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How 4 Influential Linguists Changed the Course of History

4 inspirational linguists you should know about and why

If you take a moment to think about, from the time of your birth, in which communication was reduced to only a number of audible sounds, to now, your language has been shaped by a vast sea of knowledge consisting of making meaning out of those, now more sophisticated, sounds. Of course, every person who has ever had a fight with their spouse can tell you that meaning would never come down to just literal noise because when, how, and where we say our words truly affect how our audiences receive them.

That example is only a snippet of what many mechanisms drive our languages. Behind our words are an endless collection of symbols, signs, and patterns that have evolved over a long period of time. Even a gap as small as a single generation can illustrate just how much our languages can change (refer to a recent conversation you’ve maybe had trying to explain something to a parent; it’s not as easy is it?). This begs the question as to how such a phenomenon could even take place at all; is it by a mere coincidence that these grammars and rules were born or are there phenomena that drive our languages to take the form they do today?

The field of Linguistics exists in order to help us uncover the answers to some of these questions; to make sense of the brilliant, yet potentially chaotic noise that surrounds us every day. It concerns itself with the scientific analysis of morphology (structure), syntax (arrangement), phonetics in terms of vastly improving understanding, communication, preservation (in some cases), and education.

Whenever you think about philosophy, the names of Kant or Aristotle inevitably come to mind because they have, for the better part, defined an entire school of thought. On the other hand, when teachers introduce the sciences, pioneers such as Sir Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein make their way across the chalkboard because they’ve changed our perception of reality. The same applies to linguistics, in that there are a few names that you just have to know because their discoveries and contributions were so great. It is because of individuals such as these, that our understanding of language has been redefined and the foundations were set for others to build upon. Let’s meet a few of these inspirational linguists:


Pāṇini (4th century B.C.E.)

Ancient Sanskrit Manuscript

An ancient Sanskrit Manuscript

Often referred to as The Father of Linguistics, Pāṇini ’s work made an incredible impact on the study and preservation of languages. Similar to the likes of Socrates, Homer, or Confucius, there are very little accounts that exist that can actually pinpoint the exact timeline of Pāṇini’s life. But what he is universally credited for, however, is being architect to one of the world’s first formal language structures.

Known as Aṣṭādhyāyī in Ancient India, his detailed algorithmic system took in the countless spoken sounds and symbols that the people of his region used at that time and, through the mixing/matching of many “stems” and “roots,” generated banks of well-formed words with little to no redundancy. His Sanskrit grammar, compiled of 8 chapters with nearly 4,000 rules outlined, was the first form of linguistic analysis that scholars can refer to.

Pāṇinis work aimed to bring order to the otherwise chaotic state of languages in his time. The initial purpose of his work was to preserve knowledge of the language of the Hindu religious canon. This language, along with many other languages in his time, changed so frequently that recitation and understanding of important religious works could not be assured throughout the population, even though people claimed to speak the same language.

Pāṇini  was one of the first linguists to develop language and grammar structures to preserve a language. The basis of these grammar rules was to enable two parties to settle a dispute and to begin to work together to improve their common language. These formal language structures also enabled religious works to be understood by everyone who spoke a certain language, achieving Pāṇini’s original goal.

This concept may sound simple – the idea of basic grammar rules that everyone using a certain language abides by – but at the time, this was a revolutionary idea and laid the foundations for the study of linguistics.

As we’ll see, Pāṇini’s work would serve as a springboard to a lot of modern linguistics as we know it today. Many modern linguists have improved upon and developed theories by understanding the works of Panini, allowing them to develop new linguistics techniques and tests to better understand our use of grammar and language as a whole.


Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767 to 1835)

Wilhelm von Humboldt - LinguistPhilosopher and diplomat for the kingdom formerly known as Prussia, you’d probably recognize Humboldt first as the man behind the concept of modern university before you would a linguist. Nevertheless, his contributions to the field were instrumental at a time in which we needed to make further sense of language.

Up until his time, philosophy and empirical linguistics were always thought to be two separate things; many felt that language, despite its complexity, was just a mere collection of markers and symbols that give things meaning. Throughout his travels as a political diplomat, Humboldt began to challenge such a notion after several of his works included German translations of various foreign classics, as well as extensive examinations of the Native American grammers and language that were brought back from the Americas.

Humboldt argued that if language was indeed independent, then possessing linguistic capacity and competence should all but guarantee the understanding of one another; otherwise suggesting that meaning is either inherent within the symbols themselves or even biologically speaking. However, by simply examining our own lives, we know that none of us are born predetermined to speak English for example, rather it just so happens to be the context in which we are birthed and raised in.

Off this logic, Humboldt began to uncover a side of linguistics that had been previously overlooked, in that he saw language as a representation of the world, and not just a mixture of finished sounds and signs. In his famous paper entitled “On the Comparative Study of Language and its Relation to the Different Periods of Language Development,” Humboldt began to outline how modern linguists would interpret and study language for generations to come. He was the first to mesh the lines between philosophy and linguistics, demonstrating that language exists fluidly within the world of thought, and not because of it. He articulated that humans, in an never-ending quest to make sense of phenomena in front of them, will drive and create language themselves.

