Before the term "grammaticalization" was first coined, the concept had already been developed in the works of Bopp (1816), Schlegel (1818), Humboldt (1825) and Gabelentz (1891). Humboldt, for instance, came up with the idea of evolutionary language. He suggested that in all languages grammatical structures evolved out of a language stage in which there were only words for concrete objects and ideas. In order to successfully communicate these ideas, grammatical structures slowly came into existence. Grammar slowly developed through four different stages, each in which the grammatical structure would be more developed. Though neo-grammarians like Brugmann rejected the separation of language into distinct "stages" in favour of uniformitarian assumptions, they were positively inclined towards some of these earlier linguists' hypotheses.
The actual term "grammaticalization" was first coined by the French linguist Antoine Meillet in his work L'évolution des Formes Grammaticales (1912) who first used it in the context in which it is still used today. Meillet's well known definition of grammaticalization was "the attribution of grammatical character to an erstwhile autonomous word". In this work Meillet showed that what was at issue was not the origins of grammatical forms but their transformations. He was thus able to present a notion of the creation of grammatical forms as a legitimate study for linguistics. Later studies in the field have further developed and altered Meillet's ideas and have introduced many other examples of grammaticalization.
During the second half of the twentieth century, grammaticalization became somewhat unfashionable, in contrast to structuralist ideas of language change in which grammaticalization did not play a role. The field of linguistics at the time was strongly concerned with synchronic studies of language change, which marginalized historical approaches such as grammaticalization. It did however, mostly in Indo-European studies, remain an instrument for explaining language change.
It was not until the 1970s, with the growth of interest in discourse analysis and linguistic universals, that the interest for grammaticalization in linguistic studies began to grow again. A greatly influential work in the domain was Christian Lehmann's Thoughts on Grammaticalization (1982). This was the first work to emphasize the continuity of research from the earliest period to the present, and it provided a survey of the major work in the field. He also invented a set of 'parameters', a method along which grammaticality could be measured both synchronically and diachronically.
Another important work was Heine and Reh's Grammaticalization and Reanalysis in African Languages (1984). This work focussed on African languages synchronically from the point of view of grammaticalization. They saw grammaticalization as an important tool for describing the workings of languages and their universal aspects and it provided an exhaustive list of the pathways of grammaticalization.
The great number of studies on grammaticalization in the last decade show grammaticalization remains a popular item and is regarded as an important field within linguistic studies in general. Among recent publications there is a wide range of descriptive studies trying to come up with umbrella definitions and exhaustive lists, while others tend to focus more on its nature and significance, questioning the opportunities and boundaries of grammaticalization. An important and popular topic which is still debated is the question of unidirectionality.
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