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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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In all cultures men learn to speak at roughly the same
age, starting in the first or second year of life, mastering
most of the grammar of their language by the age of
six, but increasing their vocabulary all through their
lives. This means that we learn to speak long before


we are able consciously to reflect on language. Speak-
ing comes naturally to human beings, like breathing
or walking. It is not necessary to give children formal
instruction in how to speak: it is sufficient for them
to grow up in a normal human environment. In this
respect speaking differs from other intellectual activ-
ities such as mathematics, or practical activities such
as ploughing or driving an automobile. We acquire
these abilities by conscious efforts, while the compli-
cated mechanism of language develops within us with-
out our being in the least aware of it.

At a very early age most English children are able
to use correctly the auxiliary verb do, or the definite
and indefinite article, thereby showing that they master
a set of quite complicated rules and classifications. Yet
neither they nor (for the most part) their parents have
the slightest conscious knowledge of those rules. Con-
trast with this the inability of most of us to multiply,
say, 537 by 894 without using pencil and paper. Yet
the rules for this arithmetical operation are far simpler
than the ones governing the use of the do-auxiliary.
In the language of the electronic computer, it seems
as if our brain is pre-programmed to assimilate the
kinds of rules that are needed for language, while a
special program has to be fed into it for the rules of
arithmetic. The contrast is the same as that between
walking and driving. Walking involves an extremely
complicated series of coordinated muscular movements
and sensory feedback, which are undoubtedly very
largely pre-programmed. Driving an automobile is in
almost all respects far simpler, but has to be learned
before it becomes automatic, going on without con-
scious control.

As the rules of language are normally not conscious,
they are difficult to study. Indeed, the ordinary man
has difficulty in realizing that the rules exist—just as
he has difficulty in realizing that air can have weight.
It is no wonder, therefore, that the study of language
seems to be a late development in all cultures. It is
not easy to visualize any utilitarian motive for studying
language. To study arithmetic brings immediate re-
wards by increasing the ability to carry out arithme-
tical operations. But to study language does not neces-
sarily increase the ability to speak, since we know how
to speak without instruction. It must generally seem
about as futile as instruction in how to walk. An in-
centive to study language therefore hardly arises until
the language causes difficulty. There are two condi-
tions, in particular, where this occurs. First, when the
language in question is a foreign one. Second, when
it represents a peculiar dialect of our native tongue.

The number of different languages spoken in the
world at the present time runs into hundreds, if not
thousands. There is little reason to suppose that the
number has ever been much smaller. Judging from
fossil remains, the human species has had basically its
present physical characteristics for several hundred
thousand years. In all probability language has been
a characteristic of the species during most of this pe-
riod. We know from the evidence of recorded history
that it takes only a few thousand years for isolated
dialects of what was once a single language (or nearly
so) to become mutually incomprehensible and hardly
recognizable as similar: witness Hindu and Gaelic,
Greek and Swedish. Even if, at one time, the whole
human species consisted of just a single tribe, living
in a very limited area (and there is little reason to
believe this), it would not take long for different lan-
guages to develop, as the species expanded over the
face of the earth.

We may therefore assume that occasions for learning
foreign tongues have existed in practically all human
communities. In fact, ability to cope with more than
one language may even have been a condition for
survival in small nomadic communities like those of
many American Indian tribes. This does not mean, of
course, that complete bilingualism or multilingualism
has ever been a common phenomenon. At the present
day, bilingual states, like Switzerland, Belgium, or
Finland, are the exception rather than the rule. And
even there the overwhelming majority of the individ-
uals grow up with one language as very definitely their
first and most important vehicle of communication.
Most people come to learn their second language con-
siderably later and less well than their first. We may
assume that this has always been the case.

It is for this reason that language is one of the most
powerful instruments for tightening the coherence of
a community. In this respect it may be considered as
on a par with such species-forming vehicles as, say,
the courtship behavior of animals. It is surely no mere
accident that nation and language community tend on
the whole to become coextensive terms. A common
language and a common literary heritage have at all
times been among the most powerful factors for cre-
ating a feeling for national unity.

