A Very Brief History of (Western) Linguistic Thought

On this page, I want to present you with an extremely brief overview of a number developments that have occurred in the history of linguistics, and how certain currents have come into or gone out of fashion over the centuries, or persisted to this very day. We’ll mainly concentrate on linguistics as it has developed in the European and North American traditions, as these are the ones that have (sometimes unfortunately) shaped modern linguistic ideas and practices the most, although there certainly have been influences on European linguistics that did not originate within Europe. The summary provided here is to a very large extent based on Robins’ book A Short History of Linguistics.

Ancient Greece

Linguistic thought in ancient Greece is mainly linked to such people as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Dionysius Thrax, or groups like the Stoics. It is characterised by a history of opposing ideas, such as:

Grammar in ancient Greece was regarded as the ‘art of reading’ (gr. γραμμα = letter), and essentially two different types of linguistic units – apart from the letter – were recognised:

  1. minimal: word
  2. sentence = expression of complete thought

With regard to the letter, a tri-partite distinction was acknowledged: name, written form (shape), sound value. Words were classified according to a class system consisting of 8 elements.

Ancient Rome

In Roman linguistics, at least two important names need to be mentioned. The first of them is Varro, who already established a distinction between derivation (declinatio voluntaria) and inflection (declinatio naturalis) with respect to morphological processes. Unfortunately, this important distinction was later ignored again. However, Varro not only developed interesting and useful linguistic concepts, but is also alleged to have mistranslated the Greek term for the case in which we find “the recipient of some action caused to happen” (Robins 1997: 44) and thereby have coined the label accusative, which is still in use in modern grammar. Grammars in ancient Rome in general tended to be of a didactic nature, i.e. used for teaching Latin to foreigners who lived in parts of the empire.

The other important person in Roman linguistics is Priscian, who was responsible for the idea of using canonical forms (nom. sing; 1st. pers. sing.) to represent labels for word concepts.

Traditional Grammar

The linguistic traditions of ancient Greece and Rome greatly influenced the traditional grammar concepts as they are still in use up to the present day, especially in the teaching of the classical languages. They are mainly based on ideas of rhetoric as exemplified by literary authorities. Descriptions of the different forms of words are mainly given as paradigms, and units below the word are usually not properly recognised yet. Since the time when traditional ideas about grammar developed, unfortunately we also have the development of (mis-)application of structural properties/concepts of Greek/Latin to other languages, such as English, something which is particularly unfortunate if people work on languages that are of a completely different structure.

The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages are to a large extent characterised linguistically through the efforts of Christian missionaries. Their attempts to spread the Christian faith led to a number of bible translations, which in turn provided some linguistic insights into languages other than Greek or Latin.

After 1100, we see the development of speculative grammar, which attempts to describe language as a mirror (Lat. speculum) of reality. This occurred within the tradition of scholasticism, a kind of philosophy which attempted to link Christian ideas and Aristotelian philosophy. The proponents of speculative grammar were also called modistae because they tried to explain grammar in terms of modes of significance (modi significandi). They attempted to construct a theory of universal grammar, based partly on Priscian’s ideas of morphology and word-classes. Apart from this, however, they also made distinct advances in the area of syntax. Thomas of Erfurt, for example, applies early rudimentary concepts of ‘syntactic well-formedness’ in that he assumes that a sentence is only correct if it (minimally) contains a noun + a verb, both are congruent (i.e. show agreement in number) & able to collocate (i.e. fit together semantically). Along with this, further significant concepts expressing the relation of syntactic elements to one another were recognised, amongst them early notions of:

Renaissance – 17th Century

Despite the general atmosphere of retrospection towards antiquity during the renaissance, from this period onwards we can observe a growing interest in non-European languages (especially Hebrew & Arabic) and European vernaculars (national languages & dialects). Whereas the speculative grammarians had shown very little interest in phonetics, we now find scientific/systematic phonetic descriptions for Arabic for the first time in the history of Western linguistics.

The introduction of printing led to an increased diffusion and availability of language materials, and along with this developed the notion of national standards, often equated with the language of the royal courts or capitals.

The theory of universal grammar was developed further in the 17th century, especially with the publication of the ‘Port Royal Grammar’ (Arnaud & Lancelot: Grammaire générale et raisonnée, 1660). Certain points/ideas in this philosophy are well worth noting:

18th/19th Century

The 18th & 19th centuries are characterised by an increasing interest in the origins and especially evolution of human language. Contrary to the universalist ideas of the Port Royal grammarians about the primacy of thought, Herder for instance stressed the interdependence and mutual evolvement of language and thought. Along with this, however, we can also observe the development of ‘synchronic studies’ of individual national languages, partly in connection with the growth of nationalism.

In 1786, Sir William Jones establishes a clear connection between the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit and many of the modern (Indo-)Germanic languages and thereby becomes responsible for the development of comparative-historical linguistics.

