Linguistics Language and Literacy
Modern linguistics—the scientific study of language in all its aspects—began in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the investigation of just such historical questions. The 2,500 years of continuous written records of Latin and the Romance languages provided one useful "laboratory" in which language change could be observed. The brothers Grimm (Jacob Grimm [1785–1863] and Wilhelm Grimm [1786–1859]), in recording verbatim their famous collection of German folktales, accidentally created another linguistic data set in which they kept noticing interesting relations among the Germanic dialects of the crones who recounted the tales. Elsewhere, other scholars were noting the more distant relations among Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and other languages we now recognize as Indo-European.
Eventually linguists realized that the relationships between languages within a family were in certain ways regular (if complex), especially in how their sounds changed. This fact allowed scholars to begin to reconstruct forms of the ancestor languages, even when those forms were not attested in writing. To facilitate this linguistic reconstruction, they needed to study the structural properties of each language, since, before they could compare thoroughly, they had to know in detail what they were comparing. In this way, the systematic study of the synchronic (as opposed to historical) features of languages was added to the field of linguistics around 1900.
The most basic components of a spoken language, all needing study, are the speech sounds themselves (phonetics), the system of using certain sounds to tell words apart in a given language (traditionally called phonemics, although other approaches to sound contrast are sometimes used), the forms of words (morphology), the structures by which words are combined into phrases and sentences (syntax), and the meaning components (semantics). In the mid-twentieth century, linguists began to explore beyond the sentence level to analyze the structure of discourse, poetry, formulaic speech, and other large units.
Nineteenth-century European scholars were not the first people, of course, to inquire about language history or structure. (For example, around the fifth or fourth century B.C.E., the Indian scholar Panini compiled a thorough grammar of Sanskrit, including what amounts to an excellent structural analysis of its sounds.) But it is their work on which modern linguistic science is principally based. They, in turn, were continually spurred on by the masses of inscriptions that archaeologists were turning up, many in unknown and unreadable scripts.
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