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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The Grammarians. Neither Plato nor Aristotle were
primarily concerned with linguistics proper, with
questions having to do with the formal structure of
language. If they analyzed expressions and sentences,
it was in order better to understand what they stood
for—ideas and propositions. Plato discussed language
because of the light it might shed on the nature of
knowledge; Aristotle because of its importance to logic.

During the following centuries more and more em-
phasis was given to the formal side of the discourse.
But the logical and semantic foundation that had been
laid was never abandoned. That might be a weakness
from the point of view of theoretical consistency. On


the other hand, thanks to this double base the linguistic
theory of antiquity was flexible enough to be adapted
to the description not only of Greek, but also of Latin,
and later of the modern languages as well. It is no
coincidence that the ónoma-rhēma (noun-verb) di-
chotomy has provided a starting-point for most at-
tempts that have been made to formulate a general

The first to elaborate the parts of speech theory
further seem to have been the Stoics. They recognized
four parts: the noun (ónoma), the verb (rhēma), the
conjunction (súndesmos), and the article (árthron). The
latter two terms are also to be found in Aristotle, but
the Stoics clarified the difference between them. The
conjunctions are undeclinable, while the articles are
declined for case.

The term case (ptōsis) was also redefined by the
Stoics. While Aristotle had used it for both nouns and
verbs, the Stoics restricted it to the noun. They also
gave currency to the case names that are still in use:
onomastikē (“nominative”), genikē (“genitive”), dotikē
(“dative”) and aitiatikē (“accusative,” a mistranslation
for “effective” or “causative”).

The Stoics also tried to make a systematic descrip-
tion of the very complicated Greek verb conjugations.
According to Aristotle's definition of the verb, time
indication was essential to it. The Stoics, when pushing
the analysis further, discovered that the Greek verb
forms also had other functions: to indicate aspect (i.e.,
completed or incompleted action), mood (indicative,
subjunctive, optative, imperative), and voice (active,
medial, or passive). As far as we know—no complete
account of the Stoic philosophy has come down to
us—they did not quite succeed in unravelling the in-
terrelation of these concepts. Perhaps because they
held on to the view that time indication was the funda-
mental verbal function, they did not manage to disen-
tangle the aspect and tense functions. The mood con-
cept was treated as belonging to the sentence type
rather than to the verb form. There is nothing surpris-
ing about the Stoic's failure on these points. After all,
they were not chiefly concerned with linguistic form.
Their interest, like Plato's and Aristotle's, was philo-
sophical rather than grammatical.

While the philosophers analyzed language in order
to understand reality, the grammarians were interested
in language for its own sake. Or rather, they needed
a correct description of the language system in order
to judge and interpret the visible products of that
system, whether classical literary texts that needed
explanation, or spoken language that needed supervi-
sion so as to conform to a standard model. Both objects
were of importance in Hellenistic times. The Homeric
text, which was the foundation of all Greek literary
education, was becoming more and more remote from
ordinary Greek, and the spread of Greek culture and
Greek language all around the Eastern Mediterranean
created a demand for pure hellēnismós, as the phrase
was. The time was ripe for the grammarians.

One of the outcomes of the search for a standard
was the struggle between anomalists and analogists.
The analogists stressed the regularity of language. They
tried to reduce its apparent chaos to order by estab-
lishing analogies: paradigms and schemas for the de-
clension of words. The anomalists insisted that lan-
guage was not determined by rules, but by custom.
While naturally not denying that analogies could be
established, they maintained that the assignment of
words to different declension classes or conjugations
was largely haphazard.

When faced with textual obscurities and difficulties,
the analogists tended to emend the text by analogy
with more common forms. The anomalists were more
prone to accept the text as it stood. In their attitude
to the standard language analogists took a normative
stand, while anomalists would bow to custom and good
usage. Analogists were authoritarian (Caesar published
a pamphlet on the analogist side); anomalists were, if
not democrats, at least liberal conservatives. The de-
bate continued for several centuries. Out of it classical
grammar developed. The only way for the analogists
to prove their case was to show that it was indeed
possible to reduce the apparent chaos of language to
some sort of order. And all the time the anomalists
compelled their adversaries to improve their descrip-
tions by pointing to cases which did not fit the rules.
In this way it was the language as such, not the philo-
sophical uses of it, that occupied the center of the

The work of the Greek grammarians, of whom
Aristarchus of Alexandria (fl. ca. 160 B.C.) was the most
famous, has come down to us in two versions, the
grammars of Dionysius Thrax (fl. ca. 100 B.C.) and of
Apollonius Dyscolus (fl. ca. A.D. 180). The former is
a brief compendium of some twenty pages, which
contains little more than definitions and explanations
of the chief grammatical terms. The latter, which uses
essentially the same terminology, is considerably longer
and has a large separate section on syntax, which is
entirely absent in Dionysius' book.

Dionysius defines grammar as having to do with
pronunciation, explanation of textual difficulties and
stylistic features, etymology, and, as he puts it, “the
discovery of analogies.” His approach is entirely philo-
logical and literary. This is a reflection of the fact that
grammar had arisen out of the study of the old texts,
and especially Homer. The wider, philosophical ques-
tions of the nature of language and the relation be-


tween language and thought were not touched upon
at all by Dionysius.