W. v. Humboldt stresses the differences between individual languages as expressions of the experiences of individual speakers of these languages and therefore in a sense is one of the earliest proponents of the theory of linguistic relativism, although he does assume that all languages by necessity have similar things they need to to be able to express. According to him, language is a source of great creativity, and even the best descriptions provided by grammarians will never manage to capture all the relevant ideas underlying it. He is also known as the inventor of a classification scheme for linguistic typology, distinguishing between isolating, inflecting, agglutinating and incorporating languages.

Some of the most famous Indo-Europeanist scholars of the 19th century were Jakob Grimm – whose sound law expresses that the relationship between different languages can be established by tracing regular “letter changes” in words of the core language –, Schleicher, whose Stammbaumtheorie (‘family tree theory’) established a model for grouping related languages together and tracing them to common ancestors, only later to be replaced by Schmidt’ Wellentheorie (‘wave theory’), which stated that changes in the evolution of languages did not delineate languages as sharply as in Schleicher’s family tree model, but that they occured in waves spreading out into and influencing different languages.

The final quarter of the 19th century saw the rise of a new and more rigorous set of ideas expounded by the neogrammarians (Junggrammatiker), as exemplified by Osthoff & Brugmann in 1878, among them the postulation of an extreme regularity of sound change (Ausnahmslosigkeit der Lautgesetze), which permits no exceptions to the general laws of sound change, and which therefore has to be deemed to extreme and untenable. However, on the positive side, the work of neogrammarians is characterised by a strong sense of scientific rigour (‘data-driven’) not previously exhibited by other linguistic scholars. They placed strong emphasis on phonetics & dialectology and were of major influence on American structuralism in the 20th century.


Ferdinand de Saussure: Cours de Linguistique Générale (1916; posthumously)

Ferdinand de Saussure is seen as the founder of and one of the most influential figures in modern linguistics. One of his core ideas was that it is possible to describe the structure of languages in terms of a system, hence the term structuralism. However, we also owe a number of other important concepts to him, including:

The Prague School

The Prague School of Linguistics, amongst its more prominent members being Jakobson & Trubetskoy, is also responsible for introducing a number of important concepts into modern linguistic theory. Amongst these are:


One of the central ideas behind behaviourism in linguistics, as propagated by e.g. Bloomfield & Skinner, is that the development of language is to a large extent based on the principles of stimulus and response, in other words, that the development of language is a kind of reaction to the input provided by a language learner’s environment. These notions had some currency, especially in language teaching, but largely went out of fashion in the late 1960ies.

Generative(-transformational) Grammar

Chomskyan Approaches

Generative grammar is intimately associated with Noam Chomsky, who, in the 1950ies, sought to break with traditional structuralist and behaviourist thinking and to establish a more mathematical (and hence presumably exact) foundation for the description of language. Some of the landmarks in his work are the following publications:

From an early point on, Chomsky stressed that language is not learnt completely ‘from scratch’, but that the basic language faculty is innate and also to some extent universal, and that there are only certain language-specific features a child (or language learner) needs to learn in order to reach a sufficient level of competence. The latter is generally seen as a level of understanding of the language system (similar to Saussure’s concept of langue), as opposed to the actual realisation of language, performance.

In traditional generative grammar, syntax is perceived as largely autonomous from other aspects of language, such as semantics (meaning), and conceptualised as a set of production rules that make it possible to generate all grammatical forms of language from smaller units. The only meaning involved is at the level of deep structure, which embodies the underlying logical relations between the syntactic elements, while the actual representation appears at the level of surface structure and is achieved via a series of (potential) transformations. This is discussed in more detail in our section Syntax 2 – Theory & Practice. Later Chomskyan versions of generative grammar have replaced the two notions of deep and surface structure by the concepts of logical form (LF) and phonetic form (PF), respectively.

Lexicalised Variants of Generative Grammar

As the above label implies, these variants of generative grammar stress the role of individual words, and therefore also their semantics, much more than the traditional variants. The have also abandoned the idea of a deep structure and instead rely on other means to describe the relationship between syntax and the functions of the individual syntactic units. An important concept in identifying/expressing these links is that of feature unification. Some important representatives of modern lexicalised generative grammar are Lexical Functional Grammar (LFG): constituent (c-) structure + functional (f-) structure (relational); Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar (HPSG).

Functional Grammar & Cognitive Grammar

Unlike generative grammar, approaches to functional and cognitive grammar pay less attention to aspects of syntax and semantic deep structures, but instead focus on identifying how language is constructed and functions at the different levels of meaning. In Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL), for instance, language is assumed to operate at three distinct levels:

Cognitive grammar attempts to explain how the meaning of words and larger linguistic units is grounded in relation to other words via form–function pairings. One of its central concepts is that of prototypes of meaning that can be extended in, and adjusted to, different domains, including metaphorical uses. This relational orientation can especially be seen in much of the earlier work on the functions of prepositions, as well as in modern approaches to construction grammar.

Sources & Further Reading:

Robins, R. (1997). A Short History of Linguistics (4th ed.). London: Longman.