Studium Generale

Section for linguistics students
Lecture 3: History of the science of language
• Your homework from last time
• Overview of last 2 lectures
• Why study it? What‘s the use of the history of linguistics?
• Prehistory of linguistics
• Ancient linguistics
• Middle ages in Europe
• Rise of European colonialism and nation states
• Modern linguistics

– The Prague school
– British structuralism
– Danish structuralism
– American structuralism
– Rejection of structuralism

• What are interesting and important issues and questions?

Homework from last time
– What is mathematical induction?
– How – if at all – is it like scientific induction?
– How do mathematicians and philosophers of
mathematics regard it?

• Are they as cautious and critical of it as in science?
• So who?
Overview of last 2 lectures
• Lets hear it from you 

– What is science? What is a scientific approach?
– Some remarks on the origin and history of science
– Pseudo-science and hoaxes
– The philosophy of science
– Scientific reasoning

• Deduction
• Induction
• Inference to best explanation
• Explanation
• Causality

– Conclusion
• ―Because it‘s there‖ – George Mallory, March
• Excitement

– Excitement of doing linguistics ≠ excitement of
doing history

• Like all cultural phenomena linguistics has a
history, which partly shapes it:

– The questions it addresses
– The methods it employs
Why study it? What‘s the use of the
history of linguistics?
• Koerner 2002 concludes his Toward a history of
American linguistics saying that he feels impelled
to comment on the usefulness of the history of
• What he comes up with is somewhat

– The need for a historical perspective in learning
linguistics – introduction to the subject via history
– Historical knowledge as part of a scientist‘s education
– the scientist is not a mechanic, and has more than
mechanical skills
– Historical knowledge as means of evaluating new
hypotheses – contributes to the development of skills
in judgement of new ideas, and safeguards against
uncritical acceptance of allegedly novel ideas
– Historical knowledge as a means of moderating
exaggerated theoretical claims, and claims to novelty
– Historical knowledge as furthering the unity of the the
complex subject

• All of Koerner‘s suggestions seem to be
variants on one theme

– Understanding what we do and why we do it
• Thomas, M. 2007. The evergreen story of
Psammetichus‘ inquiry into the origin of
language. Historiographia Linguistica
XXXIV (1): 37-62 has a better suggestion,
which might be put crassly as:

– To make linguists and students aware of
myths in the discipline, and to take a critical
line on them
– She quotes Vivian Law, saying:

• ―a key responsibility of students of the language
sciences … is to ―learn to listen to [what texts from
other cultures and times] say with openness and

• I think there is also another much more
important and compelling reason:

– Contribution to language documentation and
Prehistory of linguistics
• People everywhere talk about language: they
have ideas about its nature, uses, origins,
acquisition, structure, and so on

– Recall Hockett!

• Some of these notions are enshrined in

– Naming things by Adam – remember?
– Tower of Babel – accounts for?
– Others?
• Linguistics?

– Represents a body of knowledge and beliefs
about language
– But, there are differences from linguistics as
we understand the term, right?

• Such as?

– Ethnolinguistics – as per ethnomathematics,
ethnohistory (≈ oral history), ethnowhatever
• Rise of linguistics as field of investigation with rise of
civilisations, agriculture and writing

– In most cases these traditions arose in response to
language change and the resulting impact on religious and
legal domains

• Babylonian clay tablets (cuneiform) — emergence of
a grammatical tradition around 3000 BC, continuing
for 2500 years.

– Preservation of Sumerian; translations into Akkadian
– Comparative paradigms in the two languages
Ancient linguistics
• The linguistic texts from the earliest parts
of the tradition were lists of nouns in
• Over the centuries the lists became
standardised, and the Sumerian words
were provided with Akkadian translations.
• Ultimately texts emerged that give
Akkadian equivalents for not just single
words, but for entire paradigms of varying
forms for words: one text, for instance, has
227 different forms of the verb gar ‗to
• Indian tradition, from about 500 BC

– Mainly for religious purposes, motivated by
linguistic changes, and differences between
the spoken language and the written Sanskrit
– Ritual required the exact verbal performance
of the religious texts, and a grammatical
tradition emerged that set out rules for the
ancient language

• Panini most famous of the Indian grammarians –
date unknown (600BC? 300BC?)
• His grammar covered

• Phonetics – including differences between words
pronounced in isolation and in connected speech
• Morphology, expressed largely in the form of rules of word
formation, sometimes of a high degree of abstraction.

