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The Development of Linguistics before 19th Century - Реферат

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The Development of Linguistics before 19th Century

Early history

Crystal D. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. –

New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. – pp. 404-406.

A religious or philosophical awareness of language can be found in many early civilizations. In particular, several of the important issues of language analysis were addressed by the grammarians and philosophers of Ancient Greece, Rome, and India.


The earliest surviving linguistic debate is found in the pages of Plato (c. 427-347 BC). Cratylus is a dialogue about the origins of language and the nature of meaning – first between Socrates and Hermogenes, then between Socrates and Cratylus. Hermogcnes holds the view that language originated as a product of convention, so that the relationship between words and things is arbitrary: 'for nothing has its name by nature, but only by usage and custom'. Cratylus holds the opposite position, that language came into being naturally, and therefore an intrinsic relationship exists between words and things: 'there is a correctness of name existing by nature for everything: a name is not simply that which a number of people jointly agree to call a thing.' The debate is continued at length, but no firm conclusion is reached.

The latter position is more fully presented, with divine origin being invoked in support: 'a power greater than that of man assigned the first names to things, so that they must of necessity be in a correct state.' By contrast, Aristotle (384-322 BC) in his essay De interpretatione ('On interpretation') supported the former viewpoint. He saw the reality of a name to lie in its formal properties or shape, its relationship to the real world being secondary and indirect: 'no name exists by nature, but only by becoming a symbol.'

These first ideas developed into two schools of philosophical thought, which have since been labelled conventionalist and naturalistic. Modern linguists have pointed out that, in their extreme forms, neither view is valid. However, various modified and intermediate positions were also argued at the time, much of the debate inspiring a profound interest in the Greek language.

Another theoretical question was discussed at this time: whether regularity (analogy) or irregularity (anomaly) was a better explanation for the linguistic facts of Greek. In the former view, language was seen to be essentially regular, displaying symmetries in its rules, paradigms, and meanings. In the latter, attention was focussed on the many exceptions to these rules, such as the existence of irregular verbs or the lack of correspondence between gender and sex. Modern linguistics does not oppose the two principles in this way: languages are analysed with reference to both rules and exceptions, the aim being to understand the relationship between the two rather than to deny the importance of either one. The historical significance of the debate is the stimulus it provided for detailed studies of Greek and Latin grammar.

In the 3rd century BC, the Stoics established more formally the basic grammatical notions that have since, via Latin, become traditional in western thought. They grouped words into parts of speech, organized their variant forms into paradigms, and devised names for them (e.g. the cases of the noun). Dionysius Thrax (c. 100 BC) wrote the first formal grammar of Greek – a work that became a standard for over 1,000 years.

The focus throughout the period was entirely on the written language. The word grammar (Greek: grammatike) in fact originally meant 'the art of writing'. Some attention was paid to basic notions concerning the articulation of speech, and accent marks were added to writing as a guide to pronunciation. But the main interests were in the fields of grammar and etymology, rather than phonetics. A doctrine of correctness and stylistic excellence emerged: linguistic standards were set by comparison with the language of the ancient writers (e.g. Homer). And as spoken Greek (the koine) increasingly diverged from the literary standard, we also find the first arguments about the undesirable nature of linguistic change: the language had to be preserved from corruption.


Roman writers largely followed Greek precedents and introduced a speculative approach to language. On the whole, in their descriptive work on Latin, they used Greek categories and terminology with little change. However, the most influential work of the Roman period Proved to be an exception tothis trend: the codification of Latin grammar mf by Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BC) under the headings of etymology, morphology, and syntax. De lingua latina ('On the Latin language') consisted of 26 books, though less than a quarter of these Varro's work takes into account several differences between Latin and Greek (e.g. the absence of the definite article in the former). He also held the view (which is remarkably modern) that language is first and foremost a social phenomenon with a communicative purpose; only secondarily it is a tool for logical and philosophical enquiry.

Especially towards the end of the millennium, several authors wrote major works in the fields of grammar and rhetoric - notably, Cicero (106 - 43 BC) on style, and Quintilian (1st century AD) on usage and public speaking. Julius Caesar wrote on grammatical regularity – it is said, while crossing the Alps on a military campaign. Aelius Donatus (4th century AD) wrote a Latin grammar (Ars maior) that was used right into the middle ages, its popularity evidenced by the fact that it was the first to be printed in wooden type, and had a shorter edition for children (the Ars minor). In the 6th century, Priscian's Institutiones grammaticae ('Grammatical categories') was another influential work that continued to be used during the middle ages: it contains 18 books, and remains the most complete grammar of the age that we have.

