History of linguistics

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

In ancient civilization, linguistic study was originally motivated by the correct description of classical liturgical language, notably that of Sanskrit grammar beginning in about the 6th century BCE, or by the development of logic and rhetoric in ancient Greece, leading to a grammatical tradition in Hellenism. Beginning around the 4th century BCE, China also developed its own grammatical traditions. Traditions of Arabic grammar and Hebrew grammar developed during the Middle Ages, also in a religious context.

Modern linguistics began to develop in the 18th century, reaching the "golden age of philology" in the 19th century. The first half of the 20th century was marked by the structuralist school, based on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure in Europe and Edward Sapir and Leonard Bloomfield in the United States. The 1960s saw the rise of many new fields in linguistics, such as Noam Chomsky's generative grammar, William Labov's sociolinguistics, Michael Halliday's systemic functional linguistics and also modern psycholinguistics.


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 led to the processes by which larger structures are 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, vāk ("speech") is deified. By 1200 BCE,[1] 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, clarity was reached in the organization of sound units, and the stop consonants were organized in a 5x5 square (c. 800 BCE, Pratisakhyas), eventually leading to a systematic alphabet, Brāhmī, by the 3rd century BCE.

In semantics, the early Sanskrit grammarian Śākaṭāyana (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 century 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—and a test for nouns both concrete and abstract: words which can be indicated by the pronoun that.

Pāṇini (c. 4th century BCE) 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:

  1. Map the semantics of verb argument structures into thematic roles
  2. Provide morphosyntactic rules for creating verb forms and nominal forms whose seven cases are called karaka (similar to case) that generate the morphology
  3. 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 following 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, and 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 Pāṇini include Kātyāyana (c. 3rd century BCE), who wrote aphorisms on Pāṇini (the Varttika) and advanced mathematics; Patañjali (2nd century BCE), known for his commentary on selected topics in Pāṇini's grammar (the Mahabhasya) and on Kātyāyana's aphorisms, as well as, according to some, the author of the Yoga Sutras, and Pingala, with his mathematical approach to prosody. Several debates ranged over centuries, for example, on whether word-meaning mappings were conventional (Vaisheshika-Nyaya) or eternal (Kātyāyana-Patañjali-Mīmāṃsā).

The Nyaya Sutras specified three types of meaning: the individual (this cow), the type universal (cowhood), and the image (draw the cow). That the sound of a word also forms a class (sound-universal) was observed by Bhartṛhari (c. 500 CE), who also posits that language-universals are the units of thought, close to the nominalist or even the linguistic determinism position. Bhartṛhari 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 education from the 1st century CE until the 18th century, four dealt with language:

Bhartrihari around 500 CE 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 Pāṇini. Subsequently, a wider body of work influenced Sanskrit scholars such as Ferdinand de Saussure, Leonard Bloomfield, and Roman Jakobson. Frits Staal[2] discussed 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 Pāṇini and Bhartrihari; his idea of the unity of signifier-signified in the sign is somewhat similar to the notion of Sphoṭa. 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 Pali Grammar of Kacchayana, dated to the early centuries CE, describes the language of the Buddhist canon.

The Tolkāppiyam (dated to 3rd century BCE) presents a grammar of Tamil, derivatives of which are still used today.


The Greeks developed an alphabet based on a system previously used by the Phoenicians, adding signs for vowels and for extra consonants appropriate to their idiom (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 on, forming the basis of philology and criticism.

Along with written speech, the Greeks commenced studying grammatical and philosophical issues. A philosophical discussion about the nature and origins of language can be found as early as 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 from 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 dialectics as a new text genre. The Platonic dialogs contain definitions of the meters of the poems and tragedy, the form and the structure of those texts (see the Republic and Phaidros, Ion, etc.).[3]

Aristotle supports the conventional origins of meaning. He defined the logic of speech and of the argument. Furthermore, Aristotle's works on rhetoric and poetics became of the utmost importance for the understanding 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. He 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 (which to Aristotle isn't applicable to future tense propositions — the Problem of future contingents), and on modal propositions.

