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Approaches in the Field of Linguistics

Early Approaches: P?nini and Grimm

Sobel S.P. The Cognitive Sciences:

An Interdisciplinary Approach. – London; Toronto:

Mayfield Publishing Company, 2001. — pp. 155-158.

The notion of linguistic competence introduced previously rests on the
assumption of unconscious knowledge and unconscious cognitive activity.
This is not a new assumption; it underlies, for example, the work of the
grammarian P?nini, who carried out his research in India sometime
between the fifth and seventh centuries B.C.E. P?nini sought to capture
the underlying patterns of the Sanskrit he spoke and, in this fashion,
to describe the whole of the language. The few examples presented in the
previous section indicate something of the nature of the rules that a
language rests on. How vast a task it would be to try to describe it
all: rules affecting the sounds and their variants, rules for forming
words, rules for generating all the possible sentences. P?nini
approached this monumental task by formulating detailed, highly
condensed rules. Their nature was not prescriptive but rather
descriptive. As such, they reflect the unconscious knowledge of speakers
of the language rather than rules that might have been explicitly
taught. They capture so much detail of the language so tersely that
expanding and understanding them has required the work of many scholars
and much time. Since P?nini, no one has accomplished so impressive a
description of any language.

The work of P?nini, and of other Indian linguists of his time and
earlier, was not known in the West until the 19th century. Linguistics
scholars of the 1800s had observed many similarities among the languages
of Europe and sought to trace their history, engaging in comparative
studies of these related languages and projecting backward to arrive at
a «reconstruction» of the ancestral language, or group of dialects, from
which they derived. One of the most famous of these scholars was Jacob
Grimm (1785-1863), of fairy-tale fame. Grimm’s contribution to the
understanding of certain important consonant shifts among the
Indo-European languages (many of the languages most familiar to us,
including English) is a staple of historical-comparative study, known to
all linguistics students and scholars as Grimm’s law. This law, which
aids in the process of linguistic reconstruction, explains for example
the historical relation between Latin p (as in pater) and English f (as
in father), both of which derive from the same source, a language spoken
some thousands of years ago and referred to today as Indo-European.

Linguistics scholars engaged in reconstructing early languages of
which there is no written record made educated guesses as to what the
earlier forms were based on evidence from all aspects of these
languages—from the vocabulary they contained to the kinds of change
exhibited over time in their sound systems and in their grammatical
structures. This type of comparative-historical research contributed a
great deal to our understanding of the processes languages undergo on
their evolving paths. Access to information about Sanskrit played an
important role in this endeavor.

Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf

In line with this type of research was research carried out into this
century by scholars who sought to learn what processes underlay the many
languages spoken by Native American tribes. In the process, they
encountered ways of thinking quite different from those of the Western
European culture, which had up to then provided the background for their
studies. These scholars drew attention to the many different
possibilities inherent in languages for expressing perceptions and
experiences common to humankind. Edward Sapir, the American linguist and
anthropologist, made many contributions to the field, among them
important technical studies in Native American, Indo-European, Semitic,
and African languages. With this wide basis, he was able to provide the
field with cogent analyses of the relation of language and culture. His
interest in this aspect of linguistics extended to the relation of
language and thought. He and his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf, expounded
a view that had great influence on linguists and other scholars in the
middle decades of the 20th century. Known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis,
it was articulated thus by Whorf in 1940:

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages.
The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we
do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the
contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions
which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the
linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into
concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are
parties to an agreement to organize it in this way—an agreement that
holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of
our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one,
but Us terms are absolutely obligatory-, we cannot talk at all except by
subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the
agreement decrees, (in Carroll, 1956, pp. 213-214)

Whorf had held, for example, that the Hopi language reflects a
different conception of time from that of English. He claimed that Hopi
has no linguistic means of referring directly to time, as English does,
no word for «past» or «future.» If he was correct, then, according to
some, the Hopi could not distinguish past from future. Whorf’s point was
that the Hopi language reflects a different worldview—one that our own
language lacks the means of expressing.

The strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis holds first that
our language determines the way we think (linguistic determinism) and,
second, that the distinctions found in a given language will not be the
same as those in any other language (linguistic relativity). The basic
principle follows from the observation, through study of the languages
of different peoples that populations «carve up» in many different ways
the natural world they experience. An instance is found in Whorf’s paper
«Science and Linguistics.» After describing some of the characteristics
that distinguish the worldview of speakers of the Hopi language from our
own, Whorf says

What surprises most is to find that various grand generalizations of the
Western world, such as time, velocity, and matter, are not essential to
the construction of a consistent picture of the universe. The psychic
experiences that we class under these headings are, of course, not
destroyed; rather, categories derived from other kinds of experiences
take over the rulership of the cosmology and seem to function just as
well. Hopi may be called a timeless language. It recognizes
psychological time. . . but this «time» is quite unlike the mathematical
time T, used by our physicists. Among the peculiar properties of Hopi
time are that it varies with each observer, does not permit of
simultaneity, and has zero dimensions; i.e., it cannot be given a number
greater than one. The Hopi do not say, «I stayed five days,» but «I left
on the fifth day.» (in Carroll, 1956, p. 216)

