User:LGreg/sandbox/Approaches to Knowledge (LG seminar 2020/21)/Seminar 18/History/ History of Linguistics

Linguistics in the Ancient World edit

One of the first records of descriptive linguistics, the systematic study of the grammar of a language [1], is the treatise on Sanskrit grammar written by the Indian scholar Panini in 600 BC [2]. Back then, the study of language had the purpose of properly preserving religious texts, especially the Vedic hymns [3]. Language was also studied in ancient Greece, though usually in the context of rhetoric [4] and philosophy, e.g. Plato explored the nature of language in his work Cratylus [5]. The preservation of Greek was the reason for which the Alexandrians further investigated the Greek grammar around 100 BC [6]. There, Dionysus Thrax wrote his The Art of Grammar, which explains parts of Greek grammar [6]. The Romans continued using descriptive linguistics to preserve their language following the Greek tradition[6]. When it came to analysing texts, the Greeks and Romans confined themselves to literary texts and not everyday speech [6]. In the 17th century, there was a change in this attitude: Descriptive linguists from Port-Royal wanted to explore the idea of universal grammar, a theory suggesting that there are universal grammatical relations that apply to all human languages [7], and they argued that grammar should follow the rules of spoken language [6].

Modern Linguistics edit

The Rediscovery of Sanskrit edit

A paradigm shift in the study of language occurred in 1786, when Sir William Jones started comparing Sanskrit with many European languages [3]: It was found that there are many similarities among European, Indian and Persian languages [8]. A new theory of a proto-language, Proto-Indo-European, from which many current languages stem, was formed [3]. Thus, linguistics went from only analysing particular languages to comparing different languages. This went hand in hand with developing universal linguistic techniques for analysing many languages instead of having language-specific systems of descriptive linguistics [3].

Structural Linguistics edit

In the 1920s, the field of structural linguistics emerged, with Ferdinand de Saussure as its founder, which focused on the underlying structures within languages instead of only considering individual linguistic elements [3]. As a result, the structures of languages were much better understood and it became apparent that all languages have very similar underlying structures [3]. From this, Noam Chomsky’s claim that the human brain is built in a way that only allows certain grammatical structures arose, which is one of the most controversial topics in modern linguistics [3]. This claim is the basis for the theory of generative and transformational grammar [9], which echoes the claim of the linguists from Port-Royal that there are universal grammatical rules from which all languages are derived.

Recent Developments edit

Linguistics has been strongly influenced by developments in other disciplines and vice versa. Linguistics had a significant impact on the development of effective programming languages, e.g. Noam Chomsky’s work on the rules of natural languages was applied to programming languages [10]. Thus, not only human languages are being analyzed now but the knowledge of the structure of human languages is being applied to artificial languages. The advances in computer technology have allowed for the field of computational linguistics to form. It is concerned with giving computers the ability to process human language and interact with it [11]. Natural language processing is one method used in this subfield of linguistics. Moreover, developments in neuroscience are allowing linguists to see how language is connected with neurological processes in a field called neurolinguistics [12]. Hence, linguistic methods are expanding beyond analysing languages and into the study of how language is generated in the brain using neuroscientific methods.

References edit

  1. Definition of descriptive linguistics | [Internet]. 2020 [cited 19 October 2020]. Available from:
  2. O'Connor J, Robertson E. Panini - Biography [Internet]. Maths History. 2000 [cited 19 October 2020]. Available from:
  3. a b c d e f g Schiffman H. Origins of Linguistics. [Internet]. [cited 19 October 2020]. Available from:
  4. Newmeyer F. The History of Modern Linguistics | Linguistic Society of America [Internet]. [cited 19 October 2020]. Available from:
  5. ancient linguistics [Internet]. Oxford Reference. 2020 [cited 19 October 2020]. Available from:
  6. a b c d e The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Grammar [Internet]. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2020 [cited 19 October 2020]. Available from:
  7. Barsky R. Universal grammar | linguistics [Internet]. Encyclopedia Britannica. [cited 19 October 2020]. Available from:
  8. Newmeyer F. The History of Modern Linguistics | Linguistic Society of America [Internet]. [cited 19 October 2020]. Available from:
  9. Transformational Grammar | Definition of Transformational Grammar by Oxford Dictionary on also meaning of Transformational Grammar [Internet]. Lexico Dictionaries | English. [cited 19 October 2020]. Available from:
  10. Lee J. Computer Pioneers - Noam Chomsky [Internet]. 1995 [cited 19 October 2020]. Available from:
  11. Computational Linguistics – Heidelberg University [Internet]. [cited 19 October 2020]. Available from:
  12. Menn L. Neurolinguistics | Linguistic Society of America [Internet]. [cited 19 October 2020]. Available from: