1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages

WHAT IS LINGUISTICS?

1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages

Linguisticsis the study of the human ability to produce and interpret language in speaking, writing and signing (for the deaf). All languages and all varieties of every language constitute potential data for linguistic research, as do the relationships between them and the relations and structures of their components. A linguist is someone who studies and describes the structure and composition of language and/or languages in a methodical and rigorous manner.

1.1.1 Human language

Linguistics inquires into the properties of the human body and mind which enable us to produce and interpret language. Human 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages infants unquestionably have an innate ability to learn language as a means of social interaction. Most likely it is the motivation to communicate with other members of the species that explains the development of language in hominins. It follows that linguists study language as an expression of and vehicle for social interaction. They also research the origins of human language, though there is controversy over when language first became possible among hominins. Neanderthals (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, c.300,000 to 30,000 years BP) almost certainly came to have the mental and physical capacity to use language naturally. No extant non-human animal has 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages a communication system on a par with human language. Some creatures learn to respond to and even reproduce fragments of human language, but they never achieve what a human being is capable of. The so-called ‘language’ used within some animal communities may have a few identifiable meaningful forms and structures, but animal languages lack the depth and comprehensiveness of human language. Human language is the most sophisticated means of communication among earthly life forms. It is a kind of interaction with our environment; and it is intentionally communicative. Inorganic matter interacts with its environment without intention 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages, e.g. moving water reshapes land. Plants interact with their environment as individuals, e.g. many plants turn towards a light source and some insectivorous plants actively trap their prey, but this interaction does not result from intention. Non-human creatures often do intentionally communicate with each other, for instance when mating or seeking food, but only in very limited ways. Humans interact with their environment in many ways, of which human communication using language is the most sophisticated and results from intentional behaviour.

1.1.2 Some general characteristics of language(s)

Language has physical forms to be studied. You can hear speech 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages, see writing and signing, and feel Braille. The forms can be decomposed into structured components: sentences, phrases, words, letters, sounds. These language constituents are expressed and combined in conventional ways that are largely (if not completely) rule-governed.

Gesture and sign are used in place of and along with spoken language. Gestures of various kinds accompany most spoken language (even when the speaker is on the telephone). Sign languages of the deaf vary from nation to nation, though each national sign language is also a complete language largely independent of the language spoken in the signer’s 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages community. Speech precedes writing both phylogenetically and ontogenetically. The creation of a writing system around 5,000 years BP is the earliest evidence we have of linguistic analysis: all writing systems require the creator to analyse spoken language into chunks that correspond to words, syllables, phonemes or other phonic data in order to render them in a visual medium. Although writing systems usually begin with a pictographic representation, this very quickly becomes abstract as representations of sounds, syllables, and/or elements of meaning come to replace pictographs. Thus did writing become more symbolic than iconic.

Phoneticsdiscusses the phonetic inventory of sounds that can occur 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages in human languages and reviews the character of human speech mechanisms. Phoneticians research the physical production, acoustic properties, and the auditory perception of the sounds of speech. Less than a quarter of the sounds humans have the ability to make are systematically used within any one language and Phonology focuses on properties of the various phonological systems to be found in the world’s languages. Phonologists study the way that sounds function within a given language and across languages to give form to spoken language. For instance the English colloquialism pa ‘father’ in most dialects is pronounced 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages with initial aspiration as [phaa] but in a few dialects without aspiration as [paa], which does not change the meaning.1 In Thai, however, the word [phaa] means ‘split’ whereas the word [paa] means ‘forest’, so the difference between [ph] and [p] makes a meaningful difference in Thai, but not in English. This is just one instance of different phonological systems at work and there is, of course, much more.



Morphology deals with the systematic correspondence between the phonological form and meaning in subword constructions called ‘morphemes’. A morpheme is the smallest unit of grammatical analysis with semantic specification. A word 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages may consist of one or more morphemes: for example, the morpheme –able may be suffixed to the verb root desire to create the adjective desirable. This adjective may take a negative prefix un– to form undesirable which can, in turn, be converted into the noun undesirable by a process sometimes called ‘zero-derivation’ because there is no overt marker of the nominalization. This noun may then be inflected with the abstract morpheme PLURAL which in this instance has the form of the suffix –s yielding the plural noun undesirables. Morphology deals with the 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages creation of new word forms through inflections that add a secondary grammatical category to an existing lexical item (word) but do not create a new one. As we have seen, morphology is also concerned with the creation of new lexical items by derivational processes such as affixation, compounding (chairwoman), truncation (math(s) from mathematics), and stress change (perVERT [verb] vs PERvert [noun] – where upper case indicates the stressed syllable).