• The Hindu tradition of
linguistics far surpassed
anything done in Europe
for a very long time.
• Panini introduced the
notion of zero into

• Egyptian linguistics — pharaoh
Psammaticus (c. 450 BC) famous for his
experiment on origins of human language

– If that is what it was – Thomas 2007 provides
a telling critique and analysis of the myth

– Remember?
Linguistics in ancient Greece
• Influence of Greek intellectual traditions in
modern European thought

– Philosophy
– Mathematics
– Linguistics

• Some notable differences from the earlier
intellectual traditions of Mesopotamia, Egypt, etc.
• Bloomfield: ―The ancient Greeks had the gift of
wondering at things that other people take for
• Influences on the development of linguistics as a
scholarly field:

– Developed slightly later than the Hindu tradition, and also
initially in response to linguistic change necessitating
explanation of the language of Homer‘s epics
– No evident interest in other language
– Interest in the dialect varieties of Greek

• In the Hellenistic period (from c.300 BC) evidence of systematic
study of differences in dialectal varieties of Greek

– Robins suggests that the first evidence of linguistic
scholarship was in the development of writing

• 2
millennium BC Linear B, syllabic
• Disappearance of writing with Dorian invasions
• Reappearance of writing as alphabetic system, derived from
Phoenician script – an abjad

– Modified to an alphabet by reassigning values to some of the
consonant symbols
• Conscious linguistic thought emerged in the
classical age of Greek literature

– Observations on language (=Greek) begin with
pre-Socratic philosophers
– Socrates, Plato, Aristotle
– Later the Stoics – founded by Zeno (c.300 BC)

• I guess not Zeno of Elea (ca. 490 - 430 BC), as in the

• Platonic dialogues contain scattered
references to language

– Cratylus is devoted to linguistic questions 23
• As distinct from most other ancient
traditions, in Greek linguistics
philosophical and theoretical questions
about language were also investigated,

– The origin of language
– The relation between language and thought
– The relation between form and meaning
• Stoics developed linguistics

– But their work is only known from later writers
– their works do not survive

• Notably, recognised distinction between
form and meaning, and the signifier and
signified in language
• Gave separate treatment to grammar,
phonetics, and etymology
• Linguistic questions concentrated on Greek
• Focussed on two controversies:

– Nature vs. convention (earlier)
– Regularity/analogy vs. irregularity/anomaly (later)

• Cratylus – debate on origin of language and relation of
words and meanings (nature vs. convention)

– Does not reach a conclusion

• Naturalist argument invoked sound symbolism and (folk,
speculative) etymology

– Socrates stance: subsequent changes obscured the natural

• Conventionalists observed that vocabulary can be readily
changed, and language remains as efficient

– The position explicitly adopted later by Aristotle 26
• Epicurus (341-270BC) took a middle

– Word forms arose naturally, but were modified
by convention
– Stoics favoured this position

• Origins of language in imitation of things

– Recall bow-wow and ding-dong theories
• Aristotle and Stoics also differed on the other

– Aristotle favoured analogy
– Stoics favoured anomaly

• Basically concerns the extent to which orderliness and
paradigmatic regularity is found in language (=Greek)
• Analogical arguments were sometimes deployed to
argue for one word form over another

– Some analogists attempted to reform irregular paradigms of

• Anomalist position appeared particularly convincing
when derivational and inflectional morphology was not
• Three main aspects of Greek linguistics:

– Etymology – stimulated by the nature-
convention controversy

• Little of value was achieved

– Fanciful etymologies proposed seriously, e.g. in Cratylus
– And continued into Middle Ages
• Phonetics – more impressive progress

– Some articulatory classifications, and some understanding
of the production of sounds on egressive pulmonic
– Syllable recognised as a structural unit
– But problem in not distinguishing speech and writing –
confusion appears to have been rife

• Descriptive framework primarily concerned the pronunciation of
letters of the Greek alphabet

– Phone/letter as a structural unit

• Stoics recognised phonetics as a separate branch of linguistics

– Three aspects of written letters:

» Phonetic value
» Written shape
» Name of letter
• Stoics studied syllable structure, and

– Sound sequences attested in actual words
– Possible but not attested sequences
– Impossible sequences

• Classifications and descriptions of phones
was often impressionistic acoustic

– Rather than articulatory – as in the more
impressive treatment in the Indian tradition
• Grammar was the domain in which Greek
linguistics made its most significant

