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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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The eighteenth century was a great era for the
collection and publication of useful knowledge. Interest
in exotic countries and peoples was increasing rapidly.
The fruits of this interest, as far as linguistics is con-
cerned, are compilations setting out to describe all the
known languages of the world. One such work is the
Spaniard Lorenzo Hervas' Catalogue, in six volumes
(1800-05). Another is the three-volume Mithridates
(1806-17) by the German A. C. Adelung. A third is the
Comparative Vocabulary of how 285 concepts were
expressed in 200 different languages, which Catherine
of Russia had the German zoologist P. S. Pallas compile

These massive collections of material, however, were
to have less influence on the development of linguistics


than their originators had hoped. Of far greater impor-
tance was the theoretical reorientation that was caused
by the close study of one single language, Sanskrit.
Sporadic references to the similarity of Sanskrit and
the European languages can be found at least from
the sixteenth century onwards (e.g., Filippo Sassetti,
1588). But nobody at that time was in a position to
appreciate the importance of that kind of information.
As long as it was believed that languages could be
invented and changed more or less at will, there was
nothing remarkable in any resemblances that could be
found. And, after all, it was commonly assumed that
Hebrew was the common origin of all languages. But
in the eighteenth century the whole Indian peninsula
was subjected to French or English rule. Among the
colonists and administrators there were many people
with a thorough literary, or even linguistic, education.
The literature of India was discovered, and with it the
extent of the similarity between Sanskrit and the Euro-
pean languages.

But more important than the extent of the similarity
was the nature of it. Europeans brought up on the
classical heritage had been used to look upon the com-
plicated inflexional system of Latin and Greek as a sure
sign of superiority. Now the researches of, above all,
Sir William Jones showed that in precisely this respect
Sanskrit left even Greek behind. “The Sanskrit lan-
guage, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful
structure, more perfect than the Greek, more copious
than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than ei-
ther, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity,
both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar,
than could possibly be produced by accident,” wrote
Jones in 1786.

Sanskrit had not only the appeal of the exotic, but
also the fascination of offering to the Europeans an
insight into what they believed to be the glorious youth
of their own civilization. It was for these reasons that
it caught their imagination and attracted brilliant stu-
dents. A combination of these happy circumstances led
to a complete reorientation of linguistic studies.

Indian Linguistics. The seminal influence of Sanskrit
on European linguistics was in no small part due to
the impact of the Indian grammatical tradition. That
tradition was at least as old as the Greco-Roman, and
completely different. While Western grammar can be
represented as a never quite happy marriage of logical
analysis and linguistic description, the Indian grammar,
as codified by the great Pānini (fl. 350 B.C.?) was whole-
heartedly formal and descriptive. Its achievements in
these respects are far in advance of anything the Euro-
peans had done. The Indians had analyzed the phono-
logical system of their language with great accuracy,
and had also devised a writing system that matched
the analysis. But above all the Indians were far superior
to the Europeans in analyzing the morphemic consti-
tution of words. The (verbal) root was made the basic
unit. The root is of course a more abstract kind of unit
than the word, as it normally does not occur as a free
form. By isolating the root it was possible to discover
the important variations that it could undergo—above
all, the phenomenon of vowel gradation that is so
important in Indo-European languages, as in English
spin-span-spun. Further, the isolation of the root car-
ried with it the isolation of the affix morphemes. Pre-
fixes, derivational suffixes, and inflexional affixes were
accurately described and their function defined. By
stating fully under what conditions the root changed
and the affixes were used, and what modifications they
underwent, the Indians constructed what is in effect
a generative grammar of Sanskrit word formation.
Pānini set forth these results in a concise, almost alge-
braic form.

To some extent the Indian grammarians were helped
by the structure of Sanskrit, whose morpheme structure
is undoubtedly less complicated than that of Greek.
Moreover, the language they described was even in
Pānini's time a partly artificial one, especially in the
form used in religious recital and ritual. Its regularity
may to some extent have been the result of the efforts
of the grammarians themselves, analogists all of them,
to use the Greek term. Whatever the reason, their
achievement was remarkable, especially in the fields
of phonetics and morphology. Pānini also included
syntax within his survey, but his successors—including
the Europeans two thousand years later—tended to
neglect it.

