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Language and Linguistics

Philosophers, Grammarians, And Neogrammarians, The Structuralist Era, The Transformational Generative Insurrection, Other Voices

Estimates of the number of languages spoken on earth at the turn of the twenty-first century range between four and six thousand. Considering that this number has been rapidly declining for the last couple of centuries, there must at one time have been many more languages, perhaps upwards of ten thousand. Of the languages spoken in the twenty-first century, a few have tens or hundreds of millions of speakers spread over enormous stretches of land, while most languages have severely restricted population distribution. No matter exactly how many different languages there are or how many speakers each of them has, the multiplicity of human speech patterns is staggering, and any attempt to reduce this overwhelming plethora of sounds, meanings, and structures to a finite set of rules and procedures is both daunting and humbling. Yet that is precisely the charge that linguists take as their solemn duty. No wonder that linguistics is probably the most contentious of all academic disciplines; there is no easy, transparent mechanism for bringing order to the wild proliferation of human speech (not to mention writing).

The varieties of linguistic experience are so profuse as to defy accurate enumeration: grammar, syntax, etymology, phonology, phonetics, morphology, psycholinguistics, anthropological linguistics, sociolinguistics, educational linguistics, taxonomy, philology, historical linguistics, lexicography, and so on. It would be futile to attempt any sort of exhaustiveness with regard to the branches and sub-branches of this protean discipline. What is more, each division and subdivision of linguistics has its own generation after generation of leading lights. Thousands of linguists have left their imprint on the field, but here it will be possible to mention only a few of those who represent major trends, particularly in the realm of thought (both about the discipline itself and about human beings and their world).

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