Syntax studies the manner in which morphemes and lexical items combine into larger taxonomic structures such as phrases, sentences and longer texts. Some languages incorporate many morphemes into a single 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages word that requires a sentence to translate it into English. Relationships between sentence constituents can be signalled (1) by inflection, in which case word order can be comparatively free (as in Latin), or (2) by the sequence of items – making word order relatively rigid (as in English). Latin dominus servos vituperabat, vituperabat dominus servos, servos dominus vituperabat are all translated by the English sentence the master [dominus] cursed [vituperabat] the slaves [servos].

Language is metaphysical in that it has content; i.e. language expressions have meaning. Semantics investigates the meanings of sentences and their constituents and, also, the meaning 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages relationships among language expressions. Linguistic semantics is informed by insights from philosophy, psychology, sociology and computer science. Notions of truth and compositionality are crucial in determining meaning. But so too are the cognitive processes of language users. There is a question of how lexical content corresponds with conceptual content and the structure of concepts. There is controversy over the place within lexical and discourse semantics of encyclopaedic knowledge about referents (things spoken of) and the domain within which a language expression occurs. There is also controversy about the optimal means of representing meaning in theoretical semantics.

Every language 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages comes with a lexicon – loosely equivalent to the vocabulary of that language. A lexicon can be thought of as the mental counterpart to (and original model for) a dictionary such as the Oxford English Dictionary. Lexical items are stored as combinations of form and meaning, together with morphological and syntactic (morphosyntactic) information about the grammatical properties of the item and links to encyclopaedic information about the item – such as its history and information about things it may be used to refer to. Typically, a lexical item cannot be further analysed into meaningful chunks whose combination permits its meaning to 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages be computed. For instance, the lexical items a, the, dog, sheep, kill and morphemes like –s (PLURAL), –ed (PAST) can combine together under certain conditions, but none of these is subject to morphosyntactic analysis into smaller constituents. The lexicon of a language bundles meaning with form in versatile chunks that speakers combine into phrases, sentences, and longer texts whose meanings are computable from their constituents. The lexical items and morphemes listed above can combine into the sentence in (1), the meaning of which is composed from not only the words and morphemes but also the syntactic relations between them.

(1) The dogs killed 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages a sheep.

(1) has much the same meaning as (2) and a very different meaning from (3).

(2) A sheep was killed by the dogs.

(3) A sheep killed the dogs.

In (1) and (2) the dogs do the killing and the sheep ends up dead, whereas in (3) the sheep does the killing and it is the dogs which end up dead. Notice that the meanings of dogs and killed can be computed from their component morphemes: DOG+PLURAL and KILL+PAST; Similarly for the phrases the dogs and a sheep and the whole of the sentences (1), (2) and (3). If you find (1) and (2) more believable than 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages (3), that is because you are applying your knowledge of the world to what is said. These judgements arise from pragmatic assessments of the semantics of (1), (2) and (3). As said earlier, semantics is concerned with the meanings of, and the meaning relationships among, language expressions. For example, there is a semantic relationship between kill and die such that (4) is true.

(4) If X kills Y, then Y dies.

In (4) X has the role of actor and Y the undergoer. There are many other kinds of relationship, too. In order to die, Y has to have been living. If Y is 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages a sheep, then Y is also an animal. In English, dogs and sheep are countable objects, i.e. they can be spoken of as singulars, like a sheep in (1)–(3), or as plural entities like the dogs in (1)–(3). Words referring to meat (such as mutton, lamb, pork) do not normally occur in countable noun phrases; the same is true of liquids like beer and granulated substances like sugar, coffee or rice. However, these nouns are used countably on some occasions to identify individual amounts or varieties, as in (5)–(7).

(5) Two sugars for me. [Two spoons of sugar]

(6) Three beers, please. [Three glasses or 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages cans of beer]

(7) Two coffees are widely marketed in Europe. [Two species or varieties of coffee]

What this shows is that the grammatical properties of linguistic items can be, and regularly are, exploited to generate communicatively useful meaning differences.

When speakers employ language they add additional aspects of meaning. Although this is not obvious from (1), it is observable from the interchange between X and Y in (8).

(8) X: I don’t understand why you are so upset.

Y: The dogs killed a sheep.