The main result of the Roman period was a model of grammatical description that was handed down through many writers in Europe, and that ultimately became the basis of language teaching in the middle ages and the Renaissance. In due course, this model became the 'traditional' approach to grammar, which continues to exercise its influence on the teaching of English and other modern languages.


During the above period, techniques of minute descriptive analysis were being devised by Indian linguists, which could have been of great influence had these descriptions reached the western world (something that did not take place until the 19th century). The motivation for the Indian work was quite different from the speculative matters that attracted Greek and Roman thinkers (though they did not ignore those topics). The Hindu priests were aware that their language had diverged from that of their oldest sacred texts, the Vedas, in both pronunciation and grammar. An important part of their belief was that certain religious ceremonies, to be successful, needed to reproduce accurately the original form of these texts. Change was not corruption, as in Greece, but profanation. Several ancillary disciplines (Vedanga, 'limbs of the Vedas'), including phonetics, etymology, grammar, and metrics, grew up to overcome this problem.

Their solution was to establish the facts of the old language clearly and systematically and thus to produce an authoritative text. The earliest evidence we have of this feat is the work carried out by the grammarian Pānini, sometime between the 5th and 7th centuries BC, in the form of a set of 4,000 aphoristic statements known as sutras ('threads'). The Astadhyay; ('Eight books" dealing mainly with rules of word formation, are composed in such a condensed style that they have required extensive commentary, and a major descriptive tradition has since been established. The work is remarkable for its detailed phonetic descriptions: for example, places of articulation are clearly described, the concept of voicing is introduced, and the influence of sounds on each other in connected speech is recognized (the notion of sandhi). Several concepts of modern linguistics derive from this tradition.


Very little is known about the development of linguistic ideas in Europe during the 'Dark Ages', though it is evident that Latin, as the language of education, provided a continuity of tradition between classical and medieval periods. Medieval learning was founded on seven 'arts', of which three - grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric - formed one division, known as the trivium. Grammar (mainly using Priscian and Donatus) was seen as the foundation for the whole of learning. A tradition of 'speculative' grammars developed in the 13th and 14th centuries, in which grammatical notions were reinterpreted within the framework of scholastic philosophy. The authors (the 'Modistae') looked to philosophy for the ultimate explanation of the rules of grammar. A famous quotation from the period states that it is not the grammarian but 'the philosopher [who] discovers grammar' (philosophns grammaticam invenit). The differences between languages were thought to be superficial, hiding the existence of a universal grammar.

The middle ages also saw the development of western lexicography and progress in the field of translation, as Christian missionary activity increased. In the East, Byzantine writers continued to expound the ideas of the Greek authors. There was a strong tradition of Arabic language work related to the Qur'an. From around the 8th century, several major grammars and dictionaries were produced, as well as descriptive works on Arabic pronunciation. For a long time, these remained unknown in Western Europe. Opportunities for contact with the Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew linguistic traditions only came later, as a result of the Crusades.


The rediscovery of the Classical world that came with the 'revival of learning', as well as the discoveries of the New World, transformed the field of language study. Missionary work produced a large quantity of linguistic material, especially from the Far East. The Chinese linguistic traditions were discovered. Arabic and Hebrew studies progressed, the latter especially in relation to the Bible. In the 16th century, several grammars of exotic languages came to be written (e.g. Quechua in 1560). There was a more systematic study of European languages, especially of the Romance family. The first grammars of Italian and Spanish date from the 15th century. Major dictionary projects were launched in many languages. Academies came into being. The availability of printing led to the rapid dissemination of ideas and materials.

As we approach modern times, fresh philosophical issues emerged. The 18th century is characterized by the arguments between 'rationalists' and 'empiricists' over the role of innate ideas in the development of thought and language. Such ideas provided the basis of certainty in knowledge, according to Cartesian philosophy, but their existence was denied by philosophers (such as Locke, Hume, and Berkeley) for whom knowledge derived from the way the mind operated upon external sense impressions. The issue was to resurface in the 20th century.

Several other important trends have been noted during the 17th and 18th centuries: the breakdown of Latin as a universal medium of communication, and its replacement by modern languages; the many proposals for universal languages, shorthand systems, and secret codes; the beginnings of a systematic approach to phonetics; the development of 'general' grammars, based on universal principles, such as the 17th-century grammar of Port Royal; and the major elaborations of traditional grammar in schools. Then, as the 19th century approached, the first statement about the historical relationship between Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin was made, ushering in the science of comparative philology.