Who invented linguistics?

Preliminary remark

Here a summary overview of the development of linguistics is offered, the level and scope of a lesson appropriate to an introduction to linguistics. The Classics of Linguistics ’website is entirely devoted to the history of linguistics (at an advanced level).

At the center of linguistics is system linguistics, which is most typically represented in academic operations by general linguistics. That is why it is at the center of a history of linguistics. The branches of linguistics dealt with in Lessons 9-13 of this introduction are therefore only dealt with in passing here. In addition, with the exception of the first two sections, this presentation is limited to science.

The following is a synopsis of the stages into which the history of linguistics is divided below:

0.Invention of the alphabet (Phoenicians)13th century BC Ch.
1.Old Indian grammar500-300 BC Ch.
2.Ancient Greek and Latin grammar400 BC - 600 AD
3.Scholasticism, modism1200 - 1600
4.General grammar1650 - 1800
5.Philologies, polyglot collections, missionary grammars1750 -
6.Indo-European Studies1816 -
7.Traditional typology, Humboldtianism1808 - 1966
8.structuralism1916 -
9.Generative transformation grammar1957 -
10.Universals research and language typology1963 -

This classification, too, only picks out a few trends that have become important and makes no claim to scientific-historical dignity.

Writing systems that originated in historical times - e.g. the Korean Hangul - sometimes have an author and a date of origin. The inventors of writing systems on which the oldest surviving written monuments are based are, however, anonymous. It is probably not even individual linguists, but rather generations of members of a language community who have collectively developed the idea of ​​writing in a certain way.

In this sense, the invention of writing is an anonymous linguistic achievement. According to all that is known, it is thanks to the Sumerians who, between -3,500 and -3,000, developed a number of symbols that they used to mark traded and stored goods into one (namely their cuneiform script). Wherever writing was invented independently, i.e. without contact with an existing writing culture, it was invented as logography. Ultimately, all of the existing ones go back historically to a logography.

Among the Sumerians, the first beginnings of a phonography can be found from -2,800. But only the Akkadians converted the Sumerian cuneiform into a complete syllabography from -1.850 onwards.

From around -2,500 in Egypt logograms are reinterpreted to characters that stand for the consonant skeleton of a root. Between -1,500 and -1,200 the Phoenicians developed a script based on the Egyptian hieratic script, where each character stands for a consonant. So this is already an alphabetical font, where each character stands for a speech sound.

In the centuries around -1,000, the Phoenicians and surrounding Semites also added some letters that stand for single vowels. In this state the Greeks learn in -9. Century know the alphabet from the Phoenicians. They dedicate a letter to each vowel in their language and redefine letters of the Phoenician alphabet, the sound values ​​of which do not exist in Greek, as vowel letters. From around -800 onwards, the Greek alphabet is a writing system in which not only does every character stand for a speech sound, but where there is also a letter for every speech sound. To do this, the Greeks had to have a theory of their phoneme system. - More on the history of the alphabet on the dedicated page.

After the invasion of the (from around -1,300) a high culture developed in northern India, which in many ways is similar to, but superior to, the contemporary European high cultures. The oldest works of literature are those Vedas (Singular: Veda [m.], “[holy] knowledge”), poetic texts predominantly of a ritual nature. From around -500 a high-level language is codified for Old Indian, the Sanskrit (“Polished language”), and a philology emerges for the purpose of maintaining the Vedic texts. This is how glossaries of difficult Vedic words are created. Lexicography develops from this. It systematizes the alphabet on a phonological basis and defines the stem as a lemma for lexicon entries. The grammar of Sanskrit includes a theory of ablaut and a theory of composition and anticipates the concepts of the morpheme and phoneme, which were not formed in Europe until 2,500 years later. It culminates in the Aṣṭādhyāyī of Pāṇini (approx. -410), which summarizes the morphology of Sanskrit in almost 4000 rules. It is the oldest known grammar in the world and is admired to this day for its systematicity and succinct formulations.

The ancient Greeks coined the term tékhnē grammarḗ “Art of reading and writing”, but where art ’means a skill. Since the middle of the 5th In the 20th century, the sophists teach grammar and rhetoric as a prerequisite for success in public life. The basis is the poet's explanation, with grammatical and lexical problems being dealt with in particular. The philosopher Plato (427-347) wrote the dialogue Kratylos, where he discusses the question of the arbitrariness of the language sign and leaves it undecided, by the way. Also in Aristotle's (384-322) writings and poetics linguistic terms are discussed. The stoics develop from -3. Century of grammatical terminology on a semiotic and logical basis.