Pragmatics studies the meanings of utterances (an utterance is a sentence or sentence fragment used by 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages a particular speaker on some particular occasion) with attention to the context in which the utterances are made.

1.1.3 The intersection of linguistics with other disciplines

Language is used within all human communities, many of which have no regular written form for their language, or did not until the twentieth century. Although it is now fairly common for linguists to enter a pre-literate community and attempt to describe their language, for most of the twentieth century it was anthropologists who undertook fi eld work in such communities with the primary aim of describing their social structures and customs; to accomplish 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages those goals most effectively, they needed to learn the people’s language. Field linguistics applies the methods of data elicitation and data collection in order to document, describe and analyse languages and language practices in their natural habitat – within the community of native speakers under investigation. The primary mission of anthropological linguistics is to tie forms of language to the social structures and customs of a people. There is a slight overlap here with the work of sociolinguists. A principal difference is that sociolinguistics focuses on the varieties of language used among different groups within a particular language community 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages. Sociolinguists also investigate language change through time by plotting the spreading adoption of new forms and the decay of old ones, which is often accelerated during periods of social stress and change. Concepts of politeness and offensiveness differ among different social groups, and such social conventions and their correlation with social relations are also topics relevant to sociolinguistics.

Psycholinguisticsdraws from linguistics, psychology, cognitive science and the study of language pathology. Psycholinguists research cognitive and psychological aspects of the perception of categorical similarities and differences among phenomena. They investigate language production on the one hand and language processing and comprehension on the 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages other. Developmental psycholinguistics examines first language acquisition and psycholinguists also study the acquisition of second languages. Knowing what is normal for human language use enables dysfunction to be recognized and potentially treated. Because linguistic dysfunction usually correlates with other mental dysfunction, language offers a path into (ab)normal cognitive behaviour. Whereas psycholinguistics focuses on the human mind, neurolinguisticsfocuses on the allied physiological matter of the human brain: the organ that enables the cognitive abilities we associate with the mind. Since the mid-nineteenth century it has been known that trauma to certain parts of the brain causes fairly 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages predictable linguistic defi ciencies. Since the development of neural imaging techniques, knowledge of brain function has blossomed; as a result there has been progressive refi nement in mapping the functions of different areas of the brain which has revealed the great extent to which different areas of the brain operate together to, among other things, facilitate language use.

1.1.4 Acquiring language

All normal human beings acquire language, even if they have a very low IQ. There is no doubt that human beings have an innate disposition to learn language, but they need exposure to the society of other humans in order to 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages do so. Furthermore, many children are raised in multilingual situations and acquire two or more languages concurrently and they very quickly learn not to mix them. During the first year of life a child learns to discriminate the significant sounds of their care-givers’ language(s) and they learn how to interact appropriately with people around them: it is the beginning of encultured socialization. By about one year old, a child supplements gesture and non-linguistic vocalization with words and later combines words into syntactic structures. The impetus is always to communicate with others. Many people 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages are taught a second or foreign language after they have already acquired native ability in their first language. The requirements for the process of second language learning apply insights from linguistics, and the primary focus of ‘applied linguistics’ is on language teaching. This means developing sound pedagogy that is responsive to research in linguistics. The instruction of phonology, morphology, vocabulary, semantics and syntax is important but so too is pragmatics, because it is not enough to know the grammar of a language: learners also have to know how to use the expressions from within the new language appropriately under any circumstances 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages and in any context.

1.1.5 Languages through time

Every language has developed over time and most languages are related to some other languages; this is grist to the mill of historical (diachronic) linguistics. All languages change over time and distinct varieties of a language may develop in the different regions where it is spoken. In recent times there has been overlap with sociolinguistics in that historical linguists have researched language variation and the social factors that generate language change at various points in time (synchronic change). Historical linguistics was launched in the nineteenth century by comparing and correlating sound changes in Indo 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages-European languages as a way of identifying which languages belong to that family. Very quickly interest expanded to the cataloguing of lexical, morphological, syntactic and semantic change in Indo-European and other language families. Comparative studies of language contact and genetic relationship have led to well-accepted descriptions of relations among different languages and their grouping into families. All living languages change constantly, but how predictable are the results of the change? Internal changes are driven by variation due to children using language a little differently from their parents and from mutations in discourse conventions. Some changes arise 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages through the grammaticalization of metaphorical extensions or the regularizing and standardization of pragmatic inferences: some of what begin as spontaneous novel meaning extensions achieve popularity and lose their novelty to become conventionalized. External influences include a need to create novel expressions for new phenomena, including cultural and social changes. Innovations begin within the dialect of one social group (sociolect) but must spread to the whole community to count as language change. Change that may seem to have been motivated by human cognition because it is so widespread may in fact result from contact between different sociolects, dialects or languages 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages. Predicting the direction of language change seems to be almost impossible. Languages are fast becoming extinct with the growth of urbanization and the dominance of linguae francae leading to the abandonment of languages that are spoken by only a small handful of people. Such people usually need to use a more dominant language to communicate with the wider community and their children will typically be schooled in the dominant language. Language documentation has the aim of recording for posterity not only the phonology, grammar and vocabulary of dying languages but their stories, songs, and the social and cultural 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages contexts in which the language is or was used. The documentation requires audio and video recording and techniques of archiving samples of language interchange and language performance that can be readily updated as technology advances. One strand of this work is to mobilize communities whose language is dying into language management that encourages language maintenance and revitalization.

1.2 A short history of linguistics

Student 1.

Ferdinand de Saussure has been described as the ‘father’ of modern linguistics through his infl uential Cours de Linguistique Générale (1916). There are three reasons for a belief that linguistics is of very recent origin: (1) Linguistics 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages is a human science, and along with anthropology, psychology and sociology, it developed rapidly during the late nineteenth century and mushroomed in the twentieth century. (2) Towards the end of the nineteenth century technological developments allowed for the recording and reproduction of spoken language so that linguists could at last not only recognize the priority of the spoken over the written medium but study constant, non-ephemeral, data from the spoken medium. (3) The first university chairs in something like ‘linguistics’ were Franz Bopp’s Chair in Oriental Literature and General Language-lore (‘allgemeine Sprachkunde’) at the University of Berlin 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages in 1825 and Thomas Hewitt Key’s Chair of Comparative Grammar at University College London in 1842. The International Journal of American Linguistics dates from 1917; the Linguistic Society of America from 1924, and its journal Language from 1925. Linguistics only became an independent university discipline several decades into the twentieth century: most university programmes in linguistics were established in the second half of the twentieth century; high school programmes in linguistics only started in the third millennium and they barely exist today. If linguistics is a science it is because a linguist studies and describes the structure and composition of language and/or languages in 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages a methodical and rigorous manner. However, prehistoric thought about the structure and composition of language set a pathway towards linguistics proper. As already mentioned, the earliest evidence of linguistic analysis is the development of writing to record events, transactions, agreements and observations more permanently than is possible in oral transmission. The oldest example known dates from fifth millennium BCE China. Bilingual Semitic word lists existed in the third millennium BCE and tabled equivalences between Sumerian and Akkadian phrases in the eighteenth century BCE. Such events count as early steps in linguistic analysis.

Student 2

The first writing systems were 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages logographic: the symbol represents a morpheme or word and its referent. Today, ♂ is a logograph for ‘male’, 4 is a logograph for ‘four’. Often, logographs extend to homophones of the original word symbolized, as in a 4 Sale sign that uses 4 in place of for because they sound the same. Once a logographic symbol is associated with phonetic form there is scope for its development into either a syllabary symbolizing the syllables of the language or into an alphabet symbolizing its phonemes. Because they segment the spoken language in order to give it visual and more permanent representation, syllabaries 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages and alphabets exemplify prehistoric phonological analyses of language. Although not known in the West until fairly recently, linguistic analysis in Ancient India developed to preserve the oral language of the Vedic hymns composed 1900–1100 BCE. From the sixth century BCE, there were Systematic analyses of phonetics, phonology, and prosody. In the early fourth century BCE, Pāṇini composed a precise and fairly complete description of late Vedic Sanskrit consisting of lists of lexical and phonological units accompanied by phonetic, morphological, syntactic and semantic rules and conditions, and metarules for rule-ordering, and so on. The topics and methods used in these 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages Ancient Indian works were far closer to practices in modern linguistics than to anything found in the Western Classical Tradition before the nineteenth or even twentieth century.