– Influence on the development of modern
linguistics in shape of grammatical
descriptions, categories, terminology, and

• Framework – the word-paradigm model

– Word at the centre
– Morpheme not recognised
• Word based grammar involves 3

– Identification of the word as a linguistic entity
– Establishment of word classes – parts of
– Establishment of grammatical categories to
describe the morphology of the words in the
paradigms, and their syntax of combination
• Lets look at the recognition of some
grammatical categories:

– Nominal gender – recognised by Protagoras (5

century BC, a Sophist)

• Also distinguished sentence types according to
illocutionary force – wish, question, statement,

– Parts of speech: nominals vs. verbals –
distinguished by Plato (not the first)

• A third class – embracing conjunctions, pronouns,
articles and possibly prepositions – added by Aristotle
• Stoic grammarians increased the number of parts
of speech

– Gave better definitions
– Identified subclasses

• Stoics also distinguished

– Nominal cases

• Which came to be taken as the fundamental criterion for
distinguishing nominals and verbs

– Verbal categories

• Active transitives
• Passives
• Neutral intransitives
• Temporal categories in the verb:

– Tense – past vs. present
– Aspect – completive vs. incompletive

• Future and aorist (aspectually and formally
unmarked, reference to past time) were considered
to fall outside of this system
• Roman linguistics also arose in response to
perceived changes in the spoken language

– Continued interest in the themes of concern to
Greek linguistics
– Primary interest in morphology, particularly parts-
of-speech and the forms of nouns and verbs;
syntax largely ignored

• Varro produced a multi-volume grammar of
Latin, only parts of which (6 of 25 books)
survive (c. 120 BC)
• Later grammars of Donatus (C4 AD) and
Priscan (C6 AD) were highly influential in the
Middle Ages

• Arabic tradition had beginnings in C7 AD, with the
work of Abu al-Aswad ad-Du‘al (c. 607-688)
• Also heavily influenced by the Greek grammatical

– Focussed on morphology
– Attention to accurate phonetic descriptions..

• The Arabic tradition a major influence on the
Hebrew tradition, which began slightly later, in
about the ninth century.
• Saadya ben Joseph al-Fayyum (882-942)
produced the first grammar and dictionary of
Hebrew (Afroasiatic, Israel).
• Reached its peak in C13 with David Qimh̥ is (c.
1160-1235) work, which subsequently had a
strong impact on European linguistics
• With expansion of writing in the vernacular
languages, problem of devising orthographies
• Rise of descriptive grammars of Latin around
AD1000 for speakers of other languages
• In about 1000 an abbot in Britain wrote a grammar
of Latin for Anglo-Saxon speaking children
• Descriptive grammars of the vernaculars were also
written; these generally presented the languages in
the mould of Latin
• Emergence of the notion of the universal nature of
grammar in C12

– Later refined and developed by Roger Bacon (1214-1294)
and others
– Bacon held that grammar was fundamentally the same in
all languages, differences being incidental and shallow
Middle Ages in Europe, 500-1400
• Notable work is The First Grammatical Treatise,
a 12
century work on Icelandic phonology —
not widely known for nearly 700 years!

– Main concern was spelling reform, to correct
inadequacies of the Latin-based writing
system of Icelandic
– Hinted at notions of phoneme and minimal

• About same time, Arabic scholars began
tradition of accurate phonetic transcription of

Rise of European colonialism (and
nation states)
• From C15, colonization brought Europeans into contact with a
wide variety of languages in Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the
• Information about them was gathered by explorers, colonial
administrators, travellers, missionaries, and others

– Subsequently disseminated within Europe in the form of word lists,
grammars, and texts

• Scholars compiled word lists in many languages and used them
in language comparisons
• Became appreciated that certain languages were related to one

– Techniques were developed and honed over time
– Ultimately leading to the establishment of the comparative method and
the Neogrammarian tradition (beginning in C19)

• Colonial period refers to the 400 or so years from late C15 to C20
when European states established colonies on other continents

– The Americas
– Asia
– Africa
– Australia and the Pacific

• Begins soon after the Renaissance (14th–17th

– But lasted a couple of centuries longer

• For linguistics the periods were characterised by
considerable flowering of research in

– Europe – not my concern …
– The colonies

• The bit I am most interested in

– Of course, there was significant interaction between them
– Europe mostly professional academics; the colonies mainly
(educated) amateurs, but

