Historical Linguistics: Remarks 7/7

These brief overviews were an attempt to describe in which form the relatively new discipline within language science, historical linguistics, has existed throughout human history, although it had not been explicitly named until relatively recently.  At first, it was the object of the study of those rare individuals whose task was to preserve sacred texts for future generations. In the Middle Ages it was under the spell of religious allegory, in the form of biblical influence on the understanding of the while world, including language.

(This text is follow-up on the previous posts. See the historical linguistics category, or scroll down to see the previous texts’s link.)

It was not until the eighteen century that the discipline slowly changed form then hobbyist interest to a structured investigation. It was in this century that we “discovered” that Latin was not derived from Greek. In the eighteen century the Romantic Movement in Europe brought about a renaissance to historical linguistic: the Neogrammarians boasted with what was then believed to be a law “that knows no exceptions”, but what contemporary linguists recognize as one of the most vivid periods in historical linguistics, and surely the point from which the following discoveries would become increasingly more scientific.

Two prominent linguists, Ferdinand de Saussure and Noam Chomsky, significantly contributed to the historical study of language. Saussure insisted on contemporary stages of language in relation to the study of change, and thus brought attention to the synchronic phase of historical linguistics, recognising synchrony as being of great importance. This marked the decisive freeing from the misconception that to answer the fundamental questions of “how” and “why” a language changes linguists ought to study dead languages and the obscure evidence of their “attestations” (Hale). Chomsky’s contribution to humanities and sciences in general is immense, and his theories play a very important role in historical linguistics. Based on his “I-language” and “E-language” distinction scholars have realised that there might have been some flaws in the definition of the object of study: is the object an arbitrary notion of sociopolitical language or should there be a more empirical definition?

Lattin letters in a wall
Ancient language information often comes from monuments. (Image source: Wikimedia)

The answer is that a scientific definition of a language is required. To reach such definition, historical linguists became surprisingly interested in how human mind works, which is an exciting change from examining cold scratched monuments and dusty books. This mind-language interest appeared because of Chomsky’s work on generative grammar and the underlying idea that human brain naturally possesses only mechanisms of how language systems work, while the language content is acquired in the community of the speaker.

The concepts of the generative nature of language and the importance of external language sources initiated new research within historical linguistics in relation to applied linguistics, or more precisely – the issues of language acquisition. The answer to the question whether some changes in language can be explained by a “less than ideal” acquisition, or other phenomena, remains today as one of the most intriguing currents within historical linguistics, together with further study into internal and external causes of the change (Campbell 286).

Previous text: Language Acquisition and Historical Linguistics