But though in nearly all communities, there have
always existed individuals who have learned to speak
more than one language, an increased awareness of the
nature of language has not always resulted. There are
at least two explanations for this. In the first place,
to learn a language sufficiently to use it as a means
of communication is far more a question of practice
than of theory. The appearance of pidgin languages
all over the world shows that it is possible to under-
stand and make oneself understood, even if the gram-
matical niceties that differentiate languages from one
another are left out of account. In fact, language con-


tacts of this kind may merely have strengthened the
naïve idea that language is essentially just a collection
of names for things and activities, and that learning
a new language is just to learn a set of new names.
The insufficiency of such a view naturally becomes
apparent to those who try to speak their second lan-
guage as well as the natives do. But such complete
mastery is seldom attempted, except when the second
language has a higher prestige.

This leads us to the second reason why the study
of language has not in general grown out of contacts
between different languages. Those who have had to
go through the process of learning a second language
completely and well have not, in the main, belonged
to the dominant culture of the time. The attitude of
the ancient Greeks is quite typical. They did not con-
sider the languages of the barbarians (whose speech
sounded as bar-bar) as worth their attention. The
Chinese have felt the same, and it is no coincidence
that the English have accepted with equanimity the
charge of being “bad linguists” in the popular sense
of that word.

In view of all this it is perhaps not surprising to find
that the study of language has practically everywhere
originated from problems concerning the inter-
pretation of an old literary or religious tradition in the
language of the dominant culture, rather than from
problems arising out of a confrontation with foreign
peoples. This also means that the appearance of linguis-
tic studies is closely linked up with the creation of a
writing system. It is only when writing has been cre-
ated that it is possible to preserve an older stage of
the language with such accuracy that an objective
statement of the linguistic problems can be attempted.
The nature of the writing system is not unimportant
either. An alphabetical or syllabic script obviously
gives a far more detailed representation of the outward
form of the language than does an ideographic one.
Hence it is not surprising that the contribution of the
Chinese to the development of linguistics is far less
than that of the Greeks and the Indians.

It should not be thought, however, that the study
of language has been wholly subordinated to the prac-
tical or supposedly practical object of understanding
old texts. Language is not only a means of communi-
cation among men, it is also a most important instru-
ment of thought. Hence the study of language also
becomes a natural concomitant of philosophy. Such
branches of philosophy as logic and epistemology have
been and are still regarded by many philosophers as
branches of language study. The intimate connection
between philosophy and linguistics is especially appar-
ent in ancient Greece. In the Western world it is
emphasized again in medieval scholasticism, in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and in our own
age. European linguistics in the nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, on the other hand, may be charac-
terized as more scientific and less philosophical. It was
concerned far more with the outward form of language
than with the connection between language and the
external world, a problem which occupies the linguistic
philosopher above all others.


The study of language has concentrated on three
main fields: the origin of language, the relation be-
tween language and reality, and the structure of lan-
guage. The first is bound up with questions of religion
or cosmogony, the second is epistemological, while the
third may be called the field of pure linguistics or
grammar. The fields are, however, interrelated. When
outlining the history of language study it seems advisa-
ble to treat them all together.

We shall start our account with Greek linguistics,
including the Latin grammarians. The period starts
with Plato (ca. 400 B.C.) and ends with Priscianus (ca.
A.D. 500). After that, we shall describe the development
in Europe, noticing first the Schoolmen and then the
general grammarians of the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries. The last section will deal with the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries, including a brief account of
Indian linguistics. As Chinese and Japanese linguistics
have hardly contributed to the mainstream of linguistic
though outside their native countries, they are not
dealt with here.


The Greek study of language may be said to start
with Plato and Aristotle. Both of them approach lan-
guage from a philosophical point of view. They are
concerned with the nature of language and its relation
to thought and reality, rather than with the more
technical matter of providing an exact description of
linguistic forms. Such questions were later to be taken
up by the Hellenistic grammarians of Alexandria, who
were mainly concerned with establishing correct edi-
tions of Homer and other classical poets, and with
preserving the purity of the Greek language as it be-
came the common vehicle of communication through-
out the eastern half of the Roman empire.

The history of Western linguistics ever since has been
characterized by this double heritage: philosophical
and philological. On the whole Western linguists have
continued to be somewhat stronger on the philo-
sophical than on the formal side, until the discovery
of Sanskrit and Indian grammar, which enriched the
Western grammatical tradition in the direction of de-
scriptive accuracy and power.


