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Language and Linguistics

Philosophers, Grammarians, And Neogrammarians

Throughout most of human history, the study of language has been subsumed under philosophy. The distinction between philosophical linguistics and linguistic philosophy is subtle but telling: Is the driving concern language or philosophy?

The Austrian-born English philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) was instrumental in bringing language-related questions to the fore for those who were not professional linguists. He accomplished this in two respects: (1) discussions on the philosophy of language, and (2) elaboration of logical theories. Wittgenstein was a protégé of Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), absorbing features of the analytic philosophy of Russell and Gottlob Frege (1848–1925), but fundamentally posing a whole series of innovative questions of his own devising. Wittgenstein's genius is enshrined in his Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1922), a brilliant work that is only about seventy-five pages in length. Despite its extreme brevity, the Tractatus manages to raise provocative questions concerning the nature of language, logic, ethics, death, and other, often disturbing, topics. How is language possible? How does a sequence of words come to mean something? How can it be understood? For Wittgenstein, a sentence is a depiction of reality, thus he presents what might be called a picture theory of language. The Tractatus deals, above all, with the limits of language: "What can be said can only be said by means of a proposition, and so nothing that is necessary for the understanding of all propositions can be said." (In such statements by Wittgenstein, "said" means "represented.") The limits of language correspond to the limits of thought, hence there are certain things that cannot be thought, which accounts for the famous last sentence of the book: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

In Tractatus, Wittgenstein expressed the idea that there was a unifying essence beneath the diversity of language, and that the philosopher strives to discern this essence. In his posthumously published Philosophische Untersuchungen (Philosophical investigations, 1953), he had come to the conclusion that this supposed underlying essence was illusory. Rather, one demolishes obsessive concern with such perplexing questions as knowledge, intuition, and assertion by simply describing what one experiences in the daily use of language. In short, throughout his philosophical studies, Wittgenstein was perpetually in quest for das erlösende Wort ("the redemptive word").

Another important British thinker who followed the later Wittgenstein in pursuing philosophical analysis through detailed study of mundane language was John Langshaw Austin (1911–1960). Austin maintained that linguistic analysis can solve philosophical problems, but was opposed to the language of formal logic as contrived and incomplete. According to Austin, daily language is actually more subtle and complex than formal logic, and hence better able to get at the crux of critical issues. His approach helped to underscore the significance of language for philosophy.

One tradition of thought in which philosophy and concern with language are given almost equal weight is semiotics. Simply stated, semiotics (or semiology) is the study of signs and their diverse applications. The notion of sign is fundamental to the study of language, but its protean ubiquity (including for nonlinguistic purposes) makes it extraordinarily difficult to define. One of the earliest sign theories is that of St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) as enunciated in De Doctrina Christiana: "A sign is a thing that causes us to think of something beyond the impression the thing itself makes upon the senses." The semiotic frame of reference is vast, being designed to encompass all other types of inquiry, but it became an independent mode of investigation with the American philosopher Charles S. Peirce (1839–1914). Originally a logician, Peirce did not offer a systematic presentation of his major principles and frequently changed his doctrines. He basically contended that all human experience could be organized at three levels that, roughly stated, are felt qualities, experiential effect, and signs, the latter being the abstract class of all sensorially perceived "signals" that refer to the same object or phenomena.

The German mathematician, logician, and philosopher Gottlob Frege contributed to the early development of semi-otics by adding, among other things, the crucial distinction between Sinn ("sense") and Bedeutung ("meaning"). Frege enunciated the principle of compositionality whereby a sentence can be described according to the functional interdependence of the meanings of its appropriately formed elements.

In his Foundations of the Theory of Signs (1938), another American philosopher, Charles W. Morris (1901–1979), offered a tripartite organizational scheme for semiotics: syntax (the interrelations among signs), semantics (the relation between signs and the objects they designate), and pragmatics (the relationship between the sign system and the user). Morris collaborated with the German scholar Rudolf Carnap (1891–1970), who developed an ideal language that became a model for semioticians. A major figure in the development of symbolic logic was the Polish-American scholar Alfred Tarski (1902–1983), who is well known for his concept of truth in formalized languages.

Semiotics was further developed in the monumental work of another German thinker, Ernst Cassirer (1874–1945), entitled Philosophie der symbolischen Formen (The Philosophy of symbolic forms, 1923–1929). Cassirer recognizes the vital role of language in articulating and conceptualizing a preexisting reality, but his project is primarily philosophical. He emphasizes that human beings are animal symbolicum ("the symbol-creating animal"), not merely because of their ability to manipulate verbal language itself, but also because of their creation of other symbolic spheres: art, myth, religion, science, history, and so on.