Whorf’s description of the Hopi conception of time seems to indicate
that for the Hopi time exists as a series of points rather than as a
continuous flow. This conception relates interestingly to Kant’s
discussion of time, in which he argues that «all appearances of
succession in time are one and all only alterations . . . all change
(succession) of appearances is merely alteration» (Kant, 1781/1965, p.
218). That is, we only recognize time by the sequential changes that we
observe. A flow, or passage, of time, as we are accustomed to conceiving
of it, and which seems to us the natural way of conceiving of it, is
equally naturally perceived as a sequence of events, each one different
from the preceding one. The Hopi’s «I left on the fifth day» seems to
accord with this conception of time better than our own characterization
of the situation «I stayed five days»: «The fifth day» marks one of a
series of days, whereas «five days» combines them into a whole.

The notion that language serves not only to express thought but
also to filter it leads easily to the idea embodied in the Sapir-Whorf
hypothesis that language serves to shape thought. This view was
subsequently interpreted to mean that we cannot—and cannot learn
to—think in any way but the way in which our language dictates. Because
many felt this interpretation was incorrect—and was threatening to
groups that might be politically affected by it—the hypothesis was
rejected by the establishment. In fact, there was a strong reaction
against it, because it seemed to predict that if one’s language lacked
some forms of expression its speakers were incapable of conceptualizing
what such expressions express. Consider, for example, the construction
that is second nature to English speakers: «If I were you. . . .» Of
course I know perfectly well that I am not you. That is precisely why I
put it in this way, using an if construction, paired with the special
form were of the verb to be. There are languages that lack a
construction of this sort, called a counterfactual, as it is counter to
what is in fact so.

A weaker version of the hypothesis was somewhat more acceptable,
namely, that the constructions of language make it relatively easier or
more difficult to think in certain ways. But consideration of the effect
of language on thought was for a period a topic many were unwilling to
engage in.

More recently, scholars such as Alfred Bloom have returned to this
issue, as we will in the next chapter.

Ferdinand de Saussure

Another approach to the field of linguistics was that introduced early
in the 20th century, when attention turned from the focus on
historical-comparative studies to the principles governing the structure
of languages still being spoken. The theoretical ideas introduced at
this time by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) were
extremely influential, essentially redefining the field. These ideas
were based on the observation by scholars going all the way back to
P?nini’s time (and perhaps even before then) that when people actually
speak they often produce sounds and constructions that they themselves
would report as somehow being not «really right,» but which are
understood anyway. For example, if, around lunch-time, a friend called
out to you, asking «Jeet jet? your response would probably not be «Huh?»
but either «Yeah» or «No,joo?’ What surfaces as Jeet jet? and No, joo?
is clearly understood by both of you as «Did you eat yet'» «No, did
you?» You could at any time «translate» the rapid form of these
questions into the complete version you produce when slowing down and
enunciating carefully. By means of rules specific to your language, a
conversion takes place between what you know is the real underlying form
of the utterance and what you actually say. All of this is part of the
unconscious knowledge we have been calling your linguistic competence.

P?nini’s work on the rules underlying the language of speakers of
his form of Sanskrit leads to a recognition of the distinction between
those rules and the language they generate. The notion that something
underlies the forms we actually produce is the important insight here,
one that has been brought out at other times in the history of
linguistics. Contemporary scholars such as Noam Chomsky give credit to,
for example, Rene Descartes and to the authors of the volume Grammaire
generale et raisonnee, published in France in 1660 (usually referred to
as the Port-Royal Grammar), for reintroducing such insights from which
much of modern-day linguistics has benefited.

More recently, Ferdinand de Saussure, working near the beginning of
the 20th century, distinguished between langue, the linguistic system
internalized by speakers of a language, and parole, the act of speaking.
This distinction implies a tacit assumption that underlying the actual
utterances of speakers of a given language is a shared structure,
absorbed by speakers when very young and remaining largely below the
level of consciousness. This implicit structure enables them to judge,
for example, when one utterance is correctly formed, another is not, and
a third is all right when speaking (especially quickly) but is not
really the way it is «supposed to be,» as our Jeet jet? example. Put
more succinctly, the distinction is between what you know about your
language (your linguistic competence, unconscious though it may be) and
what you actually say, which linguists refer to as your linguistic

Behaviorism: John B. Watson and B. E Skinner

Saussure’s work has had great influence on contemporary linguistics. But
the direction taken by the field was altered for a time, despite the
insights he provided Land developed. With the advent of the
«behavioristic» paradigm, the «mentalistic» approach to the study of
language was abandoned. The American psychologist John B. Watson
(1878-1958) struck out in a new direction, becoming the founder of the
school known as behaviorism. Behaviorism operates on the principle that
what goes on in the mind that is not directly observable or measurable
is not an appropriate and useful subject of research. The only
appropriate subject matter of psychology, according to the behaviorists,
is behavior. Behavior is all that we can j hope to treat objectively,
because it is all we can measure. This approach leaves no place for
study, linguistic or otherwise, based on unconscious knowledge. The
insights of scholars over a very long period were abandoned as linguists
attempted a stimulus-response account of language.

