History of linguistics

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Efforts to describe and explain the human language faculty have been undertaken throughout recorded history. Contemporary linguistics is the outcome of a continuous European intellectual tradition originating in Ancient Greece. India and China both produced native schools of linguistic thought; some of the achievements of Indian linguists precede equivalent Western developments by more than a thousand years.

At various stages in history, linguistics as a discipline has been in close contact with such disciplines as philosophy, anthropology and philology. In some cultures linguistic analysis has been applied in the service of religion, particularly for the determination of the religiously preferred spoken and written forms of sacred texts in Hebrew, Sanskrit and Arabic. Contemporary Western linguistics is close to philosophy and cognitive science.


Linguistics in Antiquity

Linguistics was pursued in ancient India for many centuries. The 5th century BC grammar of Pāṇini is a particularly detailed description of Sanskrit morphology evincing a high level of linguistic insight and analysis. The Indian grammatical tradition is believed to have been active for many centuries before Pāṇini, and anticipates by millennia certain developments in the West: the phoneme, generation of word forms by the successive application of morphological rules, etc. (Embarrassingly, the phoneme seems to have been discovered and forgotten several times through history.)

While Indian scholars pursued grammar, Greek philosophers were debating the nature and origins of language. A subject of concern was whether language was man-made or supernatural in origin. The possibilities that the meaning of language is agreed to by consensus versus having a predetermined fixed value was also considered. An example for the Greek debates about language is available in Plato's Cratylus. It was not till relatively late that the Greeks developed a set of grammatical rules for their language. It was upon this foundation that Roman philosophers built the grammar rules for Latin.

Medieval linguistics

Medievil Europe accepted the Greek and Latin without change until the start of the Italian Renaissance. In De vulgari eloquentia ("On the Eloquence of Vernacular"), Dante expanded the scope of linguistic enquiry from the traditional languages of antiquity to include the language of the day. From this base the grammars and vocabularies of the various languages of Europe were then explored.

Modern Western linguistics

Historical linguistics

In 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 or 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.

Working from a biblical perspective some scholars believed that all human languages were descended from the language of Adam, a language called the Adamic language. Many of these scholars believed that the Hebrew language was, in fact, the same as the Adamic language.

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 sysntax 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).

About 1880, scholars in the United States began to record the hundreds of native languages once found in North America. The concern with describing languages spread throughout the world, and thousands of languages around the world have now been analyzed to varying degrees. As this work was developing in the early twentieth century, mainly in America, linguists were confronted with languages whose structures differed greatly from those of known European languages.

Scholars decided they needed a theory of linguistic structure and methods of analysis.

From such concerns came the field of structural linguistics. Pioneers in it include the anthropologists Franz Boas and Edward Sapir, and Leonard Bloomfield.

When historical-comparative linguistics first met unfamiliar languages, the linguist's first job was to thoroughly describe the language.

Descriptive linguistics

In Europe there was a parallel development of structural linguistics, influenced most strongly by Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss student 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 specialties

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



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