The History & Professionalization of Linguistics

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Understanding linguistics as a field means knowing a lot about its history and how it came to be regarded as a profession and an academic field. This lesson offers an overview of the history and professionalization of linguistics.

Defining Linguistics

As someone who has always been interested in language and how it works, Catherine is excited to be taking a course on linguistics. Linguistics is the study of language and human uses of language. Catherine becomes fascinated by this field, and she wonders when it became a professional field of study. She starts investigating the overall story behind the history and professionalization of linguistics.

Pre-18th and 18th Century

First, Catherine discovers that the earliest known linguistic study came from the desire to understand liturgical language, or language used for religious texts - for instance, classical Sanskrit. Classical linguists also used a form of linguistics to study philosophy, including early forms of argumentation and rhetoric.

Then, in the Middle Ages, with the spread of Islam, there became an increased interest in the study of Arabic by those who did not speak it as a native language. Over the course of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, there was more intellectual interest in linguistics as it pertained to the studies of religious texts.

Catherine discovers that the beginning of modern linguistics as a study started to emerge in the late eighteenth century. At this time, scholars started to look at connections between ancient languages from very different geographies in the world. This began an ongoing fascination with concepts surrounding what language tells us about culture and overall human capacities and history.

The 19th Century

As Catherine learns, though, it is the nineteenth century that is often known as the golden age of philology, or the intellectual exploration of linguistics. Many different facets of linguistics emerged during this period. One of the most important discoveries of this time was an understanding of the Proto-Indo-European language, a common linguistic system underlying Sanskrit and Persian, as well as most of the languages of Europe.

It was also in the nineteenth century that a linguist named Wilhelm von Humboldt initially pointed out that human languages are governed by rules. This precipitated increasing interest in what exactly these rules are, how they can be systematized and understood, and how they do and do not vary from one language group to another.

In the nineteenth century, linguists also became able to break down the study of language into component parts that are still taken seriously as part of the professional and intellectual field. For instance, the study of phonology is related to how sounds are produced in language, whereas morphology looks at language at the word level and considers small segments of language that produce meaning, like inflections. Syntax deals with how sentences are structured grammatically, and semantics has to do with how language is used overall to make meaning. In the late nineteenth century, interest in pragmatics, the utilitarian aspects of language, also became more pronounced.

The 20th and 21st Centuries

Modern linguists are characterized by their interest in structuralism, or understanding the structure of language; Catherine finds this fascinating. This form of analysis was promoted most strongly by de Saussure and has been picked up by many descriptive linguists over the course of the last century.

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