History of linguistics

Linguistics as a study endeavors to describe and explain the human faculty of language and has been of scholarly interest throughout recorded history. Contemporary linguistics is the result of a continuous European intellectual tradition originating in ancient Greece that was later influenced by the ancient Indian tradition of linguistics due to the study of Sanskrit grammar by European linguists from the 18th century. China and the Middle East have also independently produced native schools of linguistic thought.

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.

Theoretical linguistics
Lexical semantics
Statistical semantics
Structural semantics
Prototype semantics
Applied linguistics
Language acquisition
Linguistic anthropology
Generative linguistics
Cognitive linguistics
Computational linguistics
Descriptive linguistics
Historical linguistics
Comparative linguistics
History of linguistics
List of linguists
Unsolved problems
History of science
Historiography of science
Theories and sociology of the history of science
Pre-experimental science
Science in early cultures
History of Medieval science
Scientific revolution
Natural sciences
Social sciences
History of pseudoscience
List of topics


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.


Main articles: Vyakarana and Tolkāppiyam
Linguistics in ancient India derived its impetus from the need to interpret the Vedic texts, and also to define standards of enunciation. In the Rigveda, vāk "speech" is deified. The early Sanskrit grammarian Sakatayana (c. 8th century BCE) proposes that verbs represent ontologically prior categories, and that all nouns are etymologically derived from actions. The etymologist Yāska (c. 7th 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. He also provides a test for nouns both concrete and abstract: words which can be indicated by the pronoun that.

Pāṇini (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
  1. map the semantics of verb argument structures into thematic roles,
  2. provide morphosyntactic rules called karaka (similar to case) that generate the morphology,
  3. take these morphological structures and consider phonological processes (e.g. stem modification) by which the final phonological form is obtained.
In addition, Pāṇini also provides a lexicon of 2000 verb roots which form the objects on which these rules are applied, and a list of 260 idiosyncratic 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 Pingala (ca. 200 BCE, prosody), Patanjali (2nd century BCE, Pāṇini commentary and Yoga Sutras), Katyayana (2nd century BCE, Pāṇini commentary and mathematics). Several debates ranged over centuries, for example, on whether word-meaning mappings were conventional (Vaisheshika-Nyaya) or eternal (Katyayana-Patanjali-Mimamsa).

The Nyaya Sutras (2nd century BCE) 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: Bhartrihari around 500 AD introduced a philosophy of meaning with his sphoṭa doctrine.

This body of work became widely known in 19th century Europe, and is thought to have influenced early Sanskrit scholars such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson. In particular, many of the foundational ideas proposed by de Saussure, who was a lecturer in Sanskrit, are thought to have been influenced by Pāṇini and Bhartrihari.

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.


Around the same time as the Indian developments, ancient Greek philosophers were also debating the nature and origins of language. A subject of concern was whether language was man-made 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. Aristotle supports the conventional origins of meaning.

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.

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"[1]. 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

Main article: 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 (d. 735-736 AD, 117 AH). 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), 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:
  • al-luġah (lexicon) concerned with collecting and explaining vocabulary
  • at-taṣrīf (morphology) determining the form of the individual words
  • an-naḥw (syntax) primarily concerned with inflection (iʿrāb) which had already been lost in dialects.
  • al-ištiqāq (derivation) examining the origin of the words
  • 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

Further information: Historical linguistics Indo-European studies
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

Further information: linguistic turn Linguistics Wars
From roughly 1980 onwards, pragmatic, functional, and cognitive approaches have steadily gained ground, both in the United States and in Europe.

See also


1. ^ Chris Fraser. Mohist Canons. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • Roy Harris and Talbot J. Taylor (1989). Landmarks in Linguistic Thought: The Western Tradition from Socrates to Saussure. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415002907. 
  • John E. Joseph, Nigel Love, and Talbot J. Taylor (2001). Landmarks in Linguistic Thought II: The Western Tradition in the Twentieth Century. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415063965. 
  • W. P. Lehmann, (ed.) (1967). A Reader in Nineteenth Century Historical Indo-European Linguistics. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253348404. 
  • Bimal Krishna Matilal (1990). The Word and the World: India's Contribution to the Study of Language. Delhi; New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195625153. 
  • Frederick J. Newmeyer (2005). The History of Linguistics. Linguistic Society of America. 
  • Mario Pei (1965). Invitation to Linguistics. Doubleday & Company. ISBN 0385065841. 
  • Robert Henry Robins (1997). A Short History of Linguistics. London: Longman. ISBN 0582249945. 
  • Kees Versteegh (1997). Landmarks in Linguistic Thought III: The Arabic Linguistic Tradition. London; New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415140625. 