Student 3

In Ancient Greece, language study grew out of philosophy on the basis that language enables truth-bearing presentations of the internal and external world and is also a vehicle of persuasion and education. Both Plato and Aristotle believed that language reflects speakers’ experiences of the world and the relationships and structures they find in it. Their interest was aroused because we say such things as X is the cause of Y, and 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages B follows from A, and they were concerned about the relation between what is said and what actually holds true in the world. To precisely account for the meaning of statements requires a prior account of their structure; and because statements are expressed through sentences, the Ancient Greek philosophers looked into the construction of sentences to establish what constitutes a statement. Thus began a long association between philosophy and language analysis, which revived in the Middle Ages and flowered in the second half of the twentieth century, leading to significant advances in linguistic semantics and pragmatics 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages. In Poetics and Rhetoric Aristotle discusses language structures which are relevant to the success of poetic and rhetorical effect. In addition to talking about the functions of various parts of speech, he described some phonological aspects of Greek, because in his day, and for centuries after, literature was rarely read silently, but declaimed by actors or poets from the stage, and by pupils in the schoolroom. In Rhetoric he advocated something comparable with Grice’s maxims of manner, quality and perhaps quantity, though his purpose was different from that of Grice.

Student 4

In the Western Classical Tradition, the work of 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages the early Greek philosophers and grammarians was adapted with little alteration to the grammar of Latin, the language that dominated scholarship in the West until the twentieth century. The basics for the parts of speech can be found in Plato and Aristotle, but it was the Stoics who noted regularities and irregularities indicating underlying rules of grammar and norms of behaviour governing the use of language. The Stoics recognized illocutionary types and under their influence, Apollonius Dyscolus (c.80–160 CE) identifi ed the link between clause-type, mood, and illocutionary force that was not revived until the late twentieth century 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages. In the second century BCE Aristarchus of Samothrace refers to all eight traditional parts of speech and to some of their subcategories; these were propagated in the Tekhnē Grammatikē (The Art of Grammar attributed to Dionysius Thrax, c.160–85 BCE;) which was a model for the pedagogical Ars grammatica (The Art of Grammar) of Aelius Donatus (c.315–385 CE) – a cornerstone of Latin instruction throughout the Middle Ages. The Stoics were a major influence on Varro, Apollonius and Herodian, and – indirectly – their disciple Priscian (c.490–560 CE), whose Institutiones grammaticae (Grammatical Doctrine) is the foundational work on Latin grammar and 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages remained the principal pedagogical source for Latin grammars until modern times.

Student 5

The Alexandrian grammarians, Dionysius Thrax and Apollonius Dyscolus, were pedagogical grammarians and not philosophers. Their principal motivation was a perceived need to teach the correct meaning, forms, and pronunciation of Homeric and Attic Greek so that classical literature could be properly read, performed and understood. This is analogous to the motivation for the grammars of Ancient India. Donatus described the parts of speech to be found in classical Latin literature, although Vulgar (i.e. colloquial contemporary) Latin was in daily use about him. Priscian adopted the view 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages that language reflects the way the world is and he explained a number of syntactic constructions on these grounds. For example, he said that because one cannot imagine an action without presupposing an actor the subject of a sentence always precedes the verb – i.e. all languages are either S(O)V or SV(O)[1]. Many such assumptions are justified by the grammars of Latin and Greek, but turn out to be wrong when applied universally; for instance, Maa (Nilotic, East Africa) is VS(O), Malagasy (Austronesian, Madagascar) V(O)S, and Tohono O’odham (Uto-Aztecan, Arizona 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages) arguably (O)VS. Priscian’s classical Latin grammar, Institutiones Grammaticae, was based directly upon the classical Greek grammar of Apollonius Dyscolus. Dionysius, Apollonius, Donatus and Priscian were not philosophers but precursors to applied linguists within the Western Classical Tradition.

Student 6

Some 600 years after Priscian, from about 1150 to 1350, grammar became once more wedded to philosophy. But all along, from the early Middle Ages to the present day, running on a more or less parallel track to philosophical grammar, there continued to be a pedagogic strain manifest in prescriptive grammars for the classroom. For several hundred years, education in 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages Europe was education in Latin, access to which was through grammars of Latin; hence grammar as a school subject meant the ‘grammar of Latin’. Except during the Middle Ages, when the fourth century Latin of the Vulgate Bible displaced the pagan Latin of antiquity, the best authors were said to be the classical authors; it was classical Latin and, to a certain extent, classical Greek that came to be regarded as the ideal model for grammatical construction. English and other so-called ‘modern languages’ were (mistakenly, we would now say) regarded as debased and corrupt compared with classical Latin 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages and Greek; so teachers insisted that the best way to write a ‘modern language’ was to follow the rules of Latin grammar so far as possible. In other words, pedagogues believed that the grammar of classical Latin provides appropriate rules for the grammars of European vernaculars. Such a view was properly condemned by linguists in the first sixty years of the twentieth century; unfortunately, most of those critics rejected not only the excesses of traditional grammar but its successes too.

