History of linguistics

Author: Andrew Linn


The history of linguistics is already being studied by a significant number of language and linguistics students, often unwittingly. Such students can enhance their understanding by calling on the full range of available materials. These include general overviews of the whole history of linguistics, as well as studies of particular periods, languages, subdisciplines, or geographical regions. Teaching will typically involve a lecture element, but is more likely to revolve around the study of texts, the choice of which depends on the background of the students. Internet resources are as yet sparse.

Table of contents


The history of linguistics is relevant to several types of student. A course in, say, phonological theory beginning with distinctive features, or syntactic theory from the 1950s onwards, is already a course in the history of linguistics. Ideas about what language is and how it functions predate the 20th century by nearly 4000 years, and students of languages and linguistics gain perspective by finding out where our current conceptions have come from. Students of the history of a language who look in early grammars or dictionaries for data, or who discuss earlier views about a language, are all studying the history of linguistics. In brief, the history of linguistics is often being studied unwittingly, but teachers and students can find a much longer and broader history with which to inform specific areas of study.

The decision about what aspects of the history of linguistics to teach is made by the end to which it is being studied. The entire western history is easily surveyed as part of a course in general linguistics at undergraduate or postgraduate level, and there are a number of straightforward textbooks covering the whole history (e.g. Harris & Taylor (1997); Robins (1997)), as well as more detailed ones (e.g. Lepschy 1994-1998; Koerner & Asher (1995)). Linguists have always responded to the ideas of their predecessors, but the history of linguistics has been subject to more concentrated scrutiny for at least a quarter of a century, so few would now claim to be able to write a survey of the whole field. There are accessible studies dealing with specific periods (e.g. Joseph, Love & Taylor (2001); Matthews (2001); Law (2002)), as well as with particular branches of linguistics (e.g. Howatt (1984) (applied linguistics); Seuren (1998) (meaning)), and geographical regions (e.g. Andresen (1990); Hovdhaugen et al. (2000)). The field is well surveyed in the literature, something particularly important for students without access to substantial library resources.

How to teach the history of linguistics depends very much on the background knowledge of the particular student cohort and the library resources available. Typically some formal lecturing will be called for, in order to contextualise the language work to be discussed. (Filling in the gaps in students' knowledge of general history is one of the most useful features of a course in HoL). Thereafter specific texts - grammar or dictionary excerpts, treatises, articles, prefaces and so forth - provide a basis for discussion. The question 'How do we know that this was written in place X and year Y?' will be a common one, as will 'How do the views/analyses here compare/contrast with those held today?' Such questions are not profound, but they straightforwardly engender reflection both on current assumptions and on the relationship between the history of linguistic ideas and the history of ideas more generally. There is little as yet by way of online resources, but sites with links to appropriate historical or linguistic material could easily be developed.

The various national societies have web pages, which are well maintained and provide links to other sites of relevance to the history of linguistics.


Andresen, J. T. (1990). Linguistics in America 1769-1924: A Critical History. London / New York: Routledge.

Harris, R. & Taylor, T.J. (1997). Landmarks in Linguistic Thought 1: The Western Tradition from Socrates to Saussure. 2nd edition. London / New York: Routledge.

Hovdhaugen, Even, Karlsson, F., Henriksen, C. & Sigurd, B. (2000). The History of Linguistics in the Nordic Countries. Helsinki: Societas Scientiarum Fennica.

Howatt, A. P. R. (1984). A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Joseph, J. E., Love, N. & Taylor, T.J. (2001). Landmarks in Linguistic Thought 2: The Western Tradition in the Twentieth Century. London / New York: Routledge.

Koerner, E. F. K. & Asher, R. E. (eds) (1995). Concise History of the Language Sciences from the Sumerians to the Cognitivists. Oxford: Pergamon.

Law, V. (2002). The History of Linguistics in Europe from Plato to 1600. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lepschy, G. (ed.) (1994-1998). History of Linguistics. 4 volumes. London / New York: Longman.

Matthews, P. (2001). A Short History of Structural Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robins, R. H. (1997). A Short History of Linguistics. 4th edition. London / New York: Longman.

Seuren, P. A. M. (1998). Western Linguistics: An Historical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.

Related links

The British society is The Henry Sweet Society for the History of Linguistic Ideas. Website at: http://www2.arts.gla.ac.uk/SESLL/EngLang/HSS/

The German society is the Studienkreis Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft. Website at: http://home.t-online.de/home/dutz.nodus/start.htm

The French society is the Société d'Histoire et d'Epistémologie des Sciences du Langage. Website at: http://htl.linguist.jussieu.fr/SHESL.html

The North American Society is the North American Association for the History of the Language Sciences. Website at: http://linguistlist.org/~naahols

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