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History of Linguistics

Jack Hoeksema & Jan Koster

History is bunk
(Henry Ford)
Lecture 1: The early beginnings
Greece, India around 400 AD

Linguistics started out in societies with a

writing system, like most sciences
Importance of writing
• to convey insights and to allow cumulative
development of science
• to provide food for thought on the
relationship between sounds and letters
• the mind seems to have a better grasp on
written material than on the fleeting words
of spoken language
Primacy of Letters over Sounds

Until well into the 19th century, linguists

spoke mainly about letters, not sounds
Contexts in which linguistics arose

• philosophy (Greece)
• language teaching (Alexandria)
• philology (study of ancient texts, often of
sacred nature) (India, Greece)
The Greek world

Plato (Platoon) in Kratylos:

Are signs (e.g. words, expressions)
arbitrary (conventional) or natural ?
A natural (iconic) sign
• Horseback-riding path
A conventional sign
• Give right of way
Cratylus: a Socratic dialogue
• Cratylus: words are natural signs
some names are ‘correct’,
others are not
• Hermogenes: names are arbitrary/
• Socrates: middle position: there is such
a thing as a correct name, but names may
be corrupted, and yet be used
“I believe that any name you give a thing is
its correct name. If you change its name
and give it another, the new one is as
correct as the old.”

In its extreme form, this is the Humpty-

Dumpty view on meaning
Humpty-Dumpty and Alice
`I thought it looked a little queer. As I was saying, that seems to be
done right -- though I haven't time to look it over thoroughly just
now -- and that shows that there are three hundred and sixty-four
days when you might get un-birthday presents --'
`Certainly,' said Alice.
`And only one for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!'
`I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I
tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'
`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice
`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone,
`it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'
`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so
many different things.'
`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master --
that's all.' (Lewis Carroll – Through the Looking Glass)
• Names can be ‘correct’ or not
• They are given by a name-giver
• Hector (‘possessor’) is a good name for a
• Orestes (‘mountain-man’) is a good name
for a brutish savage
Etymology of theos ‘god’
Socrates: It seems to me that the first
inhabitants of Greece believed only in
those gods in which many foreigners still
believe today – the sun, the moon, earth,
stars and sky. And, seeing that these were
always moving or running, they gave them
the name ‘theoi’ because it was their
nature to run (thein).
The name ‘Hermogenes’ (offspring of
Hermes) is not correct.
We see that some names are fit and
proper, and some are not. Sometimes, this
is because they were wrong in the first
place, sometimes because they were
corrupted (letters disappeared, others
were added for no good purpose) or
borrowed from alien languages (and
therefore opaque to the Greek ear).
Sound Imagery
Socrates: r is hard, indicative of motion
l is soft, smooth, passive

But note: Latin arbor > Spanish arbol

peregrinus > Dutch pelgrim
Modern View (F. de Saussure)
• words and expressions are basically
conventional: arbitrary by agreement in a
speech community
• no Humpty-Dumpty
• partial motivation of signs possible:
1. when they are complex
2. onomatopoetic words
3. (maybe) sound symbolism
• i: small
• a: large

itsy bitsy teeny weeny

But...not all sounds are symbolic
• big
• small
Folk etymology
• hangmat < hamaca
• hammock

Feminism 1980’s


Was macht frau, wenn ein

Mann im Zickzack durch
ihren Garten läuft?
Complex words
• dogshit: compositional interpretation

i(dogshit) = f(i(dog), i(shit))

• dogs: compositional: i(dogs) = f(i(dog),

i(s)) = PLUR(i(dog))
Up to idiomaticity
• moonshine
• egghead
• dog’s ear
• ezelsoor
also derivations
• Lively
• Livelihood
• Deadly
• Womanize / Victimize

Organon: Collection of works on reasoning

and logic, brought together posthumously
by Aristotles pupils
Art of reasoning
• syllogistic logic
(further systematized in the middle ages)
(all – all – all)

All men are swine

All swine are dirty
All men are dirty
Some – all – some

All soldiers are cruel

Some men are soldiers
Some men are cruel
• No – all – no

No spirit is a body
All humans are a body
No human is a spirit
Structure of a syllogism
• Two premisses: major and minor
• Major contains the predicate of the
conclusion, the minor the subject of the
• Conclusion
• the notion of a main division between
subject and predicate stems from
Aristotles logic
• still debated in 20th century syntax (is the
division of S in NP and VP universal, or
just useful for languages like English)
Aristotelian logic was the main theory of
quantification until the advent of predicate
logic in the late 19th century (Frege)