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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 P?nini, 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

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.








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/; 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.

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