In a sense, you can label Humboldt’s line of reasoning to be almost anthropological, in that it is very much the study of humanity before it is grammar or markers. When correlating it over to a language, he compared it to the studying of a dead skeleton or fossil, in that archaeologists aren’t necessarily concerned with the material bone itself, but rather with the identity, what the being was able to achieve, and perhaps any insight into the ideology or social space of that time.

We know simply by observation that language has and will change over time; that was never a secret. But similarly to the fields of science or mathematics in which we can look at in retrospect, it took the work of a select few to articulate and shape how humanity would move forward in that line of thinking.


Ferdinand de Saussure (1857 to 1913)

Ferdinand de Saussure - LinguistThis Swiss academic, depending on who you ask, is often referred to as the “father of modern linguistics.” Saussure was the first to champion the idea of structured linguistics, which postulated that the meaning derived from language is done so not because there are objective truths to each object, but because the entire body as a whole is self-referential. Now, we understand that’s a mouthful to process, but ask yourself why you call a cat, well, a “cat.” When you think about it, you start to see that there is actually no natural reason other than what we can refer to in our language, that makes “cat” the name we choose for our feline friends.

Oddly enough, Saussure’s greatest work wasn’t published until after his death in 1913. Compiling his notes and material from his time studying Indo-European languages at the University of Geneva, two of his students helped assemble one of most influential books on modern linguistics titled, Course in General Linguistics.

The Course introduced Saussure’s innovative approach in tackling language. At its core, similarly to his predecessors, Saussure believed that we could no longer study languages as these separate phenomenons; rather he saw that they all have some formal logic that link them. Theoretically, his work began inferring that all of our languages could be traced back to deviations of Proto-Indo-European sounds and vowels.

So how does this all apply to the “cat?” Well, Saussure deduced that our understanding of the word itself arises from nothing organic; we didn’t emerge from the womb intuitively knowing words and their definitions. What he found was that we as individuals take words and compare/contrast them to others within our “bank” as you will. Meaning when I hear “cat,” I contrast it to words such as “mat” or “car,” and then compare it to equivalents such as “kitty,” “feline,” or “kitten.”

This line of logic would shape the thinking of many linguists moving forward, as the understanding what language is in a given “snapshot” of time becomes increasingly more important when hoping to decipher meaning through similar self-reference.


Noam Chomsky (1928 to present)

Noam Chomsky - LinguistPerhaps the most polarizing of them all is Noam Chomsky (featured on the left side in the photo), an American linguist who has pushed the envelope further than any of his predecessors have before. Both celebrated and often even challenged throughout his career that has stretched well over half a century,  Professor Chomsky’s formulations on the idea of  transformational and universal grammar have single-handedly revolutionized how languages are studied today.

Before him, linguists were already starting to consider the idea that languages were somehow deeply connected to one another; but what Chomsky proposed was even braver than anyone would have imagined. For starters, his theory completely went against conventional thought (at that time), by declaring that language itself was indeed not just a means of communication; rather it was a mode of thought itself. He formulated that linguistic structures are in actuality genetically “pre-programed” in humans regardless of socio-cultural differences. Meaning we would have to look at the human just as much as we would the characters of a text.

His studies believed that teaching was actually not essential to the acquisition of language at all. Chomsky proposed that our innovative brains were actually the drivers in formulating language, and that any other formal structures or rules are only ramifications of a social and cultural context. Based on this argument, he observed that any person, a baby even, would have the capacity to reason with their thoughts, and eventually (after much time of course) refine them into an appropriate medium. Furthermore, that premise would come to shape what Chomsky championed as Transformational Grammar, a linguistic approach that explains the ability of a hearer-speaker to produce and interpret an infinite number of utterances.

In melting the lines of social and geographical even further, Professor Chomsky’s idea of universal language would culminate to the introduction of the Chomsky Hierarchy which partitions formal grammers into various classes or types. In his model, each successive class meant a morphing or added complexity to that of its predecessor which in theory can continue branching out with the passing of time. Linguists can use this to better identify common themes, patterns, and links that tie virtually all human language together under one umbrella, and understand how languages may or may not naturally change over time and distance.

Outside of linguistics, but also metaphysically tied to it, Professor Chomsky continues to be very involved in political activism. His name comes up as one of the more outspoken voices when it comes to American policy, and he has made several rounds throughout the years speaking on capitalism, war, and authority. He is regarded as one of the most important thinkers of our time, and continues to hold his post as Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at the spry age of 87.


Concluding Thoughts

Even if it is just through these four individuals, it’s fascinating to see how far our understanding of language has come over the last 2000 years. On one end of the spectrum, the original work done by Pāṇini sparked an awakening in terms of defining and organizing the medium for the first time. Those that followed him such as Humboldt, Saussure, and Chomsky, inspired by the empirical approach, launched their own explorations into what languages really mean, and how they are derived. They, like the pantheons of other parallel sciences, made sense of the realities of our world.

What we thought was just a collection of quantifiable things we could observe turned out to be much more. Language, and our understanding of it, is constantly evolving over time. Linguists are those who bring it to life. Those who are preservationists study and protect endangered languages; educators teach language whether it be a foreign one or an ESL class; and computational linguists are those who adapt language to artificial intelligence, speech synthesis, and speech recognition nowadays. Throughout its many shapes and forms, the people who drive it are the linguists. Next time you hear another language on the street, or share a conversation with Siri, think about the amazing minds behind it all.


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