Origins of Linguistics.

Though Europeans from the Greeks onward had ideas about language, there was no systematical theory that we would call a 'theory of language' (i.e. 'linguistics') before Europeans 'discovered' what Indian grammarians had written about language. Linguistics as a western discipline therefore has its roots in ancient India, in the study and preservation of sacred texts. The grammarian Panini wrote a description of Sanskrit in about 1500 B.C. which is still unexcelled. In other parts of India, local grammarians copied the Sanskritic tradition, such as Tolkaapiyanaar, whose grammar of Tamil, the Tolkaappiyam, which was composed in the early centuries CE.

Religious concerns underlay the study and preservation of texts, and with the spread of Buddhism to China and Japan, the concern for careful study of language spread to East Asia as well. Thus Linguistics was originally a concern about preserving the purity of texts, especially the Vedic hymns, so that they would be effective when invoked. This concern with being careful about language, has been perpetuated as a strong cultural value in South Asia, and by the spread of Buddhism, to Asia in general.

The (Re)discovery of Sanskrit

In the 19th century, Europeans 'discovered' Sanskrit, and Europeans thereby discovered (or rediscovered, since it was never 'lost' in India) the scientific study of language. Because the 'rediscovery' of Sanskrit by Europeans ( Sir William Jones) entailed a parallel discovery that Indian languages (especially those related to Sanskrit) were probably related to European languages, 19th century linguistics thereby became concerned about the genetic relationships of languages to each other, and their historical affinities.

As Jones put it, Sanskrit was probably related to Greek and Latin and other European languages, but as a 'sister' language, i.e. they were 'daughters' of a language that (probably) no longer existed.

Extract from "The Sanscrit Language"
by Sir William Jones, 1786

The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists: there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit, and the old Persian might be added to this family, if this were the place for discussing any question concerning the antiquities of Persia.

This no-longer extant language, 'mother' of (what became known as) Indo-European languages, was a new idea--the hypothetical "proto-language" for which no records existed. This was also a revolutionary idea in European thinking about language, and as we can see, it would not have developed without the encounter with India and its ancient languages,

As the nineteenth century proceeded, gradually a set of more scientific and universal techniques were worked out that could be used to study any language. That is, linguists developed analytic techniques for describing the sound system, the grammatical system, and the historical relationships that a language could exhibit. Previously, the study of Sanskrit and the framework developed for it worked best only for Sanskrit; the model devised by the Greeks worked best only for Greek, that for Chinese for Chinese, etc. Linguistic theories were at first language-specific; it was the task of 19th and 20th century linguists to develop universal theories that could be applied to any language. That is what we will try to learn here: universally applicable techniques and theories for analyzing any or all languages, and how this impacted not just Europe, but ideas about what languages were spoken in India, and for this course, the Dravidian family, which at the time of Jones' 'discovery' were not thought to be separate from north Indian languages, but just more 'corrupt'. We will also see how grammatical theories for Sanskrit, when applied to Dravidian, did not work so well, especially if slavishly imitated.

Harold Schiffman