Plato. Plato's views on language are chiefly put forth
in his dialogue Cratylus. He discusses the relation
between words (rather: names, as Plato consistently
refers to the basic elements as onómata). Plato's view,
put in the mouth of Socrates in the dialogue, seems
to be that words may indeed to a certain extent give
a clue to the nature of reality, but that the guidance
they provide is very uncertain. Even if a name (ónoma)
was given at one time by the wisest of philosophers,
in full conformity with the nature of the thing, it is
later exposed to all the vicissitudes of chance and the
whims of ordinary speakers. Hence no safe conclusions
can be drawn from the etymology of the name to the
nature of the thing the name stands for. On the whole,
therefore, Plato's attitude towards the study of lan-
guage is rather unfavorable. Language does not, to him,
provide the key to the realm of true reality.

Before arriving at this somewhat negative conclu-
sion, however, Plato gives considerable attention to
two ideas which unfortunately have exerted a dis-
astrous influence on linguistic thought ever since. The
first is the idea that there is some inner fitness con-
necting the name and the thing it stands for. The
second concerns the way in which the fitness of the
name should be ascertained. Here Plato applies an
extremely loose and ad hoc method of etymologizing
in which (to use Voltaire's quip made two thousand
years later) the consonants counted for little and the
vowels for nothing at all. The reasoning is often so
ridiculously flippant that later commentators have as-
sumed that Plato really meant to hold up the method
to scorn. There is no doubt an element of playful irony
in some of the wilder flights of etymological fancy in
the dialogue. But though Plato certainly saw that the
etymological approach he exemplified so copiously
might be, and was, misused, it seems quite clear that
in principle he considered it a natural and valid way
of analyzing the meaning of a word. In any case, Plato's
etymologies in Cratylus set more or less the pattern
for Western scholars down to the beginning of the
nineteenth century.

Let us consider Plato's discussion of the name

Socrates: I think Poseidon's name was given by him who
first applied it, because the power of the sea restrained him
as he was walking and hindered his advance: it acted as
a bond (desmós) of his feet (podōn). So he called the lord
of this power Poseidon, regarding him as a foot-bond (posí-
). The e is inserted perhaps for euphony. But possibly
that may not be right: possibly two l's were originally
pronounced instead of the s, because the god knew (eidótos)
many (pollá) things. Or it may be that from his shaking
he was called the Shaker (ho seíōn), and that the p and
d are additions”

(fol. 402-03; Plato, Works, trans. of Vol.
IV, H. N. Fowler, London and Cambridge, Mass. [1926],
p. 169).

It will be seen that Plato is by no means dogmatic.
Not infrequently he is quite willing to accept the
possibility that several different derivations of a name
may all be considered as valid. The underlying as-
sumption is that names were consciously invented by
an original name-giver, who may well have had more
than one reason for a certain choice. The nearest
analogy to Plato's name-giver would in fact be a mod-
ern inventor of trade names, who indeed works on the
principle that the name should vaguely suggest those
ideas that he believes the customers ought to associate
with the product.

In his search for the smallest elements making up
the names, Plato also considers the idea of sound sym-
bolism. He finds that r should stand for swift move-
ments, l for softness, and i for smallness. But then, he
asks, how can we justify a word like sklērós (“hard”),
which contains an l, a sign for softness? In the end,
therefore, Plato arrives at the conclusion that it is futile
to try to discover the truth of things by analyzing the
names. That does not mean, however, that he con-
demns his previous argument altogether. It is only
when compared with the high standard of perfect
knowledge that the method of etymology falls short.
Plato would also argue that the kind of knowledge that
we get through our sensory organs is imperfect, com-
pared with the ideal knowledge that purely intellectual
contemplation gives.

In the controversy that occupied the Greeks so
much, as to whether language was the product of thésis
(“convention”, another term was nómos “order”) or
phúsis (“nature”), Plato therefore seems to have taken
a middle position. Though he concludes that the
meanings of names are in large part determined by
custom or convention, he seems to look upon this as
due either to corruption or to the ignorance of the
name-givers. Most of his discussion is carried on with
the assumption that, at least in an ideal language, there
is a fundamental fitness connecting the name with the
thing. Such an idea leads to confusing the form and
the content of the linguistic sign, and was to form the
basis of both weak linguistics and bad metaphysics.

