History of Linguistics - Antiquity - Greece


The first important advancement of the Greeks was the creation of the alphabet based on a system previously used by the Phoenicians, adding vowels and other consonants needed in Greek (see Robins, 1997). As a result of the introduction of writing, poetry such as the Homeric poems became written and several editions were created and commented on, forming the basis of philology and criticism.

Along with written speech, the Greeks commence its study in grammatical and philosophical bases. A philosophical discussion about the nature and origins of language can be found as early as the works of Plato. A subject of concern was whether language was man-made, a social artifact, or supernatural in origin. Plato in his Cratylus presents the naturalistic view, that word meanings emerge out of a natural process, independent of the language user. His arguments are partly based on examples of compounding, where the meaning of the whole is usually related to the constituents, although by the end he admits a small role for convention. The sophists and Socrates introduced also dialectics as a new text genre. In his platonic dialogs there are definitions about the meter of the poems and tragedy, the form and the structure of those texts (see the Republic and Phaidros, Ion etc.).

Aristotle supports the conventional origins of meaning. He defined the logic of speech and the argument. Furthermore Aristotle's works on rhetoric and poetics were of the utmost importance for the understating of tragedy, poetry, public discussions etc. as text genres. Aristotle's work on logic interrelates with his special interest in language, and his work on this area was fundamentally important for the development of the study of language (logos in Greek means both language and logic reasoning). In Categories, Aristotle defines what is meant by "synonymous," or univocal words, what is meant by "homonymous," or equivocal words, and what is meant by "paronymous," or denominative words. It then divides forms of speech as being:

  • Either simple, without composition or structure, such as "man," "horse," "fights," etc.
  • Or having composition and structure, such as "a man fights," "the horse runs," etc.

Next, he distinguishes between a subject of predication, namely that of which anything is affirmed or denied, and a subject of inhesion. A thing is said to be inherent in a subject, when, though it is not a part of the subject, it cannot possibly exist without the subject, e.g., shape in a thing having a shape. The categories are not abstract platonic entities but are found in speech, these are substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, action and affection. In de Interpretatione, Aristotle analyzes categoric propositions, and draws a series of basic conclusions on the routine issues of classifying and defining basic linguistic forms, such as simple terms and propositions, nouns and verbs, negation, the quantity of simple propositions (primitive roots of the quantifiers in modern symbolic logic), investigations on the excluded middle (what to Aristotle isn't applicable to future tense propositions — the Problem of future contingents), and on modal propositions.

Stoics made linguistics an important part of their understanding about the cosmos and the human. The important role of the Stoics in defining the linguistic sign terms adopted later on by Ferdinand de Saussure like "significant" and "signifie". The Stoics studied phonetics grammar and etymology as separate levels of study. In phonetics and phonology the articulators were defined. The syllable became an important structure for the understanding of speech organization. One of the most important offers of the Stoics in language study was the gradual definition of the terminology and theory echoed in modern linguistics.

Alexandrian grammarians also studied speech sounds and prosody, defined parts of speech with notions such as noun, verb, etc. There was also a discussion about the role of analogy in language, in this discussions the grammatici in Alexandria supported that language and especially morphology is based on analogy or paradigm, whereas the grammatic in schools Asia Minor consider that language is not based on analogical bases but rather on exceptions.

Alexandrians, like their predecessors, were very interested in the meter and its relation with poetry. The metrical "feet" in the Greek was based on the length of time taken to pronounce each syllable, which were categorized according to their weight as either "long" syllables or "short" syllables (also known as "heavy" and "light" syllables, respectively, to distinguish from long and short vowels). The foot is often compared to a musical measure and the long and short syllables to whole notes and half notes. The basic unit in Greek and Latin prosody is a mora, which is defined as a single short syllable. A long syllable is equivalent to two moras. A long syllable contains either a long vowel, a diphthong, or a short vowel followed by two or more consonants. Various rules of elision sometimes prevent a grammatical syllable from making a full syllable, and certain other lengthening and shortening rules (such as correption) can create long or short syllables in contexts where one would expect the opposite. The most important Classical meter as defined by the Alexandrian grammarians was the dactylic hexameter, the meter of Homeric poetry. This form uses verses of six feet. The first four feet are dactyls, but can be spondees. The fifth foot is almost always a dactyl. The sixth foot is either a spondee or a trochee. The initial syllable of either foot is called the ictus, the basic "beat" of the verse. There is usually a caesura after the ictus of the third foot.

Subsequently, the text Tékhnē grammatiké (c. 100 BCE, Gk. gramma meant letter, and this title means "Art of letters"), possibly written by Dionysius Thrax, lists eight parts of speech, and lays out the broad details of Greek morphology including the case structures. This text was intended as a pedagogic guide (as was Panini), and also covers punctuation and some aspects of prosody. Other grammars by Charisius (mainly a compilation of Thrax, as well as lost texts by Remmius Palaemon and others) and Diomedes (focusing more on prosody) were popular in Rome as pedagogic material for teaching Greek to native Latin speakers.

One of the most prominent scholars of Alexandria and of the antiquity was Apollonius Dyscolus. Apollonius wrote more than thirty treatises on questions of syntax, semantics, morphology, prosody, orthography, dialectology, and more. Happily, four of these are preserved—we still have a Syntax in four books, and three one-book monographs on pronouns, adverbs, and connectives, respectively.

Lexicography become an important study domain as dictionaries, thesauri and lists of special words "λέξεις" that were old, or dialectical or special such as medical words, botanic words were made at that period by many grammarians. In the early medieval times we find more categories of dictionaries like the dictionary of Suida that is considered the first encyclopedic dictionary, etymological dictionaries etc.

At that period, the Greek language was considered a lingua franca, i.e. the language spoken in the known world (for the Greeks and Romans) of that time and, as a result, modern linguistics struggles to overcome this. With the Greeks a tradition commenced in the study of language. The Romans and the medieval world followed and their laborious work is considered today as a part of our everyday language. Think, for example, of notions such as the word, the syllable, the verb, the subject etc.

Read more about this topic:  History Of Linguistics, Antiquity

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