The European Linguistic Tradition - The Greco Roman Legacy

Essay, 2012

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The European linguistic tradition exists since the very beginning of date and even before. This long-lasting tradition is believed to have started with Greeks, and it has been, since then, one of the very few unbroken chains of scholarship. Five hundred years before date, the Greeks were already launching this tradition which went through different stages to become the scientific study that it is today. The logical question that one might ask is: Why are Greeks considered to be the pioneers in linguistic thinking? A possible answer is provided by Bloomfield (1935: 4) when he says that “the ancient Greeks had the gift of wondering at things that other people take for granted,Although, the gift in question may have had a lot to do with the political, economic and social situation of the time, the Greeks, and the Romans after them, are believed to be the roots of a long-lasting European linguistic tradition.

The political context of Greece in the time had a lot to do with its intellectual, and more precisely its linguistic, development. Times of peace and prosperity gave philosophers time to think. Times of war and conquest gave them reasons to think. Also, one of the most crucial facts to note is that Greece as a nation almost had no ruler for most of its history; it consisted of several city-states. Therefore, the very concept of the Greek identity was very much related to their language. It was then crucial for the Greeks, especially their rulers and thinkers, to standardize the Greek language for the sake of maintaining their own identity as a nation.

Knowing the importance of language for their very existence, Greek philosophers launched themselves into the endeavour of linguistic thinking. One of the very first dichotomies to have seen life during this era is the eternal question about the origin of language: the Nature vs. Convention dichotomy. Does language originate outside of the human? Or are languages a matter of conventions? This debate which was logically related to the form and meaning of words will last for centuries and will be the reason for the birth of sciences like etymology[1]. As a consequence of the previous dichotomy birthed yet another debate: Analogy V.S. Anomaly. Analogy refers to the idea that languages are regular, whereas anomaly refers to the idea that languages are irregular. An example of analogy in the English language would be the “s” as a plural form in English like in: Dog = Dogs. While an example of anomaly, still in the plural form, would be: Child = Children. There endless dichotomies may seem useless to some, but they have been at the origin of the creation and maintenance of a lot of trends in the philosophy of language and in linguistics later on.

Amongst the Greeks there were so many groups and individuals whose work is still valued until nowadays, that one cannot talk about the Greeks in general without feeling the need to delve into each one of these. One of the very first groups of thinkers in ancient Greece is a group of people referred to as: The Sophists. This name in ancient Greece used to refer to a category of teachers who specialized in using the tools of philosophy and rhetoric for the purpose of teaching excellence, or virtue predominantly to young statesmen and nobility[2]. Via their ancient knowