Introduction to Linguistics

Ferdinand de Saussure has been described as the ‘father’ of modern linguistics through his influential Cours de Linguistique Générale (1916). There are three reasons for a belief that linguistics is of very recent origin: Linguistics is a human science, and along with anthropology, psychology and sociology, it developed rapidly during the late nineteenth century and mushroomed in the twentieth century. Towards the end of the nineteenth century technological developments allowed for the recording and reproduction of spoken language so that linguists could at last not only recognize the priority of the spoken over the written medium but study constant, non-ephemeral, data from the spoken medium.  The first university chairs in something like ‘linguistics’ were Franz Bopp’s Chair in Oriental Literature and General Language-lore (‘allgemeine Sprachkunde’) at the University of Berlin in 1825 and Thomas Hewitt Key’s Chair of Comparative Grammar at University College London in 1842. The International Journal of American Linguistics dates from 1917; the Linguistic Society of America from 1924, and its journal Language from 1925. Linguistics only became an independent university discipline several decades into the twentieth century: most university programmes in linguistics were established in the second half of the twentieth century; high school programmes in linguistics only started in the third millennium and they barely exist today.

100f055f5f269a72b6efe36edf0d5f44If linguistics is a science it is because a linguist studies and describes the structure and composition of language and/or languages in a methodical and rigorous manner. However, prehistoric thought about the structure and composition of language set a pathway towards linguistics proper. As already mentioned, the earliest evidence of linguistic analysis is the development of writing to record events, transactions, agreements and observations more permanently than is possible in oral transmission. The oldest example known dates from fifth millennium BCE China. Bilingual Semitic word lists existed in the third millennium BCE and tabled equivalences between Sumerian and Akkadian phrases in the eighteenth century BCE. Such events count as early steps in linguistic analysis.

The first writing systems were logographic: the symbol represents a morpheme or word and its referent. Today, is a logograph for ‘male’, 4 is a logograph for ‘four’. Often, logographs extend to homophones of the original word symbolized, as in a 4 Sale sign that uses 4 in place of for because they sound the same. Once a logographic symbol is associated with phonetic form there is scope for its development into either a syllabary symbolizing the syllables of the language or into an alphabet symbolizing its phonemes. Because they segment the spoken language in order to give it visual and more permanent representation, syllabaries and alphabets exemplify prehistoric phonological analyses of language.

Although not known in the West until fairly recently, linguistic analysis in Ancient India developed to preserve the oral language of the Vedic hymns composed 1900–1100 BCE. From the sixth century BCE, there were Systematic analyses of phonetics, phonology, and prosody. In the early fourth century BCE, Pāṇini composed a precise and fairly complete description of late Vedic Sanskrit consisting of lists of lexical and phonological units accompanied by phonetic, morphological, syntactic and semantic rules and conditions, and metarules for rule-ordering, and so on. The topics and methods used in these Ancient Indian works were far closer to practices in modern linguistics than to anything found in the Western Classical Tradition before the nineteenth or even twentieth century.

In Ancient Greece, language study grew out of philosophy on the basis that language enables truth-bearing presentations of the internal and external world and is also a vehicle of persuasion and education. Both Plato and Aristotle believed that language refl ects speakers’ experiences of the world and the relationships and structures they find in it. Their interest was aroused because we say such things as X is the cause of Y, and B follows from A, and they were concerned about the relation between what is said and what actually holds true in the world. To precisely account for the meaning of statements requires a prior account of their structure; and because statements are expressed through sentences, the Ancient Greek philosophers looked into the construction of sentences to establish what constitutes a statement. Thus began a long association between philosophy and language analysis, which revived in the Middle Ages and flowered in the second half of the twentieth century, leading to significant advances in linguistic semantics and pragmatics. In Poetics and Rhetoric Aristotle discusses language structures which are relevant to the success of poetic and rhetorical effect. In addition to talking about the functions of various parts of speech, he described some phonological aspects of Greek, because in his day, and for centuries after, literature was rarely read silently, but declaimed by actors or poets from the stage, and by pupils in the schoolroom. In Rhetoric he advocated something comparable with Grice’s maxims of manner, quality and perhaps quantity (Grice 1975), though his purpose was different from that of Grice.

252859a7e7d1a79b86ded98e61616111In the Western Classical Tradition (see Allan 2010), the work of the early Greek philosophers and grammarians was adapted with little alteration to the grammar of Latin, the language that dominated scholarship in the West until the twentieth century. The basics for the parts of speech can be found in Plato and Aristotle, but it was the Stoics who noted regularities and irregularities indicating underlying rules of grammar and norms of behaviour governing the use of language. The Stoics recognized illocutionary types and under their influence, Apollonius Dyscolus (c.80–160 CE) identified the link between clause-type, mood, and illocutionary force that was not revived until the late twentieth century. In the second century BCE Aristarchus of Samothrace refers to all eight traditional parts of speech and to some of their subcategories (Smith n.d.); these were propagated in the Tekhnē Grammatikē (The Art of Grammar attributed to Dionysius Thrax, c.160–85 BCE; see Dionysius 1987) which was a model for the pedagogical Ars grammatica (The Art of Grammar) of Aelius Donatus (c.315–385 CE) – a cornerstone of Latin instruction throughout the Middle Ages. The Stoics were a major infl uence on Varro, Apollonius and Herodian, and – indirectly – their disciple Priscian (c.490–560 CE), whose Institutiones grammaticae (Grammatical Doctrine) is the foundational work on Latin grammar and remained the principal pedagogical source for Latin grammars until modern times.

The Alexandrian grammarians, Dionysius Thrax and Apollonius Dyscolus, were pedagogical grammarians and not philosophers. Their principal motivation was a perceived need to teach the correct meaning, forms, and pronunciation of Homeric and Attic Greek so that classical literature could be properly read, performed and understood. This is analogous to the motivation for the grammars of Ancient India. Donatus described the parts of speech to be found in classical Latin literature, although Vulgar (i.e. colloquial contemporary) Latin was in daily use about him. Priscian adopted the view that language reflects the way the world is and he explained a number of syntactic constructions on these grounds. For example, he said that because one cannot imagine an action without presupposing an actor the subject of a sentence always precedes the verb – i.e. all languages are either S(O)V or SV(O). Many such assumptions are justified by the grammars of Latin and Greek, but turn out to be wrong when applied universally; for instance, Maa (Nilotic, East Africa) is VS(O), Malagasy (Austronesian, Madagascar) V(O)S, and Tohono O’odham (Uto-Aztecan, Arizona) arguably (O)VS. Priscian’s classical Latin grammar, Institutiones Grammaticae, was based directly upon the classical Greek grammar of Apollonius Dyscolus. Dionysius, Apollonius, Donatus and Priscian were not philosophers but precursors to applied linguists within the Western Classical Tradition.

Some 600 years after Priscian, from about 1150 to 1350, grammar became once more wedded to philosophy. But all along, from the early Middle Ages to the present day, running on a more or less parallel track to philosophical grammar, there continued to be a pedagogic strain manifest in prescriptive grammars for the classroom. For several hundred years, education in Europe was education in Latin, access to which was through grammars of Latin; hence grammar as a school subject meant the ‘grammar of Latin’. Except during the Middle Ages, when the fourth century Latin of the Vulgate Bible displaced the pagan Latin of antiquity, the best authors were said to be the classical authors; it was classical Latin and, to a certain extent, classical Greek that came to be regarded as the ideal model for grammatical construction. English and other so-called ‘modern languages’ were (mistakenly, we would now say) regarded as debased and corrupt compared with classical Latin and Greek; so teachers insisted that the best way to write a ‘modern language’ was to follow the rules of Latin grammar so far as possible. In other words, pedagogues believed that the grammar of classical Latin provides appropriate rules for the grammars of European vernaculars. Such a view was properly condemned by linguists in the first sixty years of the twentieth century; unfortunately, most of those critics rejected not only the excesses of traditional grammar but its successes too.

For several centuries the works of Aristotle were lost to scholars in Europe. But in the twelfth century they once more became available and there was renewed interest in Aristotelian philosophy. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Western Europe, scholars had Priscian’s rules for Latin syntax which, because of the focus on pedagogy, sought no explanation for why the rules operate as they do. Scholastic grammarians adopted the Aristotelian dictum that the world is the same for everyone, believing that language is like a speculum ‘mirror, image’ that refl ects the world; so their grammars are described as ‘speculative’. The speculative grammarians also followed Aristotle in believing that everyone has the same experience whatever their language; consequently mental experiences are the same for everyone. It led them to claim that what is signified is universal, but the means by which it is signified, the modi significandi, differ from language to language. Because of their interest in modi significandi, these medieval scholastics were also known as modistae. During the thirteenth century, the speculative grammarians began to establish the notion of a ‘general’ or ‘universal’ grammar common to all languages.


Ferdinand de Saussure

In the late seventeenth and throughout the eighteenth century, language was the province of rationalist grammarians, whom Noam Chomsky – undoubtedly the most prominent theoretician in the second half of the twentieth century – claimed for his intellectual forebears. Like the modistae, the rationalist grammarians were inspired by Aristotle; the essential difference between the two schools is that the modistae viewed human beings as all having similar experiences because of the nature of the world around them, whereas the rationalists believed that people have similar experiences because of the nature of the human mind. The rationalists were post-Renaissance scholars living in an age of exploration which had given rise to grammars of several exotic languages. Scholars in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries knew that experience of the world differed greatly among different communities of human beings but that all of us possess minds through which to perceive, categorize and assimilate information about the world. On the rationalist view, the nature of the mind is to think; and because almost everyone is capable of being rational, they adapted the medieval notion that there must be an underlying ‘general’ or ‘universal’ grammar to locate it in the human mind. This idea is also found in the late twentieth century grammar of Chomsky. It follows that languages differ from one another only because the common underlying structure of human thought is expressed through different forms – in Chomskyan terms, different ‘parameters’ are switched on.