Student 7

For several centuries the works of Aristotle were lost to scholars in Europe. But in the twelfth century they once more 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages became available and there was renewed interest in Aristotelian philosophy. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Western Europe, scholars had Priscian’s rules for Latin syntax which, because of the focus on pedagogy, sought no explanation for why the rules operate as they do. Scholastic grammarians adopted the Aristotelian dictum that the world is the same for everyone, believing that language is like a speculum ‘mirror, image’ that reflects the world; so their grammars are described as ‘speculative’. The speculative grammarians also followed Aristotle in believing that everyone has the same experience whatever their language 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages; consequently mental experiences are the same for everyone. It led them to claim that what is signified is universal, but the means by which it is signified, the modi significandi, differ from language to language. Because of their interest in modi significandi, these medieval scholastics were also known as modistae. During the thirteenth century, the speculative grammarians began to establish the notion of a ‘general’ or ‘universal’ grammar common to all languages.

Student 8

In the late seventeenth and throughout the eighteenth century, language was the province of rationalist grammarians, whom Noam Chomsky – undoubtedly the most prominent theoretician 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages in the second half of the twentieth century – claimed for his intellectual forebears. Like the modistae, the rationalist grammarians were inspired by Aristotle; the essential difference between the two schools is that the modistae viewed human beings as all having similar experiences because of the nature of the world around them, whereas the rationalists believed that people have similar experiences because of the nature of the human mind. The rationalists were post-Renaissance scholars living in an age of exploration which had given rise to grammars of several exotic languages. Scholars in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages knew that experience of the world differed greatly among different communities of human beings but that all of us possess minds through which to perceive, categorize and assimilate information about the world. On the rationalist view, the nature of the mind is to think; and because almost everyone is capable of being rational, they adapted the medieval notion that there must be an underlying ‘general’ or ‘universal’ grammar to locate it in the human mind. This idea is also found in the late twentieth century grammar of Chomsky. It follows that languages differ from one another only because the common 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages underlying structure of human thought is expressed through different forms – in Chomskyan terms, different ‘parameters’ are switched on.

Student 9

The traditional view that the structure of the world informs the structure of language is inverted by the ‘linguistic relativity hypothesis’ that arose in the Romantic movement which spread from Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715–1780) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712– 1778) in France to Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803) and Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835) in Germany, to re-emerge with Franz Boas (1858–1942) in America and be instilled into Edward Sapir (1884–1939) and Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941). Known today as the ‘Sapir–Whorf hypothesis’ or, simply, ‘Whor 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languagesfi an hypothesis’, it postulates that the structure of language informs the structure of the world as conceived by speakers of a particular language when they are speaking it. However, it does not impose a mental straitjacket: the human mind can and does go anywhere.

The eighteenth to nineteenth centuries saw the development of comparative philology arising from the discovery and gradual identification of the Indo-European language family. The early cross-language comparisons used terminology directly derived from ancient Greek statements on phonology. For the most part, however, nineteenth century comparative philology took the Western Classical Tradition in a new 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages direction by focusing on phonological systems.

Student 10

Twentieth century developments in phonetics and phonology and the whole paradigm of Saussurean structuralist and Bloomfieldian mechanistic linguistics were a new direction in, and sometimes a revolt against, the Western Classical Tradition. Nonetheless, linguistics in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a crucial foundation for the post-structuralist linguistics that is the consequence of the so-called ‘Chomsky revolution’. Chomsky’s predecessors had rejected traditional grammar along with linguistic universals, rationalist theory and semantics. All of these are back in vogue. If modern linguistics began with a hiccup in 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages the Western Classical Tradition, it is now back within the comfortable framework of two and a half millennia of linguistic description. Modern linguistics developed from the investigations of the neo-grammarians into the origins and interrelations of Indo-European languages, which eventually merged with a mushrooming interest in the non-Indo-European languages of Native Americans and the peoples of Africa, Asia and Australasia. This interest was partly motivated by a fascination with exotic cultures and languages, and partly by ideas for generating literacy and education in indigenous languages. The development of linguistics was spurred on by technological advances 1.1 Linguistics studies language and languages during the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries that have facilitated detailed study of the spoken medium and of the processes of language interaction.


[1] S = subject, O = object, V = verb.

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