by Frederick J. Newmeyer

The modern field of linguistics dates from the beginning of the 19th century. While ancient India and Greece had a remarkable grammatical tradition, throughout most of history linguistics had been the province of philosophy, rhetoric, and literary analysis to try to figure out how human language works. But in 1786, an amazing discovery was made: There are regular sound correspondences among many of the languages spoken in Europe, India, and Persia. For example, the English 'f' sound often corresponds to a 'p' sound in, among others, Latin and Sanskrit, an important ancient language of India:


 father         pater       pitar

 full              plenus    purnas

 for              per          pari

Scholars realized that these correspondences—found in thousands of words—could not be due to chance or to mutual influence. The only reliable conclusion was that these languages are related to one another because they come from a common ancestor. Much of 19th century linguistics was devoted to working out the nature of this parent language, spoken about 6,000 years ago, as well as the changes by which 'Proto-Indo-European', as we now call it, developed into English, Russian, Hindi, and its other modern descendants.

This program of historical linguistics continues today. Linguists have succeeded in grouping the 5,000 or so languages of the world into a number of language families sharing a common ancestor.

The Study of Language Structure

At the beginning of the 20th century, attention shifted to the fact that not only language change, but language structure as well, is systematic and governed by regular rules and principles. The attention of the world's linguists turned more and more to the study of grammar—in the technical sense of the term the organization of the sound system of a language and the internal structure of its words and sentences. By the 1920s, the program of 'structural linguistics', inspired in large part by the ideas of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, was developing sophisticated methods of grammatical analysis. This period also saw an intensified scholarly study of languages that had never been written down. It had by then become commonplace, for example, for an American linguist to spend several years working out the intricacies of the grammars of Chippewa, Ojibwa, Apache, Mohawk, or some other indigenous language of North America.

The last half-century has seen a deepening of understanding of these rules and principles and the growth of a widespread conviction that despite their seeming diversity, all the languages of the world are basically cut from the same cloth. As grammatical analysis has become deeper, we have found more fundamental commonalities among the languages of the world. The program initiated by the linguist Noam Chomsky in 1957 sees this fact as a consequence of the human brain being 'prewired' for particular properties of grammar, thereby drastically limiting the number of possible human languages. The claims of this program have been the basis for a great deal of recent linguistic research, and have been one of the most important centers of controversy in the field. Books and journal articles routinely present evidence for or against the idea that central properties of language are innate.

Language Use: Studies of Meaning

There is also a long tradition in the study of what it means to say that a word or sentence 'means' a particular thing and how these meanings are conveyed when we communicate with each other. Two popular ideas about what meanings are go back to the ancient Greeks: One is that meanings are mental representations of some sort; another is that the meaning of an expression is purely a function of how it is used. Both ideas have launched research programs that are active today. They have been joined by a third approach, building on work by philosophers such as Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, which applies formal methods derived from logic and attempts to equate the meaning of an expression with reference and the conditions under which it might be judged to be true or false. Other linguists have been looking at the cognitive principles underlying the organization of meaning, including the basic metaphoric processes that some claim to see at the heart of grammar. And still others have been examining the ways that sentences are tied together to form coherent discourse.

Language Use: The Social Side of Language

In the past 50 years, there has been increasing attention to the social side of language as well as the mental. The subfield of sociolinguistics has come of age in part as a consequence of post World War II social movements. The national liberation movements active in third world countries after the war posed the question of what would be their official language(s) after independence, a pressing question, since almost all of them are multilingual. This led to scholarly study of the language situation in the countries of the world. In addition, the movements for minority rights in the United States and other Western countries has led to a close examination of social variation that complements earlier work in geographical variation. Scholars have turned the analytical tools of linguistics to the study of nonstandard varieties like African American Vernacular English and Chicano Spanish. And the women's movement has led many linguists to investigate gender differences in speech and whether our language has to perpetuate sexual inequality.

Suggested Readings

Harris, Randy A. 1993. The linguistics wars. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lepschy, Giulio C. 1972. A survey of structural linguistics. London: Faber and Faber.

Newmeyer, Frederick J. 1986. The politics of linguistics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Robins, R. H. 1979. A short history of linguistics. London: Longman. 2nd edn.