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MIHE Blog News, views and insights from Macmillan International Higher Education

Taking A Long View Of Linguistics

by Kim Ballard 13th August 2019

The history of linguistics is a rich and varied subject, although one that doesn’t always receive its fair share of attention. Kim Ballard looks at its appeal for students…

Given the vastness of the history of linguistics as a subject, it’s perhaps not surprising that it doesn’t get much coverage on the majority of degree courses, where there is already more than enough to include. Some institutions offer individual modules on the history of ideas about language, but for most students the extensive history of language study (reaching back long before Saussure) is something they form only a patchy idea of. That was certainly my experience.

But there’s no doubt that the history of linguistics has a great deal to recommend it, not least the perspective it gives on the modern discipline. Many questions that were vigorously debated in the past remain unanswered or only partly answered. The nature of language itself has exercised thinkers for over 2000 years. Plato, in his dialogue Cratylus, explored the important question of whether nouns – so central to any language – are arbitrary or naturalistic. Similarly, fellow philosopher Lucretius was one of the earliest scholars to consider the apparent uniqueness of human language, arguing that meanings in animal noises were comparable to those in human utterances. Some of the ideas and approaches we find in contemporary theoretical linguistics (including the categorisation of words into classes) have their ancestry in the ancient world, and in the medieval period we find fascinating and still relevant ideas about the relationship between grammar, human thought, and universal truths of the world around us. These, and many other topics, all make great starting points for student discussions.

In this technological age of easy sound recording and extensive online corpora, it’s hard not to be impressed by the commitment of past scholars to data collection:
  • The indefatigable French dialectologist Edmond Edmont spent four years at the end of the nineteenth century cycling around France, visiting 600 different localities in order to gather examples of regional speech for the proposed Atlas linguistique de la France. He filled nearly a thousand notebooks with information and data.
  • One of his contemporaries, German linguist Georg Wenker, sent out questionnaires to schools to elicit regional dialect examples and received over 45,000 replies!
  • Data relating to male/female linguistic variation became available at least as early as 1658, when a published study based on long-term observation of the Carib people of the Antilles Islands revealed an intriguing range of sex-differentiated word pairs. These were still being discussed in 1922 when Otto Jespersen published his seminal work on Language.
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Edmond Edmont visited 600 locations to gather examples of regional speech for the Atlas linguistique de la France.

Photo by Jules Gilliéron. Avaliable on Wikimedia by CC0.
We can also see how data collection and analysis has evolved, opening methodological doors for later researchers. The publication of Rousseau’s Émile in 1762 sparked considerable interest in child development and scholarly parents and carers started keeping diaries of early language acquisition. In the following century, Charles Darwin joined the burgeoning ranks of diary keepers, and by the early twentieth century diarists were recording not only words and sounds, but examples of syntactic development too. And ‘data’ can also be found in non-verbal forms. Visitors to the Musée Dupuytren in Paris can still see the preserved brains of aphasic patients treated by Paul Broca, the French physician who gives his name to an area of the brain crucial for speech production. The discovery of the bones of ‘Java man’ in 1891 marks the start of an ever-increasing collection of hominid remains which is now providing evolutionary linguists with significant clues about how we came to be a talking species.

To study the history of linguistics is to gain an appreciation of the range of thinkers and researchers who have helped to shape the modern discipline. The forebears of linguistics as we know it are not only language scholars (such as dialectologists and philologists) but include philosophers, missionaries, physicians, anatomists, naturalists, anthropologists, primatologists and neurologists. Many of these individuals feature in episodes which bring the stories of linguistics to life:
  • The 1786 ‘flash of light from the east’ when Sir William Jones outlined to the Asiatic Society of Calcutta his compelling evidence for a common ancestor of what was later identified as the Indo-European language family.
  • The adoption in 1800 by French physician Jean Marc Itard of Victor, the ‘enfant sauvage’, who had been living wild and alone throughout his early childhood. Despite Itard’s best efforts, (he too had read Rousseau’s Émile) his absorbing account of Victor’s new life in a domestic setting reveals – much to his surprise and disappointment – that Victor developed very little language ability.
  • A scene from 1913 Geneva: two colleagues of the late Ferdinand de Saussure, with permission from his widow, search his study for the manuscripts of her husband’s ‘seminal lectures’ to find nothing but some old jottings in a drawer. Nevertheless, they managed to piece together what was to become an iconic text of the modern discipline – Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics.

The history of anything is a kind of jigsaw from which an unspecified number of pieces are missing. As far as ideas about language are concerned, we can only wonder how many ideas from the past have been lost to us because written texts have not survived. In contrast to such absences, however, is the extensive online availability now of so many important historical works. Among the many fascinating texts accessible at the press of a key are:
  • An anonymous twelfth-century treatise from Iceland which contains a detailed analysis of Icelandic speech sounds – a significant early work on phonology.
  • A prize-winning essay, published in 1772, by Johann Gottfried Herder on the origin of language – still one of the hottest topics in linguistics!
  • The meticulous 1543 drawings of the brain by Italian anatomist Andreas Vesalius – ground-breaking at the time for the study of this organ of language.
Viewing online works such as these can only inspire students of modern linguistics, giving them some sense of their place in its continued development. Whatever aspect of the modern discipline students are engaged in, the historical perspective deserves at least some consideration and will significantly enrich a student’s appreciation of how human beings have strived to understand their most fascinating attribute.
Featured image credit. Photo by Jacques Louis David. Avaliable on Met Museum via CC0 1.0