The Stoics made linguistics an important part of their system of the cosmos and the human. They played an important role in defining the linguistic sign-terms adopted later on by Ferdinand de Saussure like "significant" and "signifié".[4] 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 contributions 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; they 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 discussion the grammatici in Alexandria supported the view that language and especially morphology is based on analogy or paradigm, whereas the grammatic in schools in Asia Minor consider that language is not based on analogical bases but rather on exceptions.

Alexandrians, like their predecessors, were very interested in meter and its role in poetry. The metrical "feet" in the Greek was based on the length of time taken to pronounce each syllable, with syllables categorized according to their weight as either "long" syllables or "short" syllables (also known as "heavy" and "light" syllables, respectively, to distinguish them 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 normally 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 (170 – 90 BCE), 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.[5] 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 domain of study as many grammarians compiled dictionaries, thesauri and lists of special words "λέξεις" that were old, or dialectical or special (such as medical words or botanic words) at that period. In the early medieval times we find more categories of dictionaries like the dictionary of Suida (considered the first encyclopedic dictionary), etymological dictionaries etc.

At that period, the Greek language functioned as a lingua franca, a language spoken throughout the known world (for the Greeks and Romans) of that time and, as a result, modern linguistics struggles to overcome this. With the Greeks a tradition commenced in the study of language. The Romans and the medieval world followed, and their laborious work is considered[by whom?] today as a part of our everyday language. Think, for example, of notions such as the word, the syllable, the verb, the subject etc.


In the 4th century, 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 century, 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. 3rd century 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 century CE (Qing Dynasty). The glossary Erya (c. 3rd century BCE), comparable to the Indian Nighantu, is regarded as the first linguistic work in China. Shuowen Jiezi (c. 2nd century 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 century BCE) famously emphasized the moral commitment implicit in a name, (zhengming) stating 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".[6] The philosophical tradition is well known for conundra resembling the sophists, e.g. when Gongsun Longzi (4th century 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 (3rd century BCE) revisits the principle of 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 on 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

Arabic grammar

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 ʿAbd Allāh ibn Abī Isḥāq al-Ḥaḍramī (died 735-736 CE, 117 AH).[7] The efforts of three generations of grammarians culminated in the book of the Persian linguist 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). In his book he distinguished phonetics from phonology.[citation needed]

European vernaculars

The Irish Sanas Cormaic 'Cormac's Glossary' is Europe's first etymological and encyclopedic dictionary in any non-Classical language.

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 did 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 18th century James Burnett, Lord Monboddo analyzed numerous 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.

Historical linguistics also led to the emergence of the semantics and some forms of pragmatics (Nerlich, 1992; Nerlich and Clarke, 1996).

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, William Mandeville Austin[8] 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.

In 1965, William Stokoe, a linguist from Gallaudet University published an analysis [1] which proved that American Sign Language fits the criteria for a natural language.

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.

See also


  1. Staal, J. F., The Fidelity of Oral Tradition and the Origins of Science. North-Holland Publishing Company, 1986. p. 27
  2. The science of language, Chapter 16, in Gavin D. Flood, ed. The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism Blackwell Publishing, 2003, 599 pages ISBN 0-631-21535-2, ISBN 978-0-631-21535-6. p. 357-358
  3. http://plato-dialogues.org/works.htm
  4. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/#Log
  5. http://schmidhauser.us/apollonius/
  6. Chris Fraser. "Mohist Canons". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Monique Bernards, "Pioneers of Arabic Linguistic Studies." Taken from In the Shadow of Arabic: The Centrality of Language to Arabic Culture, pg. 213. Ed. Bilal Orfali. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2011. ISBN 9789004215375
  8. https://www.academia.edu/6144987/History_of_Linguistics_William_Mandeville_AUSTIN


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