The History of Linguistics
Nov 12, 2016 Teaching 798 Views
Linguistics, the study of language and languages, traces its origins to Ancient Greece in the fifth century B.C., during which time speech making, called rhetoric, was considered an art and in which the Sophists were keenly interested.
The first formal thesis concerning the subject, entitled "Cratylus" and written in 400 B.C., focused on both natural and conventional meaning, and explored whether man named things because of the way they appeared or whether the terms were the result of consensus and collective use.
Tracia-born Dionysius Thrax, becoming the first to examine the subject in his published book, "The Art of Grammar," discussed the eight parts of speech in the Greek language, inclusive of the noun, the verb, the participle, the article, the pronoun, the preposition, the adverb, and the conjunction, classifying words according to gender, number, case, tense, mood, kind, and type. He additionally invented a "metalanguage," or a language about a language, and the practice of analysis based upon written ones.
Land and wealth were not the only commodities to result from conquest. Indeed, when the Romans did so of Greece, they gathered linguistic information, and Marcus Terentius Varro wrote "De Lingua Latina," discussing the differences between language in general and language in practice.
Donatus and Priscian, two other famed Romans, made linguistic contributions by respectively writing grammars in the fourth and sixth centuries A.D., by which time rhetoric had evolved into philology, or the study of written texts.
During the Middle Ages, which ran from the sixth to the seventh centuries A.D., European languages, as we know them today arose, although they were hardly associated with prestige. Because they were spoken by common people and had no specific structures or grammars, they were considered "vulgar" in comparison to Latin, which was then the official tongue.
Penning "De Vulgari Eloquentia," Dante supported this premise by pointing out that their changeability rendered them inferior, while Latin, the language of the literati, was fixed.
Significant linguistic advancement did not occur until the Renaissance, in about 1450 A. D., however, when scholars, visiting monastery libraries, unearthed Latin manuscripts that had been collected by monks for ages and had apparently provided no use.
After the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1485, when Arabs invaded Constantinople, scholars fled to Europe, introducing Greek by means of the books they brought, and prompting the teaching of both it and Latin. Roman numerals became ordinal numbers, while Arabic ones became cardinal numbers.
Studying philology and Sanskrit, Sir William Jones, a British official who worked in India, noted that it was similar to Greek and Latin, particularly in the roots of its verbs, and concluded that European languages must have originated from it, designating his focus Indo-European philology. Comparative linguistics was thus born.
Jacob Grimm, of fairy tale fame, collected stories from several countries and noticed that most of their plots were identical, with the exception of their settings, and deduced that they all must have emanated from a common Indo-European origin. "The Arabian Nights," first translated during these time, equally incorporated many similar themes.
Because they all had a common origin, so, too, it was believed, did languages, and analysis of words further supported this. "Guest" in English, for example, was "gasts" in Gothic, "gestr" in Old Norse, "giest" in Old English, "iest" in Old Frisian, "gast" in Old Saxon, and "gastiz" in Proto Germanic. This phenomenon could be explained by Grimm's Law, derived from his historical and comparative study of the sounds of several European languages, which indicated that changes systematically occurred and were related to the other languages in the same family.
The study additionally revealed that words, inflections, and syntax also underwent systematic change. By working backwards, he was able to determine developmental patterns that were projected into remote time periods, during which no written language existed, particularly that of Indo-European.
Because Latin was considered the model tongue, languages belonging to this group were highly influenced by its grammatical and syntactical structures. German, for example, a non-Romance language, obtained its own structure from it when it first took written form, resulting in its case system.
Because the Inkhornists, who spoke English, won the battle against the Latin-speaking Purists in 1601, the King James Bible was translated into the medieval version of the former language.
As a result, English words can be traced back to Sanskrit, by way of Latin, thus explaining why sounds in genetically related languages, according to Grimm's Law, often changed, as the "p" in Latin did to the "f" in English, resulting in the change of the word "pater" to "father."
Word origins, principally traced by groundbreaking linguist, Sir William Jones, revealed that there were countless similarities. "I am," for example, is translated as "asmi," or "I breathe," in Sanskrit, while its other conjugations include "asti"-"he is"--and "dhavi,"--"they are. With the exception of Afrikaans and Swedish, all verbs meaning "to be" that were derived from Indo-European languages are resultantly irregular.
During the 1800s, linguistic research was principally based upon written texts. Deviating from this practice, Ferdinand de Saussure employed what he called a "structural approach"-that is, he looked at the spoken language and any changes he could detect within it.
Nicholas Trubetskoy, one of the members of the Prague School of Linguistics, wrote and published "Grundzuege der Phonologie" in 1939, which marked the first time that the systematic theory of phonemes was documented. It was after this time that the focus of language analysis shifted from the written to the spoken version of it.
Several factors prompted the study of language itself. Between 1700 and 1870, for example, anatomy and medical advancements in Europe served as springboards to it, and subsequent inventions, including those of the loud speaker, the record, and the microphone, facilitated the first recordings of the human voice. Sound spectrograph and speech synthesizer methods after the 1930s opened new linguistic fields.
In the United States, Franz Boas, an anthropologist, became the first linguist to concentrate on the spoken language, claiming that speech alone encompassed the definition of it, and he became the founding father of the American School of Descriptive Linguistics.
Edward Sapir was the first American linguist to introduce the Prague School's phoneme theories discussed in the "Grundzuege der Phonologie" text.
Following Sapir's theory, Leonard Bloomfield, who wrote "Language" and became the most prominent linguist in the US up until the 1950s, theorized that there was a relationship between psychology and linguistics, partly basing his ideas on those discussed in J. B. Watson's book, "Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology," published in 1914. Although it focused on animal behavior, he applied the same approach to that of humans, eliminating meaning as an analysis tool and postulating that meaning itself resulted from the sum of a person's experiences with a particular word and that no two people could therefore share identical experiential backgrounds.
He also asserted that a linguist's role was to collect, describe, and analyze data in a process he designated "taxomic linguistics." Because this approach resulted in several tabulations, but did little to explain meaning, he was soon greatly criticized.
Structuralism also began during this time, which had a significant impact on writing grammars. Once considered fixed elements, both spoken and written parts of speech were now analyzed. Linguists such as Charles Carpenter Fries, who wrote "The Structure of English" in 1952, based his findings on a collection of telephone recordings from which he derived a four-form-class and 15-group-word function system of grammar, the form classes themselves comprised of parts of speech such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives. His groupings, however, were the result of word positions in sentences and not meaning.
Another linguistic approach was that employing transformation generative grammar, whose ground rules were laid by Noam Chomsky in two books, "Syntactic Structures" and "Aspects of the Theory of Syntax," in which he claimed that linguists should concern themselves with meaning and that conclusions about language operation could be arrived at by any means, including intuition and guesswork.
Ultimately accelerating the pace of his research with the aid of computers, he postulated theories almost as fast as they were superseded by others.
While linguistics concerns the study and dissection of the oral and written methods of inter-human communication and has shed significant light on its structure and purpose, that communication itself is still the foundation of society, whether it was formed by the first, primitive grunt uttering homosapiens or those today considered scholars.