Skip to main content
Select Source:

PHILOLOGY

PHILOLOGY [From Greek philología love of language]. The traditional study of LANGUAGE, which reached its peak as comparative philology in the later 19c. Overshadowed in the 20c by its offspring LINGUISTICS, it continues in a more muted fashion, sharing much with the subdiscipline historical linguistics, and focusing particularly on the evolution of languages, especially in terms of their groupings (‘families’) and their elements. Languages appear to change in the direction of greater diversity: one language tends to be superseded by several; a written ‘dead’ language preserves evidence of the earlier forms from which ‘living’ languages developed. Thus, Latin planctus gave way to French plainte and Italian pianto; LATIN planus to FRENCH plain and ITALIAN piano. The descendants of the Latin words have diverged to the point that, though Italian is related to French, they are now foreign to each other, as is their common ‘parent’ to both. The changes, moreover, are regular: Italian reduces the Latin -us ending to -o, French reduces it to -e or deletes it entirely; Latin a becomes French ai and remains unchanged in Italian; and Latin pl becomes Italian pi and remains unchanged in French.

Not so regular is the change of MEANING: Italian piano has at least one meaning (‘soft’ as opposed to ‘loud’) not in the related Latin or French. In the combination piano e forte (soft and loud), piano in due course became the name for a keyboard instrument, the pianoforte, more capable of dynamic variation thancame before it. By abbreviation, this new instrument is now usually called a piano in English and various other languages. The special meaning of the Italian phrase results from its cultural context and the distinctive feature of the instrument it names. The English word still names the same instrument, but the clipping discards ‘and loud’ from the original Italian phrase and hence becomes an arbitrary label and no longer a description. Over the centuries, philologists have learned to trace and tease out such facts and processes as these, and over the last century philology has concerned itself with all such changes and with the linguistic relationships they result in.

Written documents provide the information needed for this study, but, by mapping such relationships, philologists can also reconstruct further relationships among stages of earlier languages that left no written records. Thus, philologists give the name Germanic to the language that is the source of English as Latin is the source of French; but Germanic, unlike Latin, vanished without leaving written testimony. Presentday understanding of the family of INDO-EUROPEAN LANGUAGES therefore results from studies that systematically combine textual analysis and hypothetical reconstruction.

History

The ancient Greeks wrote about their own language, having little interest in comparing Greek with what they considered lesser (barbarian) languages. Roman writers, impressed by such thinking, undertook some comparisons of their Latin with Greek, for though not mutually intelligible, the two have many similarities of VOCABULARY (Latin and Doric Greek both have māter for mother) and of GRAMMAR (both have three grammatical GENDERS and similar declensional systems). From such hints, some Roman writers concluded that Latin had descended from Greek, a view abandoned only with the development of comparative philology around 1800, which demonstrated that Greek and Latin descended collaterally from a putative common ancestor, Indo-European (IE).

In the Middle Ages, Latin ceased to be an everyday spoken language, and the VERNACULARS descended from it, such as French and Italian, grew in prestige. Writers like Dante gave some consideration to the relationship among vernaculars and their kinship with Latin, that is, to comparative and historical concerns. Such consideration, aided from the Renaissance onwards by the publication of many early manuscript texts as printed books, yielded further knowledge of individual language families such as the CELTIC and GERMANIC. But speculation concentrated on vocabulary and took no account of systematic relationships, and hence failed to discern larger ‘genetic’ connections. On the rare occasions where a common parent language was postulated, the language was (for cultural and even doctrinal reasons) usually HEBREW. As late as 1807, the writer Alexander Pirie could maintain that ‘The originality of the Hebrew language being incontrovertible, nothing can be more natural than that all other languages should in some respects be derivatives.’ Such arguments distracted from the successful study of IE, with which Hebrew has no genetic connection.

European IMPERIALISM put 18c scholars in touch with such Asian languages as SANSKRIT, and in 1786 Sir William JONES announced his belief that the grammar of Sanskrit revealed its close affinity with Greek and Latin, suggesting the derivation of all three from ‘some common source … which no longer exists’. Jones's belief, which served to unite previously fragmented studies of individual language families, underwent elaboration in the 19c, especially by F. von Schlegel, Franz Bopp, Rasmus Rask, and Jacob Grimm early in the century and later by A. F. Pott, K. Verner, Ferdinand de Saussure, K. Brugmann, and B. Delbrück.

These scholars concentrated on refining knowledge of the relationship of later languages (such as French and Italian) with their earlier written forms (such as Latin), the relationship of these earlier written forms (such as Latin and Sanskrit) with each other, and the relationship of them all with the unrecorded ‘common source’, whether the lost Germanic original of the Scandinavian, GOTHIC, GERMAN, and English languages, or the lost Indo-European original of Germanic, Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. These relationships are usually set out in a form devised by A. Schleicher, resembling a genetic ‘family tree’ owing much to biological classification and Darwinism. The materials for establishing such a schematic form are the usual objects of language study: VOCABULARY, GRAMMAR (especially MORPHOLOGY), and sounds with their orthographic equivalents, as in the French and Italian words derived from Latin (above). However, vocabulary is at once the most tempting and the most treacherous evidence for the study, because, unlike sounds or grammatical forms, WORDS readily migrate from one language to another. Currently, linguists generally prefer the synchronic study of spoken language to the diachronic comparison of words in texts, and have tended to regard philology as pre-scientific. Others have sought to bring elements of old and new together in panchronic studies that give equal importance to past and present. However regarded, philology (in association with traditional grammar and ETYMOLOGY) has built a formidable edifice which few scholars ignore when writing about or teaching the history of languages. See LANGUAGE FAMILY, MURRAY, SEMANTIC CHANGE, SEMANTICS, SWEET.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"PHILOLOGY." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"PHILOLOGY." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/philology

"PHILOLOGY." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Retrieved July 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/philology

philology

phi·lol·o·gy / fəˈläləjē/ • n. the branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development, and relationships of a language or languages. ∎  literary or classical scholarship. DERIVATIVES: phil·o·lo·gi·an / ˌfiləˈlōjēən/ n. phil·o·log·i·cal / ˌfiləˈläjikəl/ adj. phil·o·log·i·cal·ly / ˌfiləˈläjik(ə)lē/ adv. phi·lol·o·gist / -jist/ n.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"philology." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"philology." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/philology

"philology." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved July 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/philology

philology

philology †study of literature XVII; science of language XVIII. — F. philologie — L. philologia — Gr. philologíā devotion to dialectic, love of learning and literature, love of language, f. philólogcs fond of talking, etc.; see PHILO-, LOGOS.
Hence philological, philologist XVII.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"philology." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"philology." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/philology-0

"philology." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . Retrieved July 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/philology-0

philology

philology Study of both language and literature. In addition to phonetics, grammar and the structure of language, philology also includes textual criticism, etymology, and the study of art, archaeology, religion and any system related to ancient or classical languages.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"philology." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Jul. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"philology." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/philology

"philology." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved July 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/philology