B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) is today probably the best-known
proponent of the behaviorist approach. Among his many works was the 1957
book Verbal Behavior, in which he sought to interpret and explain the
major aspects of linguistic behavior within the behaviorist framework.
In 1959 the American linguist Noam Chomsky (b. 1928) published a review
of Verbal Behavior in which he refuted Skinner’s premise that it is
possible to account for linguistic behavior within this framework. He
systematically discussed each concept introduced by Skinner in order to
show «that, in each case, if we take his terms in their literal meaning,
the description covers almost no aspect of verbal behavior, and if we
take them metaphorically, the description offers no improvement over
various traditional formulations» (Chomsky, 1964, p. 574). This review
sparked a period of debate and called attention to the beginning of a
new phase in linguistics, in which Chomsky has figured prominently.

Major Themes in Linguistics


Crystal D. Linguistics. Second ed.

Penguin Book, 1990. – pp. 140-157.

The subject we now call linguistics began to take its present form at
the beginning of this century. The interesting thing is that it seems to
have developed in an almost independent way in two places at once —
Europe and America. But the two approaches were radically different,
each being very much the product of its own history, and each taking
advantage of the kind of linguistic material which it found immediately
available. The Europeans had a continuous tradition of philosophical
thought, as we have seen, which stemmed from Classical times; and an
immediate background of historical study of language which came from
nineteenth-century ‘comparative philology’ (of which more below). Most
of the data about language concerned the development of Classical and,
to a lesser extent, modern European tongues. Based entirely on written
records, their discussion of language had usually been from the
viewpoint of textual interpretation — for example, in biblical studies,
literary criticism, or history. Work on living languages had been
considered secondary, and limited to the activities of a few who
attempted to plot the differences between regional dialects, and to
construct ‘dialect atlases’. A few ‘occasional’ studies of new languages
had been made by missionaries and colonial officials in various parts of
the world, but these had been narrowly pedagogical for the most part,
and were usually made within a Latinate analytical framework.

The tradition which the early European linguists grew up with and
reacted to was very different from that available to American scholars,
who had had relatively little direct contact with the European
situation. American research began by turning to the sources most
readily available, the American Indian languages, and the orientation
was completely different. There was no written record in the case of
these languages, and there were no earlier descriptions – hence it was
impossible to develop a purely historical interest or to use writing as
the basis of linguistic analysis. These languages were also so different
from European languages that it was obvious that Classical procedures
and terminology were going to be of little value; and in any case, many
of the scholars involved had developed a strong distrust of the
distortions which they were aware Latinate descriptions could impose.
There was also a reaction against the use of meaning as the basis of an
analysis of a language – again a contrast with the way in which
considerations of meaning, logic, and so on had been used for the
definition of grammatical categories in the European philosophical
orientation. The first task of the linguist, it was felt, was to
describe the physical forms that the language had: saying what those
forms meant was a logically later activity. The emphasis was therefore
on a meticulous description of the individuality of each language’s
structure, based on the only available source – the living speech
activity of the users. This dynamic role given to language was largely
due to the initiative of the anthropologists of the time, who stimulated
this kind of approach from the very beginning as part of their drive to
accumulate information about the dying Indian tribes. Franz Boas, one of
the pioneers, emphasized the need for the linguist to ‘go into the
field’, to get an accurate, detailed description of the human behaviour
involved — before it was too late, and all the informants were dead! In
1911, the first volume of the Handbook of American Indian Languages,
which he founded, was published. Ten years later, another
anthropologically orientated book, subsequently extremely influential,
appeared — Language, by Edward Sapir. These two books, and the students
of their authors, were a formative influence on the development of
linguistics in America, as we shall see in due course.

There was thus a simultaneous development in language studies on both
sides of the Atlantic, with neither side in the early days knowing much
about what the other was doing. However, it is usual to try to date the
beginning of a science by referring to the publication date of some
pioneering work; and those who have tried to do this for linguistics
generally give the honours to a European. Despite the tendency these
days to see the origins of linguistics in the work of almost every
scholar since Plato, it is generally accepted in more sober mood that
the work of the Swiss scholar Ferdinand de Saussure holds pride of place
as the first real essay into linguistic theory as we understand it now.
To call him the ‘founder’ of the subject, as is sometimes done, is
perhaps a bit extreme, in view of the American work taking place at the
same time. Moreover, there were other strands to the early history of
linguistics which contributed to its foundation — for example, the
general reaction against the principles and practices of traditional
grammars, which had developed in the late nineteenth century in the
context of a fresh pedagogical interest in language teaching, and
associated with such names as Henry Sweet (satirized by Shaw as Henry
Higgins in Pygmalion), Harold Palmer, and the Danish linguist Otto
Jespersen. But there is no doubt that Saussure’s pioneer thinking on
theoretical issues had a fundamental and lasting effect on language
study — and a very specific one too, in view of the fact that his was a
dominant formative influence on at least three schools of linguistics
later (those of Geneva, Prague, and Copenhagen). A number of his
theoretical distinctions are striking anticipations of current issues —
his distinction between langue and parole, for instance, which I shall
shortly discuss appears with very little difference in the
competence/performance distinction of generative grammar.

