In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Linguistics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals and Website
  • Medieval Period
  • Renaissance and Enlightenment
  • Nineteenth Century

Linguistics History of Linguistics
John E. Joseph
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0186


The term linguistics is a product of the nineteenth century, as are the academic field and the form of enquiry that it designates. This enquiry is however continuous with modes of analysis that date back to ancient times, as practiced in various traditions in Asia and Europe (together with the African parts of the Alexandrian Empire). The History of Linguistics itself has mid-19th-century beginnings and has taken its scope as ranging over the whole of this ancient-to-modern continuum. Given that language and its analysis have played a part in every academic area, and that modern linguistics has interests that overlap with those of anthropology, artificial intelligence, education, informatics, legal theory, literary criticism, philosophy, psychology, semiotics, sociology, and other subjects, it is not obvious where the boundaries of the History of Linguistics lie, and scholarly disputes over where to draw them are not uncommon. This bibliography will focus on the prototypical areas of language analysis, while not excluding those areas that, if more peripheral, have nevertheless had a considerable impact on what linguists think and do.

General Overviews

Looking back at the development of these general overviews since the 1970s, it is not clear that they have progressed as steadily as one might expect. They have in some cases moved from studies aimed at specialists toward work conceived for a more general audience, including students. Of course, this has not been true in every case: some of the newer work brings in bold new perspectives and creates real insight. The point is that one’s choice of what to read in this area should not be based on publication date: venerability suggests but does not guarantee wisdom, any more than newness guarantees originality. Robins 1997, Thomas 2011, and Turner 2014 are the most accessible introductions for students of linguistics taking a first serious interest in the field’s heritage, with Turner providing an especially wide scope. Koerner 1978, an annotated bibliography, with a format not unlike the present one, is excellent for the period 1822 to 1976. Harris and Taylor 1997 and Joseph, et al. 2001 assume no prior study of either linguistics or the philosophical tradition. Each begins with a text from a key author or, in some cases, a key movement; this text serves as the basis for a commentary that also gives a capsule history of the relevant intellectual context. The four volumes of Lepschy 1994–1998, originally published in Italian, are impressive in their range and depth. They aim to reconstruct the concerns about language of different times and places rather than working backward to find antecedents of today’s interests. Swiggers 1997 makes fewer concessions to readers who may come to it without a traditional classical education. Allan 2009 is particularly useful for anyone looking for the background of a particular sub-discipline. Joseph 2018 focuses particularly on how the body (including the brain and nervous system) has figured in the understanding of language.

  • Allan, Keith. 2009. The Western classical tradition in linguistics. 2d ed. London: Continuum.

    Ties current concerns of linguistics to the writings of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and Varro, the Alexandrian grammarians, the ancient rhetoricians, and early medieval grammarians. Distinguished by its determination to locate women authors in the history of grammar, and by its partly topic-based arrangement, versus other textbooks’ more strictly chronological order, sometimes modified by geographical considerations.

  • Harris, Roy, and Talbot J. Taylor. 1997. Landmarks in linguistic thought: The Western tradition from Socrates to Saussure. 2d ed. London and New York: Routledge.

    The early chapters on Plato, Aristotle, the Bible, Varro, Quintilian, Thomas of Erfurt, and Caxton are mainly concerned with providing students with a gentle guiding hand. From the seventeenth century forward, the chapters gain in complexity and depth, focusing on the Port-Royal grammar, Bishop Wilkins, Locke, Condillac, Horne Tooke, Humboldt, Max Müller, Frege, and Saussure.

  • Joseph, John E. 2018. Language, mind and body: A conceptual history. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Modern linguistics has been mind focused, and historians of linguistics have generally projected this focus back onto the past. This book reexamines the history of linguistic thought from a perspective that disinters the bodily dimension of Western linguistic thought, always present beneath the surface, from earliest times to the present.

  • Joseph, John E., Nigel Love, and Talbot J. Taylor. 2001. Landmarks in linguistic thought II: The Western tradition in the twentieth century. London and New York: Routledge.

    Distinguished from other treatments of 20th-century linguistics in its ambition to trace the continuity between linguistics (Sapir, Jakobson, Whorf, Firth, Chomsky, Labov) and other fields that have language as a central concern: anthropology (Goffman), philosophy (Austin, Derrida, Wittgenstein), psychology (Skinner, Bruner). There are also chapters on Orwell, the “integrationism” of Roy Harris, and language research with nonhuman primates.

  • Koerner, E. F. K. 1978. Western histories of linguistic thought: An annotated bibliography, 1822–1976. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/sihols.11

    Koerner’s annotated descriptions are always accurate and his assessments judicious. The book perhaps errs on the side of completeness: just about any work that cites figures from the past is apt to be included here. Coverage ends just when institutionalized academic study of the history of linguistics—with Koerner himself as its principal organizational leader—was hitting its stride.

  • Lepschy, Giulio, ed. 1994–1998. History of linguistics. 4 vols. London: Longman.

    Volume 1 is on the traditions of the “Ancient East” (Chinese, Indian, Egyptian, Sumerian, Akkadian, Hebrew, and Arabic). Volume 2 covers Greece, Rome, and medieval Europe, Volume 3 the Renaissance and Early Modern periods. Volume 4, on the nineteenth century, has a single author (Anna Morpurgo Davies) and limits itself to the work of “the professional linguists of the time.”

  • Robins, Robert H. 1997. A short history of linguistics. 4th ed. London and New York: Longman.

    Despite its modest title, this remains the best monographic introduction to the subject. It assumes that its reader is well educated, with some prior knowledge of modern linguistics. The arrangement is chronological, with occasional asides on the relevance of ancient and medieval concerns to modern ones. Each chapter is followed by a bibliography of work “for further consultation.”

  • Swiggers, Pierre. 1997. Histoire de la pensée linguistique: Analyse du langage et réflexion linguistique dans la culture occidentale de l’Antiquité au XIXe siècle. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

    An in-depth study of the history of linguistic thought, including its ramifications in philosophy and other relevant domains, in European culture from Ancient Greece to the start of the nineteenth century, hence ending before the institutionalization of academic linguistics. Swiggers’s knowledge of all the periods covered is strong, and the book reflects and embodies his many years of concern with problems and methods of historiography.

  • Thomas, Margaret. 2011. Fifty key thinkers on language and linguistics. London and New York: Routledge.

    Focused on the contributions of individual figures, but with each sufficiently contextualized to give good, up-to-date coverage of linguistic thought worldwide from ancient times to the present. Like Harris and Taylor 1997, it does not assume prior knowledge of linguistics, and it has the added feature of a quite extensive glossary of linguistic terms that makes it particularly useful for students.

  • Turner, James. 2014. Philology: The forgotten origins of the modern humanities. Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt5hhrxf

    A rich and superbly written account of the origins and development of the broad field of philology, which for most of its long history subsumed linguistics. Makes a convincing argument for what is claimed in the subtitle: that all of the modern humanities in fact derive from the philological tradition. Also gives careful attention to how linguists detached themselves from philology to establish their independent field in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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