More important, however, is the fact that Cratylus
gave its sanction to such a disastrous pattern for analyz-
ing words. It is not only that the majority of the ety-
mologies are wrong, if considered as statements of word
history or derivation. The worst of it is that the method
as such was perverse. By allowing sounds to be
changed, dropped, or added in a perfectly haphazard
way, in order to make a suggested etymology fit, one
gave up in advance the possibility of finding a consis-


tent pattern of word-formation in the language. It may
have been this cavalier attitude towards sound changes
in words that prevented the Greeks—and the Romans—
from making consistent use of such a fundamental
distinction as that between stem and ending, between
root and affix. The Sanskrit grammarians did immensely
better in this respect. It must be admitted, though, that
the Greek language is unusually intractable to ety-
mology. Indeed, it may even be said to favor the kind
of analysis where sounds can be exchanged without
limit. The declension and conjugation systems provide
examples of almost every sort of change. We find the
“addition” of letters in gígās, gen. gígantos “giant”;
ónoma, gen. onómatos “name”. We find “loss” of letters
in kúōn, gen. kunós “dog”; and alteration of vowels
as in hēdús, gen. hēdéos “sweet.” Finally the verbal
system yields a rich harvest: gígnomai “I am born,”
gegénēmai, gégona “I was born.” It was not easy to
discover any organizing principle in such a variable

Aristotle. What Aristotle has to say on linguistic
topics is almost wholly incidental to his concern with
logic. We find it chiefly in his treatises on the Categories
and on Interpretation (Perì hermeneías). Scattered re-
marks are also to be found in the Rhetoric and Poetics.

What he says is brief, to the point, and generally
sound. Aristotle does not dabble in etymology, though
he recognizes that words may be connected with each
other: “Things are said to be named derivatively, which
derive their name from some other name, but differ
from it in termination. Thus the grammarian derives
his name from the word grammar, and the courageous
man from the word courage” (Categories, 1; Works
..., ed. W. D. Ross, Vol. I, trans. E. M. Edghill, Ox-
ford [1928]). Here Aristotle was on the point of discover-
ing the difference between base and derivation mor-
pheme, but he never developed the idea any further.

Aristotle comes down squarely on the side of thésis
in the phúsis-thésis controversy. Words, he also says,
are “significant by convention” (On Interpretation,
16). He has no patience with the Platonic idea that
a word, as such, may be “true”: “Nouns and verbs...
as isolated terms, are not yet either true or false” (ibid.).
Truth or falsity can be predicated of propositions only.

His explanation of the relation between writing,
speech, and meaning is admirably clear: “Spoken words
are the symbols of mental experience and written
words are the symbols of spoken words. Just as all men
have not the same writing, so all men have not the
same speech sounds, but the mental experiences, which
these directly symbolize, are the same for all, as also
are those things of which our experiences are the
images” (ibid.). The later part of this quotation is the
foundation of general grammar.

Aristotle's main contribution to linguistics is his
careful definition of some important syntactic terms.
Thus he distinguishes between a proposition, such as
the man runs, which expresses a fact and hence may
be either true or false, and single expressions, such as
a man, or runs, or a footed animal with two feet. Not
all sentences are propositions, though. A prayer, for
instance, is not a proposition. The word sentence itself
is defined, somewhat weakly, as “a significant portion
of speech, some parts of which have an independent
meaning” (ibid.).

Finally, Aristotle defines the principal parts of
speech, ónoma (noun—or subject) and rhēma (verb—or
predicate). An ónoma is “a sound significant by con-
vention, which has no reference to time” (ibid.). A
rhēma is “that which, in addition to its proper meaning,
carries with it the notion of time... it is a sign of
something said of something else” (ibid.).

It will be seen that Aristotle defines the parts of
speech with reference to their function and meaning,
rather than with reference to their form. The categories
he has in mind should really be called sentence constit-
uents. The second part of the verb definition clearly
refers to the predicate of a sentence rather than to
a word class. It is significant that the oblique cases of
nouns are not looked upon by Aristotle as onómata,
since, as he says, they cannot form propositions to-
gether with a rhēma. More surprisingly Aristotle ac-
cepts only the present tense forms as true verbs. Past
and future forms are “not verbs, but tenses of verbs.”

The analysis of the phrase as consisting of a combi-
nation of ónoma and rhēma is not Aristotle's invention.
We find it previously in Plato, who hints vaguely at
it in Cratylus, but is somewhat more explicit in the
Sophist (fol. 262). Like Aristotle, Plato defines the terms
as sentence constituents rather than as word classes.
The ónoma indicates the performer of an action, the
rhēma the action itself. And every complete sentence
has to contain both an ónoma and a rhēma. Unlike
Aristotle, however, Plato does not count time indica-
tion as essential to the verb.

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.


