History of linguistics

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Though the modern science of linguistics began only in the mid-twentieth century, the study of the origins and nature of language have been an ongoing concern across the world's civilisations for millennia. From ancient times until the eighteenth century, insights into language mainly involved explaining the grammar of particular languages, such as Sanskrit, or describing changes over time. Such work laid the foundations for an extension of linguistic inquiry into language universals - the features common to all languages, which presumably tell us something about the system that underlies them. Later still, twentieth-century scholars prioritised explanations and predictions the system of language itself, and modern linguistics was born.


The early Indian grammarian Pāṇini's (ca 520–460 BCE) examined Sanskrit and produced several insights into the nature of grammar, such as the morpheme, which remain highly relevant in modern research and Plato in Cratylus wonders whether language has a natural or conventional origin.

Middle Ages

By mediaeval times, scholars in Europe were working on the assumption that certain languages were inherently more suited for certain usages or as tools of thought. However, Dante, in a significant reversal of the typical medieval prioritisation of Latin, regarded the vernacular as the "primary" speech as it was first learned. He famously declared that the vernacular with "without any rules" (sine omnia regula), by which of course he meant written, codified rules as taught in schools. Nevertheless, he was hampered, as were most medieval writers on the subject, by the limited ability to compare texts, and the lexical elements within them, over time.

Modern linguistics


For more information, see: Structuralism.

Some aspects of modern linguistics can be traced to the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics. He was the first to rigorously define language and therefore define what linguistics is. He also introduced the idea of language being a system or structure, which heavily influenced the field during the following years. Saussure's work was an early example of how the primary purpose of linguistics became to explain how languages work at one given moment of time and establish how languages work through both empirical evidence and theoretical reasoning. Elsewhere, a primary concern with describing and preserving the grammars of diverse languages continued well into the twentieth century.

Generative grammar

For more information, see: generative grammar.

From the 1950s, Noam Chomsky and his contemporaries initiated new methods in linguistics, producing explicit theories of grammar[1] - namely, systems that required no reference to other kinds of knowledge. Parallel to this 'Chomskyian' focus on the nature of the linguistic system, concerns about how language was used in society began to mature. In this way, from the 1960s William Labov was a pioneer in studies of sociolinguistics, a field which attempts to describe the relationship between language and society.


  1. Chomsky (1957); Chomsky and Halle (1968).