But it is not possible to understand what Saussure did without
seeing him in his own time, and especially against the intellectual
linguistic background of the nineteenth century, against which so much
of his work is a reaction. Let us, then, begin near the beginning, with
an excursus into the nature of nineteenth-century ‘comparative

Comparative Philology

The easiest way to identify comparative philology is by saying that it
is what most people coming across linguistics for the first time expect
the subject to be about — the history of language and languages, and the
study of the origins and development of words and their meanings
(‘etymology’). In fact, as we have seen in the first part of this book,
this would be a highly misleading interpretation, for the history of
language comprises but a small component of the discipline as a whole.
It is, moreover, a component which many people have come to disparage,
in view of the melodramatic approach to much historical study in earlier
centuries (in connection with the origins of language), and the
pedagogical tendency to confuse matters of history with matters of
current relevance in language structure. The psychological gap between
linguistics and philology has indeed been very great — and it still is,
in some parts of the world, particularly on the continent of Europe.
Linguists would get very emotional if they were referred to as
philologists by mistake; and many philologists would look rather
pityingly at the new upstart discipline which they would feel lacked the
decades of painstaking textual analysis on which their approach was
based. These days, however, there are many signs that the old opposition
between the two fields is coming to an end. From the point of view of
linguistics, at any rate, it is beginning to be realized that any
opposition was due more to the use of different procedures in the
analysis of data than to any radical difference of opinion as to the
intrinsic interest of historical vs non-historical data. Nowadays, the
problems which historical linguistics raises and the facts which its
methods bring to light are seen as highly relevant to the development of
linguistic theory as a whole. It has been recognized that a linguistic
theory will be of very limited value unless it can provide an account of
the mechanisms underlying language change — either as seen in the
individual (as when a child learns a language, this being sometimes
referred to as ‘linguistic ontogeny’), or in the community as a whole
(as when a language changes from one distinct form into another, e.g.
Latin becoming French — ‘linguistic phylogeny’). And with an increasing
number of linguists becoming interested in historical matters and using
modern techniques for their analysis, it is likely that an integrated
approach to historical phenomena within linguistics will not be long in
being formalized. There is, however, considerably less ecumenical spirit
in many schools of traditional philology, and any attempt to identify
philology with linguistics would still be premature. Even with the same
subject-matter, and the use of similar techniques, it will be a long
time before the pejorative connotations the two labels have acquired are
eliminated. Accordingly, it is still prudent even these days to keep the
terms ‘historical linguist’ and ‘philologist’ distinct, the former
referring to someone trained in linguistics who is applying this
knowledge to the study of the older states of language, the latter to a
follower of the older, nineteenth-century traditions of study.

The contribution of the nineteenth century towards the development
of a scientific approach to language cannot be underestimated, even
though the preoccupation throughout this period was almost totally
historical. Earlier study of language history, as we have seen, was
largely haphazard and vague. There was little objective, systematic
analysis of the similarities and differences between language forms, or
of the chronological changes in a language. If similarities were noted,
it was often to dismiss them as coincidental; differences were dismissed
as unimportant, or reinterpreted to suit the presuppositions of a
particular (e.g. original language) theory. If the changing nature of
language was considered at all, it was as part of a natural process of
corruption, measured against the changeless status of Latin. Above all,
no one, with the possible exception of some early Jewish scholars, had
noticed anything systematic about either resemblances or differences.
The first to point out objectively the fact of a systematic language
similarity was a French Jesuit missionary named Coeurdoux, who showed in
1767, with many examples, that Latin and Sanskrit had definite
grammatical and lexical correspondences; but his suggestion was not
published until much later, and by that time, Sir William Jones had said
the same thing more emphatically, and included Greek and Celtic in his
observations. He had had an opportunity of studying Sanskrit in detail
while Chief Justice in Bengal, and in a speech to the Asiatic Society in
February 1786, largely to do with matters other than language, he made a
statement which was to inspire the basic principle of comparative

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. (My italics.)

Even though this was unsupported in detail, Jones’s impressions were in
print, and thus circulated widely. Within the following thirty years,
the effects of the stimulus became apparent, and the reverberations of
the theory took over a century to settle.