• I will talk about one piece of late colonial linguistic research in

• Interest in the diversity of language, and thus the origins

– Leibniz (1646-1716) — monogenesis of human languages
– Reland writing in 1706, proposed languages from Madagascar to
islands of Indonesia were related
– Sajnovics and Gyarmati proposed relatedness of Saami, Finnish,
and Hungarian, late 1700s
– William Jones (1746-1794) — famously proposed in late 1780s
the relatedness of Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin

• Not the first:

– Andreas Jäger (c.1660-1730) had previously proposed this in 1686, putting the
homeland of this ancient language in the Caucasus mountains, from which the
languages spread by waves of migrations into Europe and Asia

• But Jones produced most systematic evidence
• Began study of historical linguistics
• Rasmus Rask (1787-1832) continued developing the tradition, and served
as a precursor to the neogrammarians of late C19.
– In 1776 Abbé Lievain Proyart (c. 1743-1808)
observed the relatedness of the African
languages Kakongo, Laongo, and Kikongo;
– In 1787 Jonathan Edwards (1745-1801)
argued that the Algonquian languages of
North America form a family

• Also interests in other linguistic topics:
• Grammars of European languages were
written, as also were grammars of the
languages of the colonies

– Missionaries played an important role in this, and
their grammars of non-European languages
dominated from the sixteenth to eighteenth
– Latin grammar formed the basis for the tradition
of missionary grammars

• Although the best of the missionary grammarians were
aware of problems in applying Latin categories and
structures to other languages
• They struggled with varying degrees of success to
understand and describe the unfamiliar categories
• Also notable in C19 was the Finnish academic
program of investigation of the non-Indo-European
languages of the Russian empire

– Also involved Russian academics

• This fieldwork-based research yielded grammars,
dictionaries, and text collections in Finno-Ugric,
Samoyedic, Turkic, Mongolian, Paleo-Siberian,
and Tungusic languages
• Other colonial powers mounted similar academic
investigations, though not as ambitious

– Often undertaken in conjunction with anthropological,
biological, and geological studies
Modern linguistics
• Emerged in late C19 and early C20
• Focus changed from historical to descriptive
(synchronic) studies

– Main idea is language can be viewed as a self-
contained and structured system situated at a
particular point in time
– This is the basis for structuralist linguistics that
developed in the post-First World War period

• 1886 — founding of IPA in Paris (Daniel Jones,
Paul Passy, Otto Jespersen and many others)
• Most important figure was
Swiss linguist Ferdinand de
Saussure (1857-1913)

– Saussure began as a neo-

• He wrote an important piece within
the tradition

– On what?

• But became increasingly dissatisfied

– Published very little himself
– Initiated modern linguistics with
posthumously published Course in
general linguistics
• Saussure‘s influence extended beyond
linguistics, into neighbouring disciplines
including anthropology and semiotics

– Championed the idea that language is a system
of arbitrary signs
– His conceptualisation of the sign has been highly
– Remember?
• Early period of modern linguistics was
dominated by study of sound systems
(phonetics, and phonology):

– Daniel Jones (1861-1967) — rejection of
phonetics/phonology opposition
– Nikolai Trubetzkoy — features, phonology
– Roman Jakobson (1896-1982) — universals
• Henry Sweet (1845-1912) was one
of the leading figures in phonetics
in the second half of the nineteenth
• He and the Polish linguist Baudouin de
Courtenay (1845-1929) were independently
instrumental in development of the notion of
the phoneme or distinctive sound
• de Courtenay drew the terminological
distinction between phoneme and phone

– I seem to recall that there has been recent
evidence that someone else beat him to it – but I
can‘t find it
• Diversification of linguistics in C20

– The Prague school
– British structuralism
– Danish structuralism
– American structuralism
– Rejection of structuralism (?)
– Modern bipartition of linguistics

The Prague school
• Began as a group of Czech and other
linguists who formed the Linguistic Circle of
Prague in 1926
• Primary interest of the Circle was
phonological theory

– Led by Nicholai Trubetzkoy (1890-1838), a
professor in Vienna, whose Grundzüge der
Phonologie [Principles of phonology] made
important contributions to the notion of the
– Prague school phonology succeed in placing the
notion of the phoneme in the centre of linguistic
theory, as one of the most fundamental units
• Most famous representative was Roman
Jakobson (1896-1982)