The Schoolmen. The first five or six centuries of the
Middle Ages in Europe were an era of intellectual
recession in all branches of learning. Latin continued
to be studied, as it was the language of the Church,
and the normal means of communication of all clerics.
But knowledge of Greek almost disappeared in the
Western part of the former Empire. The classical Latin
authors were also largely neglected. Therefore, one of
the chief incentives for grammatical study, namely, the
interpretation of an old and difficult literature, was
lacking. Under the circumstances the chief function of
grammar became the pedagogical one. The youngsters
were to be taught to read and to write correctly.
Donatus' Ars grammatica was widely used as an ele-
mentary textbook. In fact, the name of the grammarian
eventually came to be used as an ordinary noun, donet,
meaning “primer,” in medieval England.

Everything that was written on grammatical subjects
in the Middle Ages took the form of commentaries on
Donatus or, even more, Priscianus. Some small ad-
vances were made in these commentaries. Thus the
important distinction between noun and adjective
(Nomen substantivum and Nomen adjectivum) was first
made, it seems, in the tenth or eleventh century. Some
advances were also made in syntax. Thus the subject-
predicate dichotomy was definitely reintroduced into
grammar under the names of suppositum and
appositum, and the clause-like construction called
ablativus absolutus was recognized and defined.

But the independent effort of the Middle Ages in
the study of language was the doctrine of the modi
That doctrine was developed in the
twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and arose from a
desire to raise the status of grammatical teaching by
making it conform to the standards set by Aristotelian
logic and metaphysics. Aristotelian philosophy had by
this time completely taken hold of the Arts faculties
in the schools, especially in the famous university in
Paris. In order to qualify as a science, grammar should
be deducible from first principles by the methods de-
veloped in the current scholastic philosophy. And the
first principles of grammar, one held, were the modi
“ways of signifying.” These were con-
sidered to be similar in all languages. Thus the
Modistae, as they were called, thought they were
building up a truly general grammar. They also called
their science grammatica generalis or speculativa. Ba-
sically, the modi significandi are an attempt to define
the functions of the different parts of speech. For
instance, words like dolere, “suffer,” and dolor, “pain,”
were said to have the same significatio, namely, pain,
but different modi significandi: one signifying per
modum fieri,
the other per modum substantiae. The
parts of speech definitions of Priscianus were restated
in terms of the new concept. Later the concept was
also used to redefine the subclasses and the inflected
forms. The modes were then used as a basis for ex-
plaining syntax. Such a system, of course, was bound
to fail in the same way as Priscianus' syntax failed.
An adequate syntax requires an adequate theory of
sentence structure, whereas Priscianus and the
Modistae had only a (deficient) theory of word classes.

In reality the Modistae did no more than translate
Priscianus' rather haphazard and ad hoc grammatical
concepts into a highly abstract and abstruse termi-


nology. It had only one advantage: it could be easily
tied up with the common metaphysical jargon of the
time. But when metaphysical realism gave way to
metaphysical nominalism in the fourteenth century, the
Modistae became obsolete. By and large the gram-
marians returned to the more practical but somewhat
humdrum explanations of Donatus and Priscianus.

At the same time the claim of the Modistae that
grammar should be considered as a general science had
to be abandoned. It was to be taken up again some
centuries later by the Port-Royal grammarians in a far
more adequate form, freed from the hampering medie-
val veneration for authorities and from the sterile
verbalism of the Schoolmen, and based on a far broader
foundation of factual knowledge of languages.


The rediscovery of ancient literature, and concur-
rently with it, the opening up of new intellectual
horizons in the Renaissance both had effects on lan-
guage study. The subtleties of the Schoolmen were
discarded, the more willingly as they were formulated
in what the humanists considered as barbarous Latin.
Grammar again became ancillary to literature. More-
over, Greek again became necessary equipment for
scholars and gentlemen, and Hebrew was studied ex-
tensively. The Renaissance men refused to take the
medieval authorities on trust; they went back to the

At the same time interest in the popular languages
awakened all over Europe. In his De vulgari eloquentia
(ca. 1300) Dante made an impassioned plea for the
superiority of the mother tongue over the artificial
language of the clerics that was the Latin of the Middle
Ages. As more and more of the popular tongues of
Europe became literary languages, awareness of the
differences among the grammars also naturally in-

However, no really revolutionary advances were
made in linguistics by the humanists and their immedi-
ate followers, but there is a remarkable sanity and
soberness about much that was written. Thus J. J.
Scaliger published in 1599 a remarkably correct ac-
count of the languages of Europe and their relation
to each other. Also knowledge of the Hebrew language
led to a realization that the parts of speech theory of
antiquity might be called in question: Hebrew gram-
marians recognized only three parts of speech, noun,
verb, and particle. In phonetics progress was made by
the Englishman John Wallis, who published Grammat-
ica linguae anglicanae
in 1653. The attention to facts
and common sense rather than to authorities and meta-
physics was bearing fruit.