Historical Linguistics. Concern for historical per-
spective is undoubtedly one of the chief characteristics
of the nineteenth-century intellectual scene. Geology,
paleontology, archaeology, political history, literary
history—all of these branches of learning were either
born, or thoroughly reformed, in the nineteenth cen-
tury. The Darwinian evolution theory may be seen as
the culmination of this trend. Thus the historical per-
spective introduced into linguistics was due not only
to the discovery of Sanskrit but also to the general
historical trend of the age, especially in Germany,
which was to dominate the linguistic scene throughout
the nineteenth century. The Romantic movement, with
its veneration for what was old, organic, and of popular
origin, and its rejection of what was new, artificial, and
cultivated, strongly encouraged those who turned their
attention to the past. In Germany particularly there
was also a nostalgia for a great heroic antiquity, to
compensate for the national setbacks in the Napoleonic

All of these factors were of importance for Jacob


Grimm, who may be looked upon as the founder of
historical linguistics. His imagination was caught when
he discovered that the language of the medieval Ger-
man texts contained many inflectional forms of the kind
for which “the Germans used to envy the Greeks and
the Romans.” In other words, German might once have
been as “perfect” as Greek. The belief in the superi-
ority of the past, and the hope to establish a connection
with the glorious classical languages provided the im-
petus. Important discoveries followed. Grimm's main
contribution was to insist on the systematic nature of
the sound correspondences between the Germanic lan-
guages and the classical ones. That there were fairly
regular such correspondences had been pointed out
before, for instance, by one Kaspar Cruciger as early
as 1616. What Grimm did was to reveal the pattern
in the correspondences. There was a common factor
in the change of p to f, of t to þ, and of k to h, namely,
that the unvoiced plosives had become spirants, while
retaining the same place of articulation. And there was
a further pattern in the fact that as the original p, t,
and k disappeared, the voiced plosives b, d, and g
moved into their place by simply losing their voicing.
Finally, all the aspirated plosives, represented in Greek
by φ, θ, χ , lost their aspiration to become b, d, and
g in the Germanic languages.

All of these correspondences had been pointed out
by the Dane, Rasmus Rask, in a prize essay of 1814.
But it was Grimm, in 1822, who brought out and
stressed the beautiful symmetry, the movement of the
sounds, as it were, in a perfect circle, one set moving
out of a place which was then taken by another set.
Moreover Grimm showed that a similar movement
took place later in the development of High German.

Thus the “sound law” was born. Grimm did not use
that term himself, though the developments he de-
scribed have later been summarized as “Grimm's law.”
It was Franz Bopp, the writer of an epoch-making
treatise on the Conjugation System of Sanskrit (1816),
and of a Comparative Grammar of the main Indo-
European languages (1833-52) who made the concepts
of “sound law” the central one of historical linguistics.
Bopp consciously tried to adapt the method of linguis-
tics to what he conceived to be that of the natural
sciences. He hypostatized language as an independent
organism, developing according to equally hyposta-
tized laws, independently of the speakers. The contrast
with the ancient view, where the speaker had full
control, could not have been greater.

In Grimm's “sound law” the linguists had an orga-
nizing principle with which to master the masses of
material that they collected. By comparing languages
with one another and looking for systematic corre-
spondences, the whole linguistic history of the Indo-
European nations was to be written. In that way the
mechanism of language and language development was
to be laid bare.

The study of Sanskrit had taught the Westerners how
to analyze an individual language accurately. The
notion of “sound law” introduced the same demand
for strict accuracy in the comparison of languages.
After two thousand years of etymological speculation
they could begin to argue from facts and principles.

An important event in the development of the con-
cept of “sound law” was the publication of the article
by the Dane Karl Verner on what he called an “excep-
tion” to Grimm's law (1876). Grimm himself had noted
that the change of p, t, k to f, þ, h did not always
take place: the result was sometimes b, d, g instead.
Verner managed to show that the exceptions were
themselves systematic. The exceptional sounds only
occurred under certain specified conditions, having to
do with the old Indo-European accentuation. Encour-
aged by Verner's success, some brilliant young linguists
(among them Karl Brugmann and Hermann Osthoff)
chose to lay down as a postulate that the laws of sounds
admit no exceptions. Apparent exceptions only proved
that the “laws” were not stated accurately enough.