The first systematic attempt to study the implications of Jones’s
statement in detail was made by a Dane, Rasmus Rask, in an essay written
in 1814, called An Investigation into the Origin of the Old Norse or
Icelandic language. It was followed shortly afterwards by Franz Bopp’s
first major work, Concerning the Conjugation System of the Sanskrit
Language in Comparison with those of the Greek, Latin, Persian and
Germanic Languages. This was published in 1816, three years before a
third scholar, Jacob Grimm, enlarged and further systematized Rask’s
statement in his German (i.e. Germanic) Grammar. By 1833, the techniques
and data amassed by these three, supplemented by much extra information
from contemporaries, led to the production of Bopp’s comprehensive
handbook, which was extremely popular and went through three editions:
the Comparative Grammar of Sanskrit, Zend, Greek, Latin, Lithuanian,
Gothic and German took nineteen years to prepare, and by its third
edition incorporated Old Slavic, Celtic and Albanian.

The study began in an empirical way within its own field. However,
it was not long before the comparative philologists shifted their focus
of attention. From the comparative data which was being described, they
began to deduce the features of a language which they assumed must have
been in existence before the earliest records, which would account for
the similarities in the forms of say, Sanskrit, Greek and Latin. The
hypothesis that the languages were related produced the further
hypothesis that they had a common source. At first it was thought that
Latin and Greek had descended from Sanskrit (which had always held a
patriarchal position in the eyes of European scholars); but further
research indicated that all three languages were ‘cognate’ — that is,
had a common ancestor, which, in this case, had not survived in any
recorded form. Work thus began on determining this old language’s

Modern Romance languages, of course, showed a similar pattern. The
similarities existing between certain words and forms in Italian,
Spanish and French, for example, indicated clearly that they came from
the same parent language. The fact that the three words for ‘father’ had
so much in common (Italian, padre, Spanish, padre, French, pere) would
be just one case in point among thousands. But one could then go
further, and suggest that the word, as it stood in the original parent
tongue, must have had a p in it, because this is a common factor in the
three modern languages; similarly the presence of an r might be deduced;
and if sufficient comparative work was done, the reason for the vowel
discrepancy might become clear, and the parent language vowel
determined. In such a way, one could arrive at an ancestor form pater —
which in this case exists, in Latin. By studying a large number of such
cases, dealing with more complex grammatical constructions as well as
with letters, the totality of the Latin we know could be deduced, as it
were, backwards.

This reasoning, then, was applied to Latin, Greek and Sanskrit,
which showed a very similar set of correspondences. Here the forms for
‘father’ were: Latin, pater, Greek, pat?r, Sanskrit, pitar. The
conclusion reached suggested that the parent language from which the
three had derived would have had a word for ‘father’ of the form *p?ter.
The asterisk in front of this form, or any other in comparative
philology, indicates that it is a reconstruction along these lines which
is not attested in written records. (It is a different use of the
asterisk from that usual in contemporary, synchronic linguistics, where
it refers to an unacceptable usage.) In other words, a reconstruction is
a kind of hypothesis based on the consideration of a multiplicity of
examples taken from as many cognate languages as would seem to be
relevant. (The theoretical status of these reconstructed forms has been
a source of recent debate in historical linguistics.) Thus, in deducing
the older word for ‘brother’ one might well wish to consider as part of
the evidence Latin, fr?ter, Greek, phr?t?r), Sanskrit, bhr?t?r, Old
Church Slavonic, bratr?, Gothic, bro?ar, Old Irish, br?thir, Old English
brdbor, and so on, from which one could arrive at a form *bhr?ter. (Most
large dictionaries provide ‘etymological’ information of this kind.)

A further eye-catching example of relationship is the present-tense
indicative conjunction of the verb ‘to be’ in Latin, Sanskrit and Greek
(the forms of the latter two languages have been transliterated for ease
of comparison):

sum asmi eimi PIE *esmi

es asi essi *esi

est asti esti *esti

The regularity of sets of phonetic correspondences existing in such
listings was soon established beyond reasonable doubt, and provided the
stimulus that led scholars to suggest lines of phonetic relationship
between the languages. Thus, for example, the presence of an a vowel in
the verb paradigm given above for Sanskrit corresponds systematically
with an e vowel in the other two. The weight of evidence is therefore
for an e vowel in the parent language (called Indo-European), the a
having developed from this *e by some process of phonetic development.
If this was so (and scholars assumed it was), the process could be
described as ‘Indo-European *e became Sanskrit a and Latin and Greek e*;
or in a more simple shorthand: ‘IE */e/>Skt /a/, L. Gk. /e/.’ Such
formulas were worked out in great detail and became known as
‘sound-laws’. This was originally a metaphorical use of the word ‘law’,
because the formulas were only representing what were thought of as very
strong tendencies for the sounds to behave in such ways; they were not
originally considered as exceptionless laws at all — an attitude to be
sharply reversed later by the neogrammarian school of comparative
philologists, discussed below.