General Grammar. The chief result of the Renais
sance was not, strictly speaking, to give the moderns
access to the civilization of the ancients. It was, above
all, to make them realize how far the human spirit
might reach. The moderns began to emulate the an-
cients, and then tried to surpass them. In the seven-
teenth century it was clear to most that that goal had
been reached. Not because the moderns were better
men, but because, as Francis Bacon and others put it,
they were standing on the shoulders of their prede-
cessors. Anyhow, an era that produced philosophers
like Galileo, Descartes, and Newton did not have to
feel inferior to any that had come before. The achieve-
ment of these thinkers was their own, and not merely
an explication of the work of the ancients.

The Grammaire générale et raisonnée of the Port-
Royal School in Paris, written by Antoine Arnauld and
Claude Launcelot (1660), is a product of the same
independent spirit. The avowed object of the book is
to set forth what is common to all languages. It was
based on a thorough knowledge of Hebrew, Greek,
Latin, Romance languages, and German. This in itself
was new. Few previous grammarians had had such a
wide empirical base to work from. But even more
remarkable is the thoroughly independent approach to
the subject. The authors set out to explain language
by reference to the constitution of the human mind.
For the first time we meet with grammarians who draw
the proper linguistic consequences of Aristotle's insight
that though the words vary, the thoughts that they
stand for are common to all. The human mind is said
to have three fundamental operations: conceive, judge,
and reason. As reasoning consists in the comparison
of judgments, the first two operations are fundamental.
People “speak in order to express judgments, and the
judgments are made about things that they conceive.”
A judgment is normally expressed by means of a prop-
osition, and a proposition, such as “the earth is round,”
had two fundamental terms, the subject (the earth) and
the attribute (round). Moreover, there is the link or
copula (is) which predicates or “affirms” the attribute
of the subject.

There is little here that Aristotle had not said before.
But Aristotle never developed these ideas in linguistic
terms. Nor had the medieval Schoolmen done so. The
grammatica speculativa of the Modistae consisted es-
sentially in a superficial harmonizing of Priscianus and

The distinction between conceiving and judging is
essential for defining the verb, whose function, accord-
ing to the Port-Royal grammarians, is to affirm. It is
not, as all previous authorities had said, to mark time.
Tense is accidental, not essential to the verb. A lan-
guage need only contain a single verb, namely, the verb
is. All other verbs can be analyzed as containing is,


as a mark of affirmation, and in addition some attribute,
of whatever kind. He runs is as much as to say he is

Thus the Port-Royal grammarians based their lin-
guistic analysis squarely on sentence constituency. All
of their predecessors had tried to progress in the other
direction, by trying to build up the whole of their
syntax on the system of parts of speech. The Port-Royal
grammarians' approach was a new departure, and it
was to influence subsequent grammatical thinking in
many important respects.

Universal Language. Whereas the Port-Royal gram-
marians were concerned with laying bare the common
structure of actually existing languages, other thinkers
of the age went on from analysis to synthesis, attempt-
ing to construct a completely new, artificial language,
designed to serve as an ideal medium of communication
and thinking. Two men deserve mention above all
others: the English bishop John Wilkins, and the Ger-
man philosopher G. W. Leibniz.

Wilkins published in 1668 a large volume entitled
An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical
under the auspices of the Royal Society.
Wilkins' “real character” is a kind of ideographic
script, constructed on completely rational principles,
and hence maximally systematic. (Wilkins explicitly
contrasted it with the Chinese script in this respect.)
He introduced some forty main characters, represent-
ing the main fields of human experience. Each of these
is further subdivided into genera (usually six) and spe-
cies (usually ten). By such a system, forty main signs,
plus six plus ten modifications of them, are capable
of distinguishing 40 × 6 × 10 = 2,400 different con-
cepts. For further refinement, compounding may be
resorted to. The main symbols with their modification
stand for what Wilkins called “principal words,”
covering nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Gram-
matical words or “particles” are represented by smaller
symbols above, below, and between the main charac-
ters. Superficially, a page in Wilkins' script is not unlike
a page of Arabic.

