The origins of a Science of LanguageEdit

From language in your home and village to the beginning of modern linguistics.

There is, I think, an ascending order in the study of language. The first step is based on the language we learned when growing up and could use effectively before we went to school and learned and studied Prescriptive grammar.

The purpose of prescriptive grammar was to allow the student to go beyond the boundaries of the subculture that he was born into, and to be understood in the broader culture of his language community. This kind of grammar is not creative. It takes language as it is found and looks for rules ( and the exceptions to the rules ) to give students the ability to be understood by all who claim to have the same native language and have "mastered" the language that may have local variation or dialects. Prescriptive grammar is much the same as learning a second language and similar methods are used in teaching these native and foreign prescriptive grammars.

In the West, for a long time to be considered educated, one had to learn, in addition to the grammar of his own language, Greek, and later Latin. In the empire of Alexander the Great, and the Roman Empire, the study of certain languages and the core curriculum of Logic, Rhetoric and Grammar, what we now call the Humanities, has been essentially the same at least until the 19th century, even when Latin gained dominance as the language of the Church in the West and all Christendom.

In passing, I would note that today the negative connotation of ‘rhetoric’ [“mere rhetoric”] was brought about by more recent misuse of a study that was meant to give discipline to speaking and thinking in conveying thought to others in oral speech that was the “mass communication” for centuries. The Uses of Argument by Stephen Toulmin, though not recent, is an excellent place to look for an understanding of what ‘rhetoric’ used to mean. Toulmin has recently written Return to Reason, where a useful distinction of rationality and reasonableness is treated. He is interesting as a man who conquered several disciplines, the philosophy of language, science, economics, ethics, etc. There is an autobiographical turn in Return to Reason that gives a snapshot of the various strands of intellectual life in the 20th century.

Back to linguistics. There were grammatical studies of other particular languages, based on the need to know the Biblical languages. Other than the Bible the reading of the educated was Homer, the Hellenic and Hellenistic Greek writers: philosophers, historians and Greek Tragedies and Comedies. Later, Roman classics such as the Aeneid were reading for the educated. Before the Renaissance and the Reformation, and especially, the invention of the printing press, learning was mainly in the monasteries and their manuscripts. The Bible, not available to non-clerics, was in Latin.

The Renaissance made available in the West many manuscripts that were unobtainable before and began a renewal of interest in non-theological and philosophical literature. The Reformation led to translations of the Bible into vernacular languages.

The invention of the printing the printing press and movable type spread the results of this shift from the strictly theological and philosophical to interests in the natural and human. Interest grew in the language and literature of native languages and the interest in language was no longer confined to epistemology and theology. These interests eventually grew into the “love of words”--- philology and comparative philology, dealing mainly with Indo-European languages.

The first chapter of Course in General Linguistics, “A Glance at the History of Linguistics”, by Ferdinand de Saussure would be an appropriate place to end this background of Linguistics, the science of Language. Saussure is the great influence at the beginning of modern linguistics and his influence on the field continues. Here I stop because I am just now beginning to study the work of Saussure. Others who have already studied Saussure, may find this a place to continue this history. PARR