Dionysius' “discovery of analogies,” i.e., his mor-
phology, introduces practically the whole of the con-
ceptual apparatus of what was later to become tradi-
tional grammar. Like Aristotle, Dionysius recognizes
two main parts of speech, noun and verb. His definition
of them vaguely recalls Aristotle's, but it is more
formal. He definitely seeks to define a word as a mem-
ber of a class, not as a constituent of a sentence. The
noun is defined formally as having case inflection,
semantically as signifying “a person or thing.” The
different cases are enumerated and named. This is one
of the great achievements of the Greek grammarians
(and philosophers), since it requires quite a high degree
of linguistic abstraction, in view of the fact that the
declension morphemes in Greek and Latin express not
only case but also number and gender. They also differ
from one declension to another, and—especially in
Greek—undergo extensive changes in different envi-
ronments. As the classical grammarians never recog-
nized any smaller semantic unit than the word—they
never spoke about morphemes or suffixes, only about
word endings—their task was made all the more diffi-
cult. All through antiquity the noun class included the
adjectives. The adjective was not even recognized as
one of the major subdivisions of the noun class.
Dionysius' major subdivision is a formal one: original
words (like earth, white) as against derived ones (like
earthly, whiteness). The failure to separate the adjec-
tive class was obviously due to the ancient grammari-
ans' weakness in the field of syntax.

The verb is defined by Dionysius as being devoid
of case, but having tense, mood, person, number, and
“kind” (active or passive). This is the system of tradi-
tional grammar almost full-fledged. Where Dionysius
was weak, no improvement was to be made until mod-
ern times. That concerns above all the tense system,
which he mixed up with the aspect system.

The other word classes recognized by Dionysius are:
metochē (participle; thus called because it had both
case and tense inflection, and thus participated in both
the noun and the verb class), árthron (article; a case-
forming part preceding a noun), antōnymía (pronoun;
used in place of a noun), próthesis (preposition; could
occur before all parts of speech—prefixes like ad- in
adapt were considered as prepositions), epírrhēma (ad-
verb; says something about a verb), and súndesmos
(conjunction; “links together our thoughts in a deter-
mined order”).

The accidence expounded by Dionysius Thrax is
found practically unchanged in Apollonius Dyscolus,
and was taken over almost completely by such Roman
grammarians as Donatus and Priscianus. A somewhat
more independent position was taken by the Latin
writer Varro in his book De lingua latina, of which
only six of the twenty-five chapters have been pre-

The main change introduced by the Latin authors
was to drop the article as a special word class (as Latin
has no articles), and to introduce the interjection in
its stead. Minor changes were due to the obvious differ-
ences between the Greek and Latin accidence, for
instance, the ablative case. But the rather fundamental
differences between the Latin and Greek verb systems
were not clearly recognized. Priscianus tried, for in-
stance, to carry over the Greek distinction between
the optative and the subjunctive to Latin, thus indi-
cating that he had not firmly grasped the fundamental
principle of basing the morphology on the formal
distinctions made in the language. The same weakness
can be found, down to the present time, in a host of
traditional grammars of modern languages.

The ancient grammarians' work on syntax was far
inferior to that on accidence. This is due to the fact
that they did not develop any theory of the sentence
and sentence constituency. To the philosophers, ónoma
and rhēma had been sentence constituents rather than
word classes. The grammarians, while retaining the
terms, had changed their function. As a result they did
not know how to start analyzing the constituents of
sentences. To Apollonius Dyscolus, as to Priscianus who
followed him, syntax was therefore a question of finding
out how word classes and word forms could be com-
bined with each other on the basis of their intrinsic
characteristics. This approach can achieve a limited
success—for instance, to explain the concord of adjec-
tives and nouns in the noun phrase, and the government
of prepositions. But it cannot succeed at all in explain-
ing the internal constituency of the verb or noun phrase
in general, nor the constituency of the simple sentence,
nor the interconnection of sentences and clauses, or
infinitival or participial clause-like construction.

Every classical grammar started out with an account
of letters and their pronunciation. That the point of
departure was the letter, not the speech sound
(phoneme) was natural, as grammar had arisen out of
the study of literary texts, not the spoken language.
The consequence of this approach, however, was that
the letter and not the sound continued to be the funda-
mental unit in terms of which the form of words was
discussed. Moreover, writers were constantly mixing
up the two concepts.

The phonetic theory of the ancients was very defi-
cient. No even remotely exact articulatory phonetics
was developed. (On the Indian achievement, see be-
low.) It is true that a consistent distinction was made
between vowels and non-vowels. But the consonants


were not described very efficiently. The distinction
between voiced and unvoiced consonants, such as b
and p, was not stated with any accuracy. Great impor-
tance was attached to the distinction between stops
and continuants. The latter were generally called semi-
vowels, a group which accordingly contained not only
l, m, n, r, but also s and f.

As regards etymology no real improvement was
made on the state of things illustrated in Cratylus.
Though the grammarians recognized several types of
derivation of verbs and nouns, and accurately described
the different declension and conjugation classes, they
never arrived at a clear view of the concept of the
morpheme, whether word-base, derivational affix, or
case affix. As long as this was so, they could not estab-
lish the main connections between the words in their
own language, let alone those between Latin and
Greek. The ancients were of course aware that these
two languages were related, but could not make the
proper distinction between similarities due to common
origin and regular change, and similarities due to word
loans. They had no realistic idea of the mechanism of
language changes. They tried to explain them as due
either to chance or to conscious manipulation by the
speakers. Words were changed, they thought, or ap-
peared in irregular shapes, for reasons of euphony, or
to avoid ambiguity, or for some metaphysical reason
or other. For instance, an e might be changed into a
because a is more “dignified,” as it comes first in the

Against such a background one should not be too
surprised to find even the most ridiculous etymologies
advanced quite seriously. Lapis “stone” was derived
from laedens pedem “hurting the foot.” Even more
remarkably, lucus “forest” was derived from lucere “be
bright” because of the lack of light in the forest. In
the same vein, bellum “war” was derived from bellus
“beautiful” because war is the opposite of beautiful.
These and other similar “etymologies” kept reappear-
ing all through the Middle Ages and later, until the
Europeans learned better from the Indians.