The original parent language, then, was gradually reconstructed
word by word, as far as the evidence of the written remains allowed, and
is now called Proto-Indo-European (or PIE for short). It was assumed
that it was being spoken before 3000 B.C. The languages which developed
from it were thus called the Indo-European ‘family’ (according to the
then popular model of linguistic description), and the relationship of
one member language to another was described in kinship terms: Sanskrit,
Greek and Latin were ‘sister-languages’. Such a procedure accounted
satisfactorily for the interrelationships of most European languages
(Basque being an odd exception) by postulating various sub-families or
groups of languages within the main family that had some kind of common
structural core. From the practical point of view, PIE was given more
attention by scholars, partly because there was more written material
available in the daughter-languages, and partly because the users of the
languages within the Indo-European complex were politically and
economically more important. This is, of course, by no means to say that
a language of Indo-European stock is somehow intrinsically ‘better’ than
any other: a culture may be more powerful than another, but this does
not affect the status of the languages used which are, linguistically
speaking, of equal standing (cf. p. 70).

Thus, the major language ‘families’ of the world were suggested,
and those of Europe given more detailed treatment:


the Germanic family, the Romance, the Balto-Slavic, the Celtic, the
Hellenic, and so on. The figure above shows one way, using the family
tree model, of relating the languages of the Germanic group, of which
English is a member. We should remember, of course, that arbitrarily to
date and label language states with different names, as is usual in
comparative work, is a distorting process. Language is continually in a
state of flux; it is always changing. Latin did not suddenly become
French overnight, nor Old English Middle English; and it is impossible
to pin down the exact moment when any two dialects diverged to the point
of unintelligibility, at which point we say they are separate languages
(though there has been one movement in recent years which has tried to
do just this — the technique variously called ‘lexicostatistics’ or
‘glottochronology’). The names given to the different language states
postulated in the comparative method are averages, approximations only,
as are the dates. Transitional periods are always present between two
arbitrarily determined states.

This was the genealogical method of classification. At the same
time, attempts were being made to produce an alternative classification
of languages, the typological, wherein each language would be placed
according to its major structural characteristics. This procedure was
first proposed in detail by A. von Schlegel in 1818. He suggested that
there were three kinds of language that could be characterized in this
way: at one extreme there were analytic (or isolating) languages, such
as Chinese, which have no inflections; at the other extreme there were
synthetic (or inflectional) languages, such as Greek or Sanskrit; and in
between there were agglutinative (or affixing) languages, such as
Turkish or Korean, which string verbal elements together in long
sequences. Despite the fact that most languages fell between these
points, Schlegel’s theory had many adherents. It did provide a
comprehensive standpoint at least, and showed that there were general
structural tendencies in the ways languages indicated relationships. Its
main advantage, too, was that it did not require a vast quantity of
textual analysis before making its statements, and was therefore a more
useful tool than the genealogical model for classifying languages which
had no written records. The two techniques are not incompatible, of
course; but for many reasons the genealogical approach remained more
popular, and despite support by Sapir and other linguists, no broad
classification has yet been produced on typological principles that is

It is important to be aware that the comparative method was largely
empirical, and (under German stimulation) thorough; it was based on
textual evidence, information about speech being deduced from an
examination of writing; again, it was primarily concerned with
comparison of individual sounds (rather than words, or meanings); and it
tried to show the systematicness behind the linguistic variation which
it noted — an aim which was not always successful, in view of the fact
that insufficient attention was paid to the structural character of the
language stares being compared before comparative decisions were made.
Rut such an ordering of priorities (non-historical description preceding
historical comparison) was not seen as important until Saussure.
Meanwhile, as the century progressed, techniques were clarified,
principles were more precisely stated, and a scientific atmosphere
became more normal.

The remainder of the century saw the accumulation of a great deal
of information on the history of languages, and, in particular, on the
details of Proto-Indo-European. Sanskrit was of the utmost relevance in
such work, and was hailed as such by many linguists; Max Miiller, for
example, in 1868, said, ‘A comparative philologist without a knowledge
of Sanskrit is like an astronomer without a knowledge of mathematics.’
An important reflex of this detailed study, however, was an increasing
theoretical linguistic interest which took the newly discovered facts
about language into consideration. Scholars began to meditate on the
underlying principles which the facts of sound-change and related
developments suggested. In particular, there was the growth of an
evolutionary attitude to language, stimulated by Darwin’s work. If
plants and animals have a birth, development and death, then why not
language too? Early on, W. von Humboldt had emphasized the fact of
linguistic flux, in an attempt to explain the phenomenon in terms of the
changing mental power of the users of language; and certain aspects of
his thinking have been commended by Chomsky as striking anticipations of
important features of current linguistic theory. August Schleicher first
tried to develop the theory systematically, making Hegelian philosophy
take account of the Darwinian theory of natural selection; to him, the
typological classification of languages as isolating, agglutinative and
inflectional was an example of a Hegelian triad of
thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Synthesis being the climax of development,
the standard of excellence in language was thus tied to the amount of
inflection it possessed: Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit were indubitably
best on this count, Chinese least of all, and all languages since
Proto-Indo-European were in the stages of a slow decay, as the
comparative method showed quite clearly that this parent language
(Ursprache) was probably more inflected than any of the attested