Though Wilkins' chief object was to create a means
of universal written communication, he also invented
a way of reading it. For just as any spoken language
can be reduced to writing, so any written text can be
translated into a spoken one. Wilkins maintained that
his language would be far easier to learn than a natural
language, because of its systematic structure:

Now in the way here proposed, the words necessary for
communication are not three thousand, and those so ordered
by the help of natural method, that they may be more easily
learned and remembered than a thousand words otherwise
disposed of; upon which account they may be reckoned but
as one thousand. And as for such Rules as are natural to
Grammar, they were not charged in the former account,
and therefore are not to be allowed for here. So that by
this it appears, that in point of easiness betwixt this and
the Latin, there is the proportion of one to forty...


The sentence about grammar refers to Wilkins' thesis
that any natural language has two sets of grammatical
rules: those common to all and those peculiar to each.
His own philosophical language is meant to include
only the former kind; the natural, universal rules.

Leibniz read Wilkins' book a few years after its
appearance, and valued it very highly. But Leibniz
wished to go further than Wilkins. His ultimate aim
was to create a language which should not only be
a subsidiary vehicle of communication, but an instru-
ment of thought. Leibniz had already revolutionized
mathematics by his invention of the higher calculus.
His characteristica universalis aimed at introducing a
calculus covering the whole field of human knowledge.
As he said to a correspondent:

... each line [written in this universal language] would be
a demonstration as in Arithmetic or Algebra. Two persons
disputing on a matter... would only have to say, let us
calculate... for in this way all errors would be nothing
but calculating errors, and easy to correct by means of
proofs similar to those... in arithmetic

(to Johann Fried-
rich, Duke of Hanover, ca. February 1679; Sämtliche
Schriften und Briefe,
ed. Preussische Akademie der Wissen-
schaften, First Series, Darmstadt [1927], 2, 156; trans. Alvar

In fact, Leibniz looked upon mathematics as simply
a sample (échantillon) of this all-embracing philo-
sophical language.

But in order to reach this high aim it was necessary
to have absolutely exact definitions of the terms that
were to be used. Wilkins had made a start by defining
quite a respectable portion of the English vocabulary
in terms of his own system. Leibniz made several
attempts to go beyond Wilkins. But he never managed
to bring his work to a conclusion: he realized that the
task was superhuman.

In our own time part of Leibniz' dream has been
realized in the language of symbolic logic. But in this
language the “principal words,” as Wilkins called
them, are not included. Attempts to represent formally
the semantic content of such words have, however,
been made, partly in connection with work on me-
chanical translation, partly as a result of the reorien-
tation of linguistics caused by the introduction of
transformational grammar. Uriel Weinreich, J. Katz,
and J. Fodor deserve special mention in this connec-
tion. But we have still achieved immensely less than
Leibniz' grand design. Wilkins' practical object, on the


other hand, has been pursued with some limited success
by the creators of artificial languages like Esperanto,
Ido, Volapük. None of these, however, even aims at
the thoroughgoing semantic consistency that Wilkins
tried to achieve, and that caught Leibniz' imagination.

The Origin of Language. The view that Plato ex-
pressed in Cratylus to the effect that language had been
originally invented by philosophers, seems to have been
implicit in most ancient thinking. In the Middle Ages
the question of the origin of language was hardly dis-
cussed. The Bible's story of the creation of man, and
of the confusion of men's tongues in Babel was not
put in doubt. In any case the historical perspective
was extremely short. The ancients looked upon Homer
as a representative of the youth of mankind, and Chris-
tians naturally looked upon Hebrew as Adam's lan-
guage and thus the original mother tongue of all.

Neither the Renaissance nor the bold philosophizing
of the seventeenth century brought any changes in
these matters. René Descartes did not discuss the origin
of language, nor did the Port-Royal grammarians. Their
whole argument, however, indicates an implicit as-
sumption, similar to Plato's, that language was invented
by rational men.

In the eighteenth century the time perspective was
gradually lengthened. E. B. de Condillac attempted to
outline the gradual development of language in human
society. But he did not commit himself to any definite
time scale. His more famous friend, J. J. Rousseau,
carried on the discussion in his prize essay on “The
Origin of the Inequality of Men” (1754). Rousseau
stressed the paradox that while language presupposes
society, the creation of human society presupposes the
existence of language. He therefore concluded that to
invent language in a state of nature must have taken
an infinite time.