Semiotics and grammar converged in the synthesis of the American logician Richard Montague (1930–1971), who followed in the path of Frege, Tarski, and Carnap. Based upon the semantics of formal languages, Montague grammar puts forward the premise that there is no theoretically relevant difference between artificial (formal) and natural (human) languages. Therefore, the logical structure of natural languages may be described through universal algebra.

Having pursued the philosophical path thus far, this article now follows the grammatical thread. Classical grammarians were concerned with prescriptive principles. This suited the sharply defined structure of Indo-European languages. It is one of the perennial questions of linguistics, however, whether such principles apply equally well (or at all) to non-Indo-European languages. China had its own sort of language studies, known as xiaoxue ("minor learning," in contrast to daxue ["major learning"], which signified ethics), for at least two millennia. An early philosopher named Xun Zi (c. 310–210 B.C.E.), moreover, had elaborated a doctrine of "names" that bore striking similarity to doctrines about language expressed by Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 B.C.E.) in his "Cratylus." But it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that Literary Sinitic (Classical Chinese) was forced into a Latin grammatical mold—and it fit very badly. This question of the appropriateness of classical Western grammar for non-Indo-European languages shall return below (both directly and under the guise of universal grammar). For the moment, however, the focus will be on Western grammars for Indo-European languages.

The Modistae (also known as Modists and speculative grammarians), who flourished around Paris from about 1260 to 1310, wrote medieval treatises on the modi significandi ("modes of signifying," the semantic and deictic functions of words and word classes). They were generally Aristotelian in their aim to explain language, not simply to describe it, and had a large impact on the terminology and systematicity of later grammarians.

After having investigated grammars for various specific languages (Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Spanish, etc.), Claude Lancelot (1615?–1695), professor at the Petites Écoles of Port-Royal des Champs, in collaboration with Antoine Arnauld (1612–1694) wrote the Grammaire générale et raisonée (1660), often referred to as Grammaire de Port-Royal. This is a general grammar that enunciates certain principles that presumably govern all languages and are meant to define language in general, while individual languages are thought to be particular cases of the universal model. By and large, eighteenth-century grammarians followed in the footsteps of their Port Royal predecessors. Lancelot and Arnauld imply, and later grammarians (for example N. Beauzée) specify, that communication of thought by means of speech demands that the latter be a sort of "picture" or "imitation" of thought (cf. Wittgenstein). That is to say, the function of language is to be a representation of thought. Already in the seventeenth century, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646–1716) and other thinkers subscribed to the belief in the imitative value of language sounds. This leads to the consideration of the place of phonology in the history of linguistics.

In comparing Old Norse, Greek, and Latin, the Danish linguist Rasmus Rask (1787–1832) had discovered regular sound differences. In 1822, the German philologist and folk-lorist Jacob Grimm (1785–1863) construed these differences as systematic sound changes that had led to the development of Germanic as a separate branch of Indo-European. This recognition became enshrined as Grimm's Law (also referred to as the Germanic sound shift) and was a major milestone in the evolution of linguistics as a rigorously scientific discipline.

The neogrammarians (Junggrammatiker in German, also known as the Leipzig School), subscribed to positivistic atomism. During the 1870s, they arose in staunch opposition to the metaphysical and biological approaches to language then current. Their name was actually a pejorative term applied to them by the older generation of traditionalists in language studies. The school is said to have its inception from the publication of Karl Verner's (1846–1896) celebrated explanation of apparent exceptions to Grimm's Law in 1877, of August Leskien's (1840–1916) postulation of the inviolability of sound laws in relation to declension in 1876, of Karl Brugmann's (1849–1919) studies on the morphology of Indo-European, and of Hermann Paul's (1846–1921) Prinzipien der Sprachgeschichte (Principles of the history of language) in 1880. They insisted upon the absolute autonomy of phonology from syntax and semantics, with phonology having the most important position. Their main aim was to describe historical change, plus they had an overriding interest in diachronic aspects of language and the development of precise methods of reconstruction. The structuralists and transformationalists of the twentieth century criticized virtually all of the basic premises of the neogrammarians, yet the neogrammarians arguably did more to establish linguistics as an independent science (in the strictest sense of the term) than any other school.

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