The History of Linguistics

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Linguistics as a study endeavors to describe and explain the human faculty of language. The history of linguistics is a branch of intellectual history, for it deals with history of ideas- ideas about language- and not directly with language itself (Law, 2003, p. 2). Many histories of linguistics have been written over the last two hundred years, and since 1970s linguistic historiography has become a specialized subfield.

Early developments in linguistics were considered part of philosophy, rhetoric, logic, psychology, biology, pedagogy, poetics, and religion, making it difficult to separate the history of linguistics from intellectual history in general, and, as a consequence, work in the history of linguistics has contributed also to the general history of ideas.

In ancient civilization, linguistic study was originally motivated by the correct description of classical liturgical language, notably that of Sanskrit grammar by Panini.

Panini is known for his Sanskrit grammar, particularly for his formulation of the 3,959 rules (of Sanskrit morphology, syntax and semantics in the grammar known as Ashtadhyayi which is one of the earliest known grammars.

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Asstadhyayi is the earliest known work on descriptive linguistics, and stands at the beginning of the history of linguistics itself.

Paini’s theory of morphological analysis was more advanced than any equivalent Western theory before the mid-20th century (Staal, 1988 (Staal)), and his analysis of noun compounds still forms the basis of modern linguistic theories of compounding. European scholarship in Sanskrit, begun by Heinrich Roth (1620–1668) and Johann Ernst Hanxleden (1681–1731), is regarded as responsible for the discovery of the Indo-European language family by Sir William Jones.

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These scholars played an important role in the development of western philology, or historical linguistics.

Sir William Jones stated that the Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity; both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.

Based on this, Jones is usually credited with founding comparative linguistics and discovering the relationship among Indo-European languages. With Frederic von Schlegel, comparative grammar became a continuing focus of historical linguistic studies. Schlegel drew from biology and comparative anatomy, and employed the notion of a family tree. Grammatical structure was his main criterion of family relatedness; two languages were considered related only when their ‘inner structure’ or ‘comparative grammar’ presents distinct resemblances (Schlegel 1808: 6-7).

Scientists are not all alike in ability, motivation, and inspiration. Every practitioner must learn his craft and master the state of his science as it is presented to him when he enters upon it; and if it is to continue, some must teach it in turn to others. We know surprisingly little about the attitude towards languages in the Grek period.

Herodotus and others quote and discuss foreign words, Plato admits in the Cratylus dialogue the possibility of the foreign origin of part of the Greek vocabulary, and we know of the existence of bilingual speakers and of professional interpreters, But of serious interest in the languages themselves among the Greeks there is no evidence; and the Greek designation of alien speakers, barbaroi, whence our word ‘barbarian’, to refer to people who speak unintelligibly, is probably indicative of their attitude.

This will not change throughout the history of the West and they still call the people whose language they do not know “barbarians. ” One dialogue, the Cratylus, is devoted to linguistic questions, though in some ways it is disappointing in its content; and references to language and its analysis are found in several other Platonic dialogues in which Socrates is the main speaker. Aristotle (384-322 B. C. ) knew the works of Plato, on which he developed his own thinking. His was probably the most remarkable intellect in antiquity; almost all fields of human knowledge then recognized fell within his scope.

His writings range from ethics, politics, and logic, to physics, biology, and natural history, and in a survey of the forms of life he in some ways anticipated the nineteenth-century evolutionary tree model of the living universe (Ross: Aristotle, London, I923,) After Aristo the control of both administration and science changed in ancient Greece. As for the scientific developments, the centers of importance might be Macedonian school, Stoic school, and Sophists as we can see in many of the scholars in not only in Europe but also in Asia.

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”. Saussure’s extremely influential work was Course in General Linguistics (Cours de linguistique generale), was published posthumously in 1916 by his students.

Its central notion is that language may be analyzed as a formal system of differential elements, apart from the messy dialectics of real-time production and comprehension. Examples of these elements include his notion of the linguistic sign, which is composed of the signifier and the signified. Though the sign may also have a referent, Saussure took this last question to lie beyond the linguist’s purview. His theory of signs has been very influential. Saussure’s ideas had a major impact on the development of linguistic theory in the first half of the 20th century.

Two currents of thought emerged independently of each other, one in Europe, the other in America. The results of each incorporated the basic notions of Saussurean thought in forming the central tenets of structural linguistics. Saussure posited that linguistic form is arbitrary, and therefore all languages function in a similar fashion. According to Saussure, a language is arbitrary because it is systematic in that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Also, all languages have their own concepts and sound images (or signified and signifiers).

Therefore, Saussure argues, languages have a relational conception of their elements: words and their meanings are defined by comparing and contrasting their meanings to one another. For instance, the sound images for and the conception of a book differ from the sound images for and the conception of a table. Languages are also arbitrary because of the nature of their linguistic elements: they are defined in terms of their function rather than in terms of their inherent qualities. Finally, he posits, language has a social nature in that it provides a larger context for analysis, determination, and realization of its structure.