A fundamental objection to this approach, emphasized by many
scholars, is that language has little in common with an organism, such
as a plant. It has no separate physical existence, therefore it has no
separate life or death. Language change resides primarily in the users
of the language, and only indirectly, via these speakers, can language
be seen as an abstracted whole. Language is but one aspect of an
organism’s behaviour, an activity which is continually changing; it is
no more than a set of useful conventions. There is a further, more
specific objection, that if languages like French and English are
biologically distinct, on different ‘branches’ of the family tree, then
once they have split up, how could the one influence the other in any
direct way? Yet this has often been the case, as is shown by the number
of words borrowed from French in recent centuries by the English. But
despite these objections, such theories had a great influence on the
development of linguistics during this part of the nineteenth century.
The emphasis till then had been on philology in its more widely accepted
sense, i.e. language study as an end to understanding a nation’s culture
(in particular, its literature). But with the stimulus of natural
science, linguistics came to be studied as a more autonomous discipline,
with the suggested status of a physical science. It began to be studied
for its own sake. Otto Jespersen, in his book Language: Its Nature,
Development and Origin, published in 1922, calls this the ’emancipation’
of the subject. It was supported at the linguistic level by further
developments among contemporary scholars.

The work of Jacob Grimm and others had already produced a more
‘mechanical’ outlook on linguistic data, with more and more sound-Maws’
being formulated. But there was still a large amount of material that
could not be accounted for, and sound-changes which seemed to be
exceptions to the otherwise readily perceivable patterns of development.
But when Karl Verner proved in 1875 that one set of unsatisfactorily
explained sound-changes could be shown to fit a regular pattern by
formulating a new phonetic principle hitherto ignored, a new attitude in
linguistic scholarship became apparent; it was supported in other
publications appearing at the same time (by Saussure, for example) that
showed the relationship between Sanskrit and Indo-European more clearly.
Certain scholars thus began to assume that all exceptions were
explicable in the same way, that is, that they only remained exceptions
because insufficient study had been made of the material to determine
the underlying principles of development which could be formulated as
laws. Sound-changes were not haphazard, it seemed: a comprehensive,
objective examination of the data, paying careful attention to the
mutual influence exerted by sounds, could produce a satisfactory
explanation of a regularity behind all sound changes. ‘Sound laws have
no exceptions’ became a canon of the new attitude, held by men who were
called by their older contemporaries, a trifle sarcastically,
‘neogrammarians’ (Junggrammatiker). Of major importance in their
doctrine was the concept of analogy (cf. p. 70), as this was seen as the
linguistic force which tended to normalize differences in language.

This approach thus focused attention on the physical side of
language; but its methodological rigidity naturally evoked some heated
criticism. It was too mechanistic an approach, it was said, which left
the human being out. Language had two sides, not one: there was form,
but there was also function (or usage), and this social (or pragmatic)
province provided an indispensable perspective for language study. But
this criticism the neogrammarians largely ignored.

The criticisms were largely valid; the social basis of language had
yet to be thoroughly expounded. However, the result of the movement was
to inject a greater scientific precision and awareness into linguistics,
and this supported the tendency to see the subject as a kind of natural
science. The perspective was still evolutionary – all explanations
continued to be historical in the following years — but there was a more
rational, empirical approach to language, especially in its
contemporary, living forms, which was first developed in theoretical
detail in the work of Saussure. The old, fanciful, vague theorizing was
gone; reliable major work, synthesizing and codifying the results of
widespread scholarship, was becoming available. The comparative method
had been proved to be of great use in historical linguistics, and a
number of important points had been raised and clarified.

For example, such philological procedures firmly dissolved all the
old theories that one of the spoken languages of the world was the
oldest. Moreover, it caused further confusion in the

anthropological camp among those who maintained that whichever language
it was that Adam and Eve spoke in Eden, it was sure to have been a
simple language; for the comparative method indicated that the further
back one went in reconstruction, the more complex the inflections of
language appeared to be. Indo-European was much more inflected than
either Greek or Sanskrit; and there was no evidence that Indo-European
was anywhere near the starting-point of mankind’s language. There was a
geographic coincidence between the linguistic judgement and the
historical, in so far as both sets of evidence pointed to a place of
origin for civilization to the north of the Indian sub-continent, but it
was all very hypothetical, and how long a variety of Indo-European was
being spoken in that place was indeterminable.