– Did original research in a range of areas of
– Jakobson emigrated to the USA in 1942, and
subsequently had a significant impact on the
development of phonological theory there
• Began with J.R. Firth (1890-1960) who held the first chair in linguistics, in
the University of London, from 1944 to 1956.
• Firth lived for some time in India and studied its languages
• Brought a number of original and provocative perspectives to linguistics

– He established the London School of linguistics

• Questioned the assumption that speech can be divided into segments of
sound strung one after the other, regarding this as an artefact of alphabetic
scripts used by westerners

– His theory of prosodic analysis focussed on phonetic elements larger than individual
sounds, and anticipated some developments in phonology by half a century

• Firth was also deeply concerned with meaning

– Influenced by the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942)
– Developed a contextual theory of meaning that accorded a crucial role to use in

• Meaning is use in context
British structuralism
• One of his students, Michael A.K. Halliday (1925-)
elaborated Firth‘s ideas and developed them into a
coherent theory

– From the late 1950s, Halliday refined systemic
functional grammar;
– Halliday‘s ideas have attracted a much attention,
especially in applied linguistics
– The tradition he began is represented in Britain,
Australia, America, Spain, China, and Japan.

• Firth‘s ideas were developed in other ways as
well, including by other students, and their

– Firth‘s singular approach remains a source of
inspiration to many – including myself – and has
spawned a range of neo-Firthian theories.
• Luis Hjelmslev (1889-1965), famous Danish structuralist

– One of the major proponents of structural linguistics after
– Major work Omkring Sprogteoriens Grundlæggelse (1943),
English translation Prolegomena to a theory of language (1953)
– From 1935, Hjelmslev called his theory glossematics.
Danish structuralism
• Frans Boas (1858 – 1942)

• Edward Sapir (1884 - 1939)

• Leonard Bloomfield (1887-1949)
American structuralism
• Boas‘ main concern was to gather information on
the languages and cultures Native Americans
before they disappeared
• Methods he and his students developed for the
description of these languages became the basis
of American structuralism
• Boas and Sapir strongly upheld the notion that all
languages should be described in their own terms,
rather than being forced into the mould of
European languages
• They maintained psychological and
anthropological orientations, seeing language as
intimately connected with the way of life and
thought of its speakers

– Subsequently developed by Sapir‘s student Benjamin
Lee Whorf (1897-1941) into the Sapir-Whorf
• Bloomfield‘s primary concern was to
establish linguistics as a science

– He opposed the mentalistic orientation of
Boas and Sapir
– He was heavily influenced by the mechanistic
outlook of behaviourist psychology
– His approach focussing on methodology was
the dominant force in American linguistics
from the 1930s until the mid-1950s
– Meaning played little part in this enterprise,
– The analytical methods – discovery
procedures – that were developed attempted
to exclude meaning as far as possible
• Charles Hockett (1916-2000) was
regarded as the most promising student of
• Lots of interesting ideas ...

• Associated with American linguistics,
beginning with Noam Chomsky‘s 1957
Syntactic structures
• Explicit rejection of behaviourism and
discovery procedures of the American
linguistics of 1930s-1950s
• Rise of Generative Grammar

– Still a powerful force in linguistics today
(Denmark is something of an exception), but
increasing number of competing models
– Forms background for many of the competing

Rejection of structuralism
• Increasingly linguistic historiographers are
questioning the alleged Chomskyan

– And its rejection of structuralism

• Koerner 2002 is one work that overviews the
history of Chomskyan construal of themselves and
the field

– And takes issue with a number of major tenets, e.g. the
discontinuity with structuralism
What are interesting issues and
• Here are a few of the ones I consider interesting – and
certainly not a complete list:

– How has the conceptualisation of a grammatical
description evolved? Recall here the Boas comment
– What has been the role of applications/applied linguistics
in the origins and development of the subject?
– How can we understand old descriptions and
documentations of ―exotic‖ languages?
– Personal biographies and how people have engaged with
the subject and how have they shaped it?

• What about the rank and file?

– How have social and ethical consciousnesses emerged in
– How have our methodologies evolved?
– How have our theories evolved, and how does
this relate to methodological evolution?
– What has been the role of religion in the
development of linguistics?
– How have local and/or non-mainstream traditions
in linguistics related to global and dominant
– How have linguists struggled with understanding
unusual phenomena in the world‘s languages,
and how has this contributed to the development
of theory and description?
– How does linguistic thought correlate
diachronically with thought in other scientific
domains – soft (anthropology, biology, sociology)
and hard (mathematics, physics)?
– How does linguistic thought correlate
diachronically with broad culture-based