Since about -300 a philological school has been established in Alexandria (Nile Delta), which is concerned above all with the care of Homer's works. Analogous to the ancient Indian case, the philological concern for works of national importance in Greece requires lexico and grammarography. However, nothing has survived from pre-Christian times. The first important grammarian, of whom some works are known, is Apollonios Dyskolos (born in Alexandria soon after 100 AD). The four surviving chapters of his book are important Perì syntákseōs, the first occidental syntax. Under the name of the Alexandrian Dionysios Thrax (approx. 170/150 - 100/90), in the 3rd or 4th century AD a tékhnē grammarḗ brought out which has brought it to great fame. It encompasses a - albeit brief - phonology and morphology of Greek. It codifies the traditional terms for parts of speech, morphological categories and syntactic functions.

The Romans let the Greeks Krates come from Mallos to Rome so that he could teach grammar there. The entire Greek grammatical terminology is translated into Latin and, as far as possible, applied unchanged to Latin. The first Latin linguist is M. Terentius Varro (116-27). Only a part of his work, which deals with grammatical and etymological questions, has survived. The first Latin linguists, whose grammars are at least partially preserved, date from post-Christian times. Aelius Donatus (4th century) became particularly important. From his Ars grammatica (This is tékhnē grammarḗ in Latin) there is a detailed and a condensed version. The latter in particular has worked in Latin classes in schools for over a millennium. The entire traditional school grammar - the names of parts of speech, parts of sentences, morphological categories, etc. - goes back to this book. A far more comprehensive Latin grammar is that Institutiones rerum grammaticarum by Priscianus (6th century); this is the most complete ancient grammar ever to have served as a standard work throughout the Middle Ages.

Tékhnē grammatikḗ / ars grammatica is, as I said, the art of reading and writing. The whole of ancient grammar is firstly prescriptive, not descriptive, and secondly it is about the written language, not the spoken language. Letters and sounds are usually not differentiated, the syllable theory is not about the spoken syllables, but about the word separation when writing. The echo of this can still be found in today's school grammar, for example when the letters , , , , , <ä>, <ö>, <ü> are listed under vowels become. The emphasis on written language and the lack of empirical knowledge of grammar research that often goes along with it are ancient legacies.

All medieval grammar lessons were based, as I said, on “Donat”. These teachings were passed on unquestioned until the early scholastic period (beginning of the 12th century). Then, however, other works of Aristotle were translated into Latin (knowledge of Greek was not very widespread), and now logic is taking on a new impetus. It is now the task of science to justify grammar logically. Since the logic is the same for all languages, one is advocating one universalistic Position as explicitly formulated in the famous sentence of a milliner of the first generation:

This logical justification is provided in numerous treatises, which are mostly Grammatica speculativa (“Grammar as a reflection of thought”) or De modis significandi (“About the ways of labeling”). That is why the direction of modism and its followers were called modists.

Ways of designation, in modern terms, are grammatical meanings and functions. The point is to justify the entire grammar logically and ultimately ontologically. The basis of the grammatical categories, including the parts of speech, is therefore not a structural, but a semantic one. The culmination of these efforts is in Thomas von Erfurts Novi modes significandi (between 1300 and 1310) can be seen. The work provided grammar theory at several German universities well into modern times.

The Enlightenment established reason as a general standard of value. The epistemological position, according to which knowledge can only be obtained through rational thinking, is called rationalism. It established itself mainly in France; her main character was René Descartes (1596-1650). Rationalism determined French linguistics in the 17th and 18th centuries; in Germany it did not come into play until 1800.

From an epistemological point of view, rationalism takes over the legacy of scholasticism. What he has in common with her is that no empirical science is practiced. A characteristic of linguistics is the idea of universal grammar. An important school is operated in the Abbey of Port Royal des Champs, which had a branch in Paris. In 1660, the theologian and philosopher Antoine Arnauld (1612-1694) and the pedagogue and grammarographer Claude Lancelot (1615-1695) published it. In addition to Latin, its subject is Greek and French. Where the grammar of a language deviates from the logical principles, it is criticized. As with the milliners, the core of the work is the morphology. The syntax is an appendage, instead of the phonology there is an introductory chapter on letters and characters.

Incidentally, the opposing position against rationalism soon formed, in England. Since 1620 the empiricism championed, i.e. the view that all knowledge is based on experience. The founder of this direction is Francis Bacon (1561-1626), most important representative John Locke (1632-1704) with his Essay concerning human understanding (1690). It is true that this trend did not immediately lead to significant linguistics. But it gives off the epistemological atmosphere in which the polyglot collections to be dealt with next can arise. Since Leibniz, and especially the Enlightenment, attempts have been made in Germany to combine empiricism and rationalism. The contrast was i.w. abolished by Kant, but still exists to this day.

