature and of the services and the administration of the western (Roman) Church. This alone ensured the language a high place, and linguistic studies in the early years of the Middle Ages were largely represented by studies in Latin grammar" (Robins 1997:82).

  • Isidore of Seville: did etymology and lexicography during the Seventh Century

  • Donatus & Priscian: were the principle grammarians of the Middle Ages. All of their work was based on Latin grammatical structure.

  • St. Jerome: translated the Bible into Latin; dealt with the theory of translation (he suggested a sense for sense translation instead of word for word.

  • Aelfric: Englishman; wrote an introduction to Old English grammar. He noticed marked differences between Latin and Old English grammar properties.

  • "In the history of linguistic science, the second part of the Middle Ages, from around 1100 to the close of the period, is the more significant. This was the period of scholastic philosophy, in which linguistic studies had an important place and in which a very considerable amount of linguistic work was carried on. This same era is also marked by the flowering of mediaeval architecture (the so-called 'Gothic') and literature, and the founding of several of the earliest universities of Europe. The movements of whole populations had now ceased, and the ascendancy of the Roman Church, strengthened by the foundation of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders, provided a central authority which, despite controversies and antagonisms, united all men's cultural activities as part of the service of God, and subordinated all intellectual pursuits to the study of the faith" (Robins 1997:85).

  • First grammatical treatise: written by an unknown Icelandic scholar known as the 'First Grammarian.' His work mostly deals with phonology, and it makes a distinction in speech sounds very similar to the modern concept of the phoneme.

  • Peter Helias: was a noted medieval grammarian.

  • Thomas of Erfurt: described the difference in nominative case marking for nouns versus adjectives.

  • William of Ockham: made famous nominalism, which asserts "that universals are words or names only, with no real existence outside language" (Robins 1997:101).

  • The Renaissance

    During this period, grammatical descriptions were written for several European languages. The Bible was also translated into many different languages during the Renaissance.

  • Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

  • Manuel Chrysoloras: produced the first grammar book of Greek in Western Europe.

  • School of Basra: was heavily influenced by the writings of Aristotle. They believed that language is strongly regular and systematic (similar ideas to modern Formalism).

  • Sībawaih: wrote a grammar of classical Arabic. He also wrote a phonetic description of the Arabic writing system.

  • Dante: wrote De vulgari eloquentia, which experimented with combining certain aspects of several Italian dialects into a new, highly regularized philosophical language.

  • Pierre Ramée: grammarian whose thought precludes modern concepts of European and American Structuralism. He made pokes at Aristotelian (from which Formalism would sprout) approaches to language, and argued that all languages should be appreciated in their own right.

  • Grammars for American-Indian languages were published during this period.

  • Tarascan (1558)

    Quechua (1560)

    Nahuatl (1571)

    Guarani (1640)

  • Cardinal Ricci: his journal outlines the difference between Chinese and Western European languages (ex. lack of morphology, tones, Chinese writing system, etc.).

  • Académie française: (established 1635); body of scholars who determine French language standards

  • British Royal Society: (established 1660); did a lot of work with linguistics during the early life of the society.

  • George Dalgarno: worked on philosophical languages.

  • John Wilkins: worked on philosophical languages.

  • Port Royal Grammarians: took a Rationalist approach to language; They believed in language universals as evidenced by a common thought structure in people throughout the civilized world.

  • 18th Century Europe

  • J.G. Herder: believed that language and thought are inseparable. His teachings serve as a strong precedent to the teachings of Benjamin Whorf and Noam Chomsky (generative grammar).

  • James Harris: held an Aristotelian view of grammar (i.e. he believed in language universals); he was also aware of the differences between the world's languages.

  • James Burnett (Monboddo): looked for evidence of a proto-language by studying the languages of 'primitive' peoples.

  • Sir William Jones: a judge in the British Royal Court in India; in 1786, he wrote a paper to the Royal Asiatic Society in Calcutta about the historical connection between Sanskrit and Western European languages such as Greek, the Romance Languages, and the Germanic Languages.

  • The 19th Century - Philology

  • Wilhelm von Humboldt: wrote The variety of human language structure, which was later hailed by Leonard Bloomfield as 'the first great book on general linguistics.' The book promotes the idea that language is the product of the creativity of the human mind, and so language shouldn't be evaluated according to antiquated ideas about grammatical structure. "One may also see how Kantian theory was itself influential in Humboldt's thinking. Kant's theory of perception involved sensations produced by the external world being ordered by categories or 'intuitions' (Anschauungen) imposed by the mind, notably those of space, time, and causality. This was a universal philosophical theory; Humboldt adapted it relativistically and linguistically by making the innere Sprachform of each language responsible for the ordering and categorizing of the data of experience, so that speakers of different languages live partly in different worlds and have different systems of thinking. One notes the use by Humboldt of the three verbal nouns Anschauen, Denken, and Fühlen (perception, thinking, and feeling) in connection with the operation of language" (Robins 1997:166).

  • Friedrich von Schlegel (1772-1829): coined the phrase 'comparative grammar,' which originially referred to comparing morphology in Sanskrit and other Indo-European languages to determine genetic relationships.

  • Dane R. Rask (1787-1832): pioneer in historical/comparative linguistics. He worked out a methodology for historical/comparative linguistics.

  • Jakob Grimm (1785-1863): devised Grimm's law which states that, "If there is found between two languages agreement in the forms of indispensable words to such an extent that rules of letter changes can be discovered for passing from one to the other, then there is a basic relationship between these languages."

  • Franz Bopp (1791-1867): worked further on classification of genetic relations among the Germanic languages.

  • August F. Pott (1802-1887): pioneered Indo-European historical linguistics and etymological studies. He was a professor of linguistics at the University of Halle.

  • August Schleicher (1821-1868): Schleicher indicated that contemporary languages had gone through a process in which simpler Ursprachen had given rise to descendent languages that obeyed natural laws of development. He argued that Darwin=s theory was thus perfectly applicable to languages and, indeed, that evolutionary theory itself was confirmed by the facts of language descent. "He regarded the three current language types, isolating, agglutinating, and infexional, as representing historical stages in the growth of languages to their highest point of organization. This conviction was expressed more than once in his statements that coexisting linguistic structural types represented the products of successive historical developments in the same way that successively evolved fishes, reptiles, birds, and mammals are represented today by coexistent species in our biological world" (Robins 1997:205).

  • The Neogrammarians: A theory of linguistics that sought to explain language change in terms of sound laws without exception and postulated that modern irregularities in language were the result of past regular sound changes.

  • Ferdinand de Saussure

  • Charles Sanders Peirce

  • The 20th Century - American Structuralism

  • Roman Jakobson

  • Leonard Bloomfield

  • Franz Boas

  • Edward Sapir

  • The 20th Century - Formalism

  • Noam Chomsky

  • George Lakoff

  • John Searle

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