A language is a system of symbols and the rules used to manipulate them. Language can also refer to the use of such systems as a general phenomenon.
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The term ancient Greece refers to the periods of Greek history in Classical Antiquity, lasting ca. 750 BC[1] (the archaic period) to 146 BC (the Roman conquest). It is generally considered to be the seminal culture which provided the foundation of Western Civilization.
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Ancient India may refer to:
  • The ancient History of India, which generally includes the ancient history of the whole Indian subcontinent (South Asia)

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Sanskrit grammatical tradition (vyākaraṇa
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The 18th Century lasted from 1701 through 1800 in the Gregorian calendar.

Historians sometimes specifically define the 18th Century otherwise for the purposes of their work.
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Middle East is a historical and political region of Africa-Eurasia with no clear boundaries. The term "Middle East" was popularized around 1900 in Britain, and has been criticized for its loose definition.
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Philosophy is the discipline concerned with questions of how one should live (ethics); what sorts of things exist and what are their essential natures (metaphysics); what counts as genuine knowledge (epistemology); and what are the correct principles of reasoning (logic).
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Anthropology (from Greek: ἄνθρωπος, anthropos, "human being"; and λόγος, logos, "speech" lit. to talk about human beings) is the study of humanity.
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Philology, etymologically, is the "love of words". It is most accurately defined as "an affinity toward the learning of the backgrounds as well as the current usages of spoken or written methods of human communication".
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religion is a set of common beliefs and practices generally held by a group of people, often codified as prayer, ritual, and religious law. Religion also encompasses ancestral or cultural traditions, writings, history, and mythology, as well as personal faith and mystic experience.
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al-‘Arabiyyah in written Arabic (Kufic script):  
Pronunciation: /alˌʕa.raˈbij.ja/
Spoken in: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman,
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Linguistics is the scientific study of language, which can be theoretical or applied. Someone who engages in this study is called a linguist.
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Theoretical linguistics is the branch of linguistics that is most concerned with developing models of linguistic knowledge. Part of this endeavor involves the search for and explanation of linguistic universals, that is, properties all languages have in common.
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Phonetics (from the Greek word φωνή, phone meaning 'sound, voice') is the study of the sounds of human speech. It is concerned with the actual properties of speech sounds (phones), and their production, audition and perception, while phonology, which
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Phonology (Greek φωνή (phōnē), voice, sound + λόγος (lógos), word, speech, subject of discussion), is a subfield of linguistics which studies the sound system of a
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Morphology is the field within linguistics that studies the internal structure of words. (Words as units in the lexicon are the subject matter of lexicology.
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In computer science, SYNTAX is a system used to generate lexical and syntactic analyzers (parsers) (both deterministic and non-deterministic) for all kind of context-free grammars
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Lexical semantics is a subfield of linguistics. It is the study of how and what the words of a language denote (Pustejovsky, 1995). Words may either be taken to denote things in the world, or concepts, depending on the particular approach to lexical semantics.
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Statistical Semantics is the study of "how the statistical patterns of human word usage can be used to figure out what people mean, at least to a level sufficient for information access" (Furnas, 2006).
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Structural semantics deals with relationships between the meanings of terms within a sentence, and how meaning can be composed from smaller elements.

See also

  • Principle of compositionality
  • Ferdinand de Saussure

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Prototype Theory is a mode of graded categorization in Cognitive Science, where some members of a category are more central than others. For example, when asked to give an example of the concept furniture, chair is more frequently cited than, say, stool.
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Pragmatics is the study of the ability of natural language speakers to communicate more than that which is explicitly stated. The ability to understand another speaker's intended meaning is called pragmatic competence.
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Applied linguistics is an interdisciplinary field of study that identifies, investigates, and offers solutions to language-related real life problems. Some of the academic fields related to applied linguistics are education, linguistics, psychology, anthropology, and sociology.
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Language acquisition is the process by which the language capability develops in a human. First language acquisition concerns the development of language in children, while second language acquisition focuses on
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Psycholinguistics or psychology of language is the study of the psychological and neurobiological factors that enable humans to acquire, use, and understand language.
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Sociolinguistics is the study of the effect of any and all aspects of society, including cultural norms, expectations, and context on the way language is used. Sociolinguistics overlaps to a considerable degree with pragmatics.
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