The Junggrammatiker (“young grammarians”), as
they were called, met with strong opposition: it was
the ancient struggle between anomalists and analogists
all over again. Above all, several linguists were loath
to accept the theory that the “sound laws” were com-
pletely autonomous, independent of the will—or the
whims—of the speakers. But however justified the
objections, it is obvious that the postulate of the Jung-
led to a considerable tightening of the
methodological discipline of the linguists.

The raising of the standards led to further progress
in several directions. The search for the detailed mech-
anism of the “sound laws” led to advances in descrip-
tive phonetics. The necessity for explaining apparent
exceptions led to an intensified study of dialects. The
creation of linguistic atlases, like Jules Gilliéron's Atlas
linguistique de la France
(1902-12) was one of the
results. The focusing of interest on the detailed mecha-
nism of linguistic change thus led to an intensified study
of the living languages, which alone afford a full view
of all the possible factors influencing language change.

Structural Linguistics. The wheel had come full
circle. The search for a complete explanation of the
history of language had again brought the linguists face
to face with the living language. The main theorist
of this development is the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de
Saussure. He made his mark as a leading Junggram-
but is important above all for his work on
general linguistics, which was published posthumously
by his pupils in 1916 as Cours de linguistique générale.


Language, says Saussure, has a double face. On one
hand it manifests itself as parole (“speech”), which is
the actual performance of speakers when they speak
or write. On the other hand, it is also langue (“lan-
guage”), which represents the knowledge or compe-
tence that all speakers possess of their language. All
changes in language occur in parole, in the actual
speech act. But only some of these changes become
institutionalized in langue.

Language can be studied in two ways, either dia-
chronically, following its changes through time, or
synchronically, analyzing its condition at a given mo-
ment. Nineteenth-century linguistics had considered
mainly the diachronic aspect. Saussure stressed the
primacy of the synchronic view. A complete diachrony
could only be achieved by comparing not only isolated
facts, like sounds, but the whole state of the language
at one period with that prevailing at another. Saussure
insisted on the systematic nature of language. Language
is a structure, a functioning whole in which the differ-
ent parts are determined by one another. In fact, no
linguistic sign means anything by itself: it only acquires
value by being distinguished from other signs in the

These ideas of Saussure's were taken up by several
other linguists, especially outside Germany, where the
historical school continued to be strong. Among them
we may mention L. Hjelmslev, the founder of the
Danish glossematic school, and the Russian prince
N. S. Troubetskoy, one of the founders of the Prague
school of phonology in the 1930's. Applying Saussure's
idea of language as a system of values, Troubetskoy
turned his attention to the distinctive function of the
language sounds. The linguist, whose chief concern was
langue rather than parole, should investigate to what
extent phonetic differences were used in the language
in order to distinguish one linguistic sign from another.
Thus the concept of the phoneme was born.

The methods used for the establishment of the ele-
mentary linguistic unit, the phoneme, were later car-
ried over to work on the smallest meaningful element
in the language, the morpheme, especially in America,
where Leonard Bloomfield was the leading figure. On
the whole, the ideas launched by Saussure, and their
successful application above all in phonology, led to
an increased methodological awareness among the
linguists in the period between the two world wars
and after. The success of nineteenth-century diachronic
linguistics had to a large extent been due to the consis-
tent use of the concept of “sound law.” It was felt
that twentieth-century synchronic linguistics also
needed a leading principle around which to organize
its work.

Transformational Grammar. It is noticeable that the
structuralistic linguists of the thirties, forties, and fifties
have in the main focussed their attention on the exter-
nal side of language, on phonology and morphology
rather than on syntax. In this they followed in the
footsteps of their nineteenth-century predecessors. The
typical “historical grammar” of the last century was
two-thirds phonology and one-third morphology. It is
true that B. Delbrück wrote a Comparative Syntax of
the main Indo-European languages, published 1893-
1900, but in the main, syntax was neglected: one had
no methodological tool, comparable to the “sound
law,” to treat it in a scientific way. The theoretical
framework remained the traditional one. Many lin-
guists expressed their dissatisfaction with it, but few
had anything to put in its stead. An exception is the
Dane, Otto Jespersen, who introduced, among other
things, the distinction between nexus and junction
expressions, which roughly equals that made by Aris-
totle between predicative and non-predicative expres-
sions. Jespersen also elaborated a theory of rank, de-
signed to explicate the idea of syntactic rules.