The traditional view that the structure of the world informs the structure of language is inverted by the ‘linguistic relativity hypothesis’ that arose in the Romantic movement which spread from Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715–1780) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712– 1778) in France to Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) and Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835) in Germany, to re-emerge with Franz Boas (1858–1942) in America and be instilled into Edward Sapir (1884–1939) and Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941). Known today as the ‘Sapir–Whorf hypothesis’ or, simply, ‘Whorfian hypothesis’, it postulates that the structure of language informs the structure of the world as conceived by speakers of a particular language when they are speaking it. However, it does not impose a mental straitjacket: the human mind can and does go anywhere.

The eighteenth to nineteenth centuries saw the development of comparative philology arising from the discovery and gradual identification of the Indo-European language family. The early cross-language comparisons used terminology directly derived from ancient Greek statements on phonology. For the most part, however, nineteenth century comparative philology took the Western Classical Tradition in a new direction by focusing on phonological systems. Twentieth century developments in phonetics and phonology and the whole paradigm of Saussurean structuralist and Bloomfieldian mechanistic linguistics were a new direction in, and sometimes a revolt against, the Western Classical Tradition. Nonetheless, linguistics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a crucial foundation for the post-structuralist linguistics that is the consequence of the so-called ‘Chomsky revolution’. Chomsky’s predecessors had rejected traditional grammar along with linguistic universals, rationalist theory and semantics. All of these are back in vogue. If modern linguistics began with a hiccup in the Western Classical Tradition, it is now back within the comfortable framework of two and a half millennia of linguistic description.

Modern linguistics developed from the investigations of the neo-grammarians into the origins and interrelations of Indo-European languages, which eventually merged with a mushrooming interest in the non-Indo-European languages of Native Americans and the peoples of Africa, Asia and Australasia. This interest was partly motivated by a fascination with exotic cultures and languages, and partly by ideas for generating literacy and education in indigenous languages. The development of linguistics was spurred on by technological advances during the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries that have facilitated detailed study of the spoken medium and of the processes of language interaction.


Noam Chomsky

Source: Allan, Keith. The Routledge Handbook Of Linguistics. 1st ed. New York: Routledge, 2016.
Further reading
Akmajian et al. (2010); Aronoff and Rees-Miller (2001); Auroux et al. (2000–2006); Brown (2006); Everett (2012); Koerner and Asher (1995); O’Grady et al. (2011); Pinker (1994).
Akmajian, A., R.A. Demers, A.K. Farmer and R.M. Harnish (2010) Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication, 6th edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Allan, K. (2010 [2007]) The Western Classical Tradition in Linguistics, 2nd expanded edition. London: Equinox.
Apollonius Dyscolus (1981) The Syntax of Apollonius Dyscolus. Transl. Fred W. Householder. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Aronoff, M. and J. Rees-Miller (eds) (2001) The Handbook of Linguistics. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Auroux, S., E.F.K. Koerner, H.-J. Niederehe and K. Versteegh (eds) (2000–2006) History of the Language Sciences. 3 vols. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
Bloomfield, L. (1933) Language. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Brown, E.K. (General editor) (2006) Encyclopedia of Languages and Linguistics, 2nd edition. 14 vols. Oxford: Elsevier.
Chomsky, N. (1957) Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton.
Dionysius (1987) The Tekhnē Grammatikē of Dionysius Thrax translated into English [by Alan Kemp]. In D.J. Taylor (ed.) The History of Linguistics in the Classical Period, pp. 169–89.
Amsterdam: John Benjamins. Donatus, A. (1961) De partibus orationis: Ars minor & ars grammatica. In H. Keil (ed.) Grammatici Latini, Vol. 4, pp. 355–66 and pp. 367–402. Hildesheim: Georg Olms. Everett, D.L. (2012) Language: The Cultural Tool. London: Profile.
Grice, H.P. (1975) Logic and conversation. In P. Cole and J.L. Morgan (eds) Syntax and Semantics 3: Speech Acts, pp. 41–58. New York: Academic Press. Reprinted in H.P. Grice, Studies in the Way of Words, pp. 22–40. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.
Koerner, E.F.K. and R.E. Asher (eds) (1995) Concise History of the Language Sciences: From the Sumerians to the Cognitivists. Oxford: Pergamon.
O’Grady, W., J. Archibald and F. Katamba (eds) (2011) Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. Harlow: Longman.
Pinker, S. (1994) The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind. London: Allen Lane.
Priscian (1961) Institutiones grammaticae. In H. Keil (ed.) Grammatici Latini Vol. 2, pp. 2: 1–597 and Vol. 3, pp. 1–377. Hildesheim: Georg Olms.
Rochester, S. and J.R. Martin (1979) Crazy Talk: A Study of the Discourse of Schizophrenic Speakers. New York: Plenum Press.


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