While we can be optimistic about the gains linguistics has had from
comparative philology, it is not to be thought that philology provides
all the answers, even within its own field. In the Indo-European family,
for example, for a variety of reasons, Basque, Sumerian and Etruscan
have no obvious place. And the relationship of Indo-European to any
other of the world’s great language families (for example, the North
American Indian languages, or the Malayo-Polynesian family) is
impossible to ascertain in the present stage of study, though attempts,
some misguided, have been made. Nor is philology likely to make much
progress in this field: with primitive cultures there are rarely any
written records and hence no basis for historical reconstruction. It is
highly probable that many languages of non-Indo-European families have
already disappeared, leaving no trace, and there are many hundreds of
tongues that remain unanalysed to date.

There are also some important limitations to the comparative method
as such, which should make us wary of relying too uncritically upon it.
It concerns itself overmuch with dead languages, and with letters,
rather than sounds. Secondly, it is preoccupied with the superficial
similarities existing between languages, as opposed to the underlying
differences. For example, the method does not allow for independent
changes arising within a language once it has left its parent, which
might not affect the parent at all; and an attempt to read such new
features into the structure of the parent language (as the method is
bound to do) can only produce distortion. Thirdly, and more important,
there is the charge that the theory embodies a fundamental inconsistency
in comparative procedure. The method characterizes a language as, say,
Indo-European, by pointing to certain linguistic changes that have
occurred in the course of its subsequent history; but in doing this it
ignores other changes that have also occurred, which may be equally
characteristic. Nor is there any criterion or principle furnished by
which we can explain which type of change is relevant for deducing a
parent language, and which is not, and this is dissatisfying. English
may be Germanic in one sense, but it is Romance in another, especially
when we consider it from the point of view of vocabulary. Fourthly, the
method assumes that as soon as two languages split off from a parent,
they no longer influence each other formally — which is by no means
necessarily true -witness the influence of English on a variety of
languages. Fifthly, the method fails to consider a variability in the
degree of precision attainable at various periods of reconstruction: the
further back we go in history, the more time and space we allow in
between language states, and thus the more unknown influencing factors.
It is not possible to talk of Indo-European with the same degree of
certainty as of Old English, but the sound-laws are poker-faced, and
equate all ages in their formulas. And finally, there is the assumption
that Proto-Indo-European was a single language which can be deduced from
all the forms evidenced in daughter languages. It is rather more likely
(in view of certain contradictory pieces of evidence in the
reconstructions, and in view of what we know about the nature of
language) that the parent language involved many dialects, not just one
which has been miraculously preserved in extant languages. But to
determine the dialectology of Proto-Indo-European would be a task to
wither even the most ardent German philologist’s spirit.

The twentieth century, as we know, brought a reaction to purely
historical studies, and today the most valuable and alive aspect of
comparative linguistics is the subject of dialectology (or linguistic
geography), which studies variation in speech forms of a language, and
thus deals in the state of contemporary languages emphasizing speech to
the almost total exclusion of writing. It is at this point, then, that
we can take up the trail of modern linguistics, beginning with the work
of Ferdinand de Saussure, whose contribution to our subject remains


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>y of the ideas raised in my preceding section: again and again he
emphasizes the importance of seeing language as a living phenomenon (as
against the historical view), of studying speech (as opposed to written
texts), of analysing the underlying system of a language in order to
demonstrate an integrated structure (in place of isolated phonetic
tendencies and occasional grammatical comparisons), and of placing
language firmly in its social milieu (as opposed to seeing it solely as
a set of physical features). The tradition of study which has grown up
around Saussure has been to extract various theoretical dichotomies from
his work and to concentrate on the clarification of these. I shall
follow this tradition, and look briefly at the more important of them.

In opposition to the totally historical view of language of the
previous hundred years, Saussure emphasized the importance of seeing
language from two distinct and largely exclusive points of view, which
he called synchronic and diachronic. The distinction was one which
comparative philologists had often confused, but for Saussure — and,
subsequently for linguistics — it was essential. Synchronic linguistics
sees language as a living whole, existing as a ‘state’ at a particular
point in time (an etat de langue, as Saussure put it). We can imagine
this state as the accumulation of all the linguistic activities that a
language community (or some section of it) engages in during a specific
period, e.g. the language of the present-day working-class in
Manchester. In order to study this, linguists will collect samples
within the stated period, describing them regardless of any historical
considerations which might have influenced the state of the language up
to that time. Once linguists have isolated a focus-point for synchronic
description, the time factor becomes irrelevant — whatever changes may
be taking place in their material while they are collecting it, they
consider trivial. To consider historical material is to enter the domain
of diachronic linguistics. This deals with the evolution of a language
through time, as a continually changing medium — a never-ending
succession of language states. Thus we may wish to study the change from
Old English to Middle English, or the way in which Shakespeare’s style
changes from youth to maturity: both would be examples of diachronic
study. Saussure drew the inter-relationship of the two dimensions in
this way:

Here AB is the synchronic ‘axis of simultaneities’, CD is the diachronic
‘axis of successions’. AB is a language state at an arbitrarily chosen
point in time on the line CD (at X); CD is the historical path the
language has travelled, and the route which it is going to continue

(Crystal D. Linguistics. Second ed. Penguin Book, 1990. – pp. 140-157).

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