Since the beginning of colonialism, the Christian mission has penetrated more and more peoples, all of whom were to be proselytized in their language. So dictionaries and grammars of hitherto unknown languages ​​had to be created, and then the Bible and the catechism had to be translated. Numerous grammars that use the phrase originate from Arte de la lengua X (“Grammar of the X language”) in the title, for example Fray Alonso de Molinas Arte de la lengua mexicana y castellana (1571) or Juan Coronels Arte en lengua de maya from 1620. The authors are often monks whose linguistic training consists in knowledge of Latin grammar - more precisely: morphology. The Arte from Coronel, for example, is structured as follows:

Here one only has to take into account that there is indeed not much to be said about nominal morphology in Yucatecan. But that on the one hand there is no phonology and on the other hand no syntax is a typical traditional defect of this grammar. In addition, an abundance of categories such as the ‘pretérito perfecto’ are discussed, which exist in Latin but not in Yucatec; and on the other hand, not a word is lost about categories such as number classifiers, which exist in Yucatec but not in Latin.

These grammars are inadequate and relatively easy to understand at the same time. In the last third of the 20th century - after several decades of various structuralist models - the first grammars will appear that consider “traditional concepts” as a theoretical framework to be sufficient and, in this respect, connect with the missionary grammars.

In the Age of Enlightenment people began to take an ethnographic interest in the peoples of the earth and in their languages polyglot collections to put on. These typically contained translations of lists of basic words or the Our Father into a large number of exotic languages, and occasionally also summary information about the structure of the language. Representative early examples are the following:

Bibliographical information

Adelung, Johann Christoph & father, Johann Severin 1806-17, Mithridates or general language studies - with the Our Father as a language sample in almost five hundred languages ​​and dialects. Berlin: Voss (Reprint: Hildesheim: Olms, 1970).

Gesner, Conrad 1555, Mithridates. De differentiis linguarum tum veterum tum quae hodie apud diversas nationes in toto orbe terrarum in usu sunt observationes. Zurich: Froschoverus (reprint: Aalen: Scientia, 1974, edited and incorporated by Manfred Peters).

Hervas y Panduro, Lorenzo 1800-05, Catalogo de las lenguas de las naciones conocidas, y numeracion, division y clase de estas segun la diversitad de sus idiomas y dialectos. Madrid: [s.ed.].

Pallas, Peter Simon 1786-9, Linguarum totius orbis vocabularia comparativa. Sectio prima, duo volumes. St. Petersburg: J.K. Schnoor (2nd ed. 1790/1, ambas sectiones in 4 voluminibus continens. Reprint of the 1st edition, edited by Harald Haarmann, Hamburg: H. Buske, 1977).

As stated above, there was already philology in ancient India, Greece and Rome. It was of course always national philology; The fact that other peoples also achieved high-quality cultural and poetic achievements made the ancients conscious only under exceptional circumstances.1 The medieval universities had no philologies in their canon of subjects. So the philologies in the modern sense, and especially the idea that one can do the philology of the literature of another people or culture than one's own, are predominantly achievements of modern times.

Classical philology (i.e. Greek and Latin studies) occupies a historically exceptional position because it emerged - after the medieval break - as early as the age of humanism, i.e. from the 14th century onwards. From the beginning, their main business was the production of reliable editions of ancient texts, which, until the invention of the printing press, had only been handed down through repeated copying. The methods of Textual criticism allow the original text to be reconstructed with some certainty by comparing existing versions. Since on the one hand there has been a tradition of mastering Latin that has not been broken since antiquity and on the other hand - in comparison to the other Indo-European languages ​​- the understanding of the oldest literary monuments of Latin benefits only insignificantly from comparative linguistics, linguistics was in the from the beginning Classical philology is not particularly strongly represented.On the contrary, when linguistics established itself in the academic environment in the 19th century, classical philology was one of its fiercest opponents. To this day it is the rule at universities around the world that if there is more than one professorship for a philology, at least one of them is dedicated to the linguistics of the language concerned, except in Classical Philology: there were and are institutes for Classical Philology with several professorships for Latin and Greek Studies, not one of which is linguistically oriented.

The philologies of living languages, on the other hand, all had a strong linguistic component when they were created, because the aim was always to make texts from older language levels understandable by comparing languages. In addition, in many cases a lexico and grammatical tradition had to be established from the younger language levels.

In all countries, the philologies, especially those of the respective nation, are better established as academic subjects than (general)) linguistics. Therefore there are more linguists worldwide within the philologies than independent of them.


Gyarmathi, Sámuel 1799, Affinitas linguae hungaricae cum linguis fennicae originis grammatice demonstrata.

Sajnovics, János 1770, Demonstratio idioma Ungarorum et Lapponum idem esse. Copenhagen: Orphanotropium Regium.

1 One of these exceptions is the veneration that the Romans showed to the culture of the Greeks.