Structuralists in general felt that syntax—like
semantics—would have to wait until a sure foundation
for grammar had been built on phonology and mor-
phology. That seemed natural, as “immediate constit-
uent analysis” (Bloomfield's version of traditional par-
sing theory) had to be based on the morphemes as
ultimate elements.

A dramatic change, however, took place in the fifties.
Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at Massachu-
setts Institute of Technology, published in 1957 a little
book called Syntactic Structures, in which he outlined
a new approach not only to syntactic analysis, but to
grammar and linguistics in general. It was followed
in 1964 by a far more extensive treatment, Aspects of
the Theory of Syntax.
The new approach, generally
called “transformational grammar,” has had a tremen-
dous impact, and has led to almost feverish activity
in practically all linguistic fields during the late fifties
and sixties. The number of publications influenced by
Chomsky's ideas runs into thousands, and they appear
in all parts of the world. It seems evident that linguis-
tics is undergoing a change of orientation which is quite
as spectacular as the one that led to the establishment
of historical linguistics in the early nineteenth century.

The American structuralists in the Bloomfield tradi-
tion had carried to an extreme the empiricism and
positivism that had prevailed in linguistics for over a
century. Hence their neglect of the content side of
language. Hence also their insistence on the observa-
tion and classification of the material—the text—as the
chief object of linguistic analysis.

Chomsky made a clean break with these views. A
theory of language, as of anything else, cannot be
produced mechanically from the material, but has to
be invented. The classification of the “surface” proper-


ties of the text is not likely to yield the most fruitful
basic concepts of linguistic theory. Instead, the basic
concepts may very well be highly abstract con-
structions, connected with the observable reality only
in an extremely complicated fashion. The basic con-
cepts of, say, nuclear physics, illustrate this point. In
principle transformational theory aims at constructing
a theory which stands to language as physical theory
stands to the world of matter. One of its basic assump-
tions is that linguistic expressions—sentences—have
not only a surface structure, but also an underlying
deep structure which is not immediately available for
inspection. Roughly speaking the deep structure of a
sentence represents its content, the surface structure
its form.

Chomsky has himself pointed out that the notion of
deep structure may be said to be implicit in the seven-
teenth-century idea of general grammar, an idea that
had been almost totally eclipsed for a century and a
half. But there is at least one important difference
between the Port-Royal grammarians and Chomsky.
The seventeenth-century grammarians left it to the
intuition of the intelligent reader to establish the con-
nection between the general grammar and the actual
grammars of the particular languages. But the modern
transformationist aims at stating explicitly (i.e., for-
mally, mathematically) how the deep structures of a
language can be transformed into surface structures.
Starting from a precise, postulated set of primitive
terms and operations it should be possible to generate
fully any grammatical sentence in the language. Such
a grammar is called a “generative grammar,” a term
which is also sometimes used for the new approach
as a whole.

Transformational grammar clearly bears the imprint
of its own age. Like most linguistics in the twentieth
century it is synchronic rather than diachronic. Its
employment of postulates and abstract models recalls
the contemporary models of the advanced natural
sciences. Its insistence on strict formalization is natural
in an era where the hard work of comparing the theory
with the facts can be handed over to the electronic

But at the same time, transformational grammar is
also the product of more than two thousand years of
thinking about language. The distinction made be-
tween deep structure and surface structure may be said
to complete the work that the Port-Royal grammarians
had started, namely, to utilize to the full the contri-
bution of Aristotle and of the philosophers to language
study. And it is clear that the formalization of trans-
formational grammar could not have been attempted
without the strict methods of analysis developed by
structural linguists. They, in their turn, owed much of
their acumen in these matters to the Junggrammatiker
and, ultimately, to the Sanskrit grammarians. Linguists,
like all others, develop their science by standing on
the shoulders of their predecessors.