The question raised by Rousseau was given full-
length treatment by James Burnett, Lord Monboddo,
whose six-volume Origin and Progress of Language was
published 1773-92. Monboddo also looked upon lan-
guage as an invention; there was, accordingly, a time
when man did not speak. Rousseau had tried to imagine
what that hypothetical state of nature was like. Mon-
boddo did better; he could actually show us man in
a state of nature: the ourang-outang, who cannot speak,
but has all the physical characteristics of man, and
therefore should be reckoned as belonging to the
human species.

Monboddo agreed with Rousseau that for a creature
like the ourang-outang to invent language must have
been extremely difficult. The first beginnings must have
been very crude. Again, Monboddo thought he could
produce actual illustrations, and held forth the lan-
guage of the Huron tribe in America, which, he said,
is so “irregular” that no grammar of it can be written.
Against this background it is not surprising that Mon-
boddo could not imagine that a language like Greek,
of whose absolute superiority he was convinced, could
have been created by ordinary or common people. He
felt his views were confirmed when he considered
Chinese, Sanskrit, and the language of the ancient
Egyptians. All those, he believed, must be the creation
of a literate community.

Monboddo admitted that there are barbarian peoples
with a civilized language. But that could be accounted
for by language mixture and corruption, similar to what
happened when Latin developed into the Romance
languages. In fact, Monboddo was inclined to think
that the ancient Egyptian language is the ultimate
origin of all the European languages—including
Hebrew—as well as of Sanskrit, whose similarity with
Greek he was aware of.

The work of Monboddo is a curious mixture of crank-
iness and common sense. But he is far from untypical
of his age. Above all, his idea that the highly inflected
languages, and especially Greek, represented the best
and highest type, continued to be an article of faith
among the Europeans all through their imperialistic
nineteenth century. Sanskrit was admired because it
was, if anything, even more perfect than Greek.

In the nineteenth century linguists turned away from
speculations on the origin of language. That was due
to the development of far more exact methods in com-
parative linguistics, concurrently with the development
of a more empirical attitude. Further, it came to be
realized that no extant language is grammatically
primitive. And last, there was Darwin's theory of evo-
lution, which led to the establishment of an immensely
extended time-scale. Language ceased to be looked
upon as an invention. It was the product of the biolog-
ical evolution of our species.


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.


General works: Francis P. Dineen, An Introduction to
General Linguistics
(New York, 1967), provides the history
of linguistics discussed mainly in the light of twentieth-
century structural grammar. Hans Arens, Sprachwissen-
schaft: Der Gang ihrer Entwicklung von der Antike bis zur
(Munich, 1969), provides extracts in German
translation from works on language from Ancient Greece
to modern times, with historical notes and a commentary
connecting the extracts. Half the text is devoted to the
nineteenth century—mainly Germany—one-fourth to the
twentieth century. R. H. Robins, A Short History of Lin-
(New York, 1967), gives comparatively ample space
to ancient linguistics and to transformational grammar.

Particular periods: H. Steinthal, Geschichte der
Sprachwissenschaft bei den Griechen und Römern,
2nd ed.
(Berlin, 1890; reprint 1961). R. H. Robins, “Dionysius Thrax
and the Western Grammatical Tradition,” Transactions of
the Philological Society
(1957), 67-106. Theodor Benfey,
Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft und orientalischen Philo-
logie in Deutschland
(Munich, 1869), the first 300 pages
of which are a general history of linguistics, with about 65
pages devoted to Indian grammar. J. F. Staal and Paul
Kiparsky, “Syntactic and Semantic Relations in Pānini,”
Foundations of Language, 5, No. 1 (1969). Jan Pinborg, “Die
Entwicklung der Sprachtheorie im Mittelalter,” Beiträge zur
Geschichte der Philosophie und Theologie des Mittelalters,

42:2 (Münster, 1967), is chiefly concerned with the epistem-
ological aspects of the Modi Significandi theory. Charles
Thurot, Notices et extraits des Manuscrits de la Bibliothèque
Vol. 22:2 (Paris, 1868), consists of extracts from
medieval manuscripts on grammar, with connecting com-
mentary. Holger Pedersen, Linguistic Science in the Nine-
teenth Century,
English trans. (Bloomington, 1959), is a
popular introduction, written in 1924. John Lyons, Intro-
duction to Theoretical Linguistics
(New York, 1968), is a
balanced account of modern linguistic theories.


[See also Analogy; Evolutionism; Historicism; Linguistics;
Positivism in the Twentieth Century;
Renaissance; Rhetoric;