In Europe, the most important work in this period of influence was done by the Prague School. Most notably, Nikolay Trubetzkoy and Roman Jakobson headed the efforts of the Prague School in setting the course of phonological theory in the decades following 1940. Jakobson’s universalizing structural-functional theory of phonology, based on a markedness hierarchy of distinctive features, topic and comment, was the first successful solution of a plane of linguistic analysis according to the Saussure’s hypotheses.

Jakobson had a strong impact on the development of generative phonology both through his, Morris Halle and through his influence on Noam Chomsky. The mainstream of linguistics since 1957, the year in which Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures appeared, has been dominated by him. It is difficult to overestimate Chomsky’s impact on both linguistics and contemporary ideas in general. He has been described as the “father of modern linguistics” and a major figure of analytic philosophy. His work has influenced fields such as computer science, mathematics, and psychology.

Chomsky is credited as the creator or co-creator of the Chomsky hierarchy, the universal grammar theory. Chomskyan linguistics, beginning with his Syntactic Structures, a distillation of his Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory (1955, 75), challenges structural linguistics and introduces transformational grammar. This approach takes utterances (sequences of words) to have a syntax characterized by a formal grammar; in particular, a context-free grammar extended with transformational rules. Perhaps his most

influential and time-tested contribution to the field, is the claim that modeling knowledge of language using a formal grammar accounts for the “productivity” or “creativity” of language. In other words, a formal grammar of a language can explain the ability of a hearer-speaker to produce and interpret an infinite number of utterances, including novel ones, with a limited set of grammatical rules and a finite set of terms. He has always acknowledged his debt to Paini for his modern notion of an explicit generative grammar although it is also related to rationalist ideas of a priori knowledge.

Unlike the Boasians and the Bloomfieldians, Chomsky gave linguistics the goal of generalizing, of attempting to determine what languages hold in common and to establish a rich theory of human language. The primary task of the linguist, according to Chomsky, should not be to discover the structure of the language from a body of data; rather, the goals should be to describe and explain the knowledge of the structure of the language which the native speaker has. Chomsky redirected the goal of linguistics theory towards attempting to provide a rigorous and formal characterization of the notion ‘possible human language’ called Universal Grammar.

From Chomsky’s perspective, the strongest evidence for the existence of Universal Grammar is simply the fact that children successfully acquire their native languages in so little time. Furthermore, he argues that there is an enormous gap between the linguistic stimuli to which children are exposed and the rich linguistic knowledge they attain. Chomsky’s work in linguistics has had profound implications for modern psychology. For Chomsky, linguistics is a branch of cognitive psychology; genuine insights in linguistics imply concomitant understandings of aspects of mental processing and human nature.

His theory of a Universal Grammar was seen by many as a direct challenge to the established behaviorist theories of the time and had major consequences for understanding how children learn language and what, exactly, the ability to use language is. Chomsky is famous for investigating various kinds of formal languages and whether or not they might be capable of capturing key properties of human language.

His Chomsky hierarchy partitions formal grammars into classes, or groups, with increasing expressive power, i. e., each successive class can generate a broader set of formal languages than the one before. Interestingly, Chomsky argues that modeling some aspects of human language requires a more complex formal grammar (as measured by the Chomsky hierarchy) than modeling others.

For example, while a regular language is powerful enough to model English morphology, it is not powerful enough to model English syntax. In addition to being relevant in linguistics, the Chomsky hierarchy has also become important in computer science (especially in compiler construction and automata theory).

Indeed, there is equivalence between the Chomsky language hierarchy and the different kinds of automata. Thus theorems about languages are often dealt with as either languages (grammars) or automata. In brief, linguistics is commonly held to be one of the most successful of the social sciences and as such has contributed both methods and models of rigor to other disciplines. As well as having its own robust history, linguistics has contributed richly to the general history of ideas and can be expected to continue to do so.

Therefore to conclude, it may be appropriate to attempt to anticipate the future, what the continuing history of linguistics will bring. Investigation into language universals, within both formal and functionalist approaches, will no doubt persist, aimed at understanding language universals, the properties of universal grammar, and the function of language and how function may help shape language structure. Reports in the non-linguistic media make the issue of remote language relationships appear to be one of the biggest concerns of present-day linguists.

Advances will be made in explanation of how and why languages change. REFERENCES: Law, Vivien. The History of Linguistics in Europe from Plato to 1600. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Rees-Miller, Mark Aranoff & Janie. The Handbook of Linguistics. Blackwell, 2006. Ross, W. D. «Aristotle. » A short History of Science. London: Oxford, 1941. 116-117. Staal, Frits. «Euclid and Panini, Philosophy East and West. » (1979). W. Schegell, K. «The Handbook of Linguistics. » Rees-Miller, Mark Aronoff & Janie. History of Linguistics. Heildelberg, 1808. 6-7. Wikipedia. 2011.

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The History of Linguistics. (2016, Sep 12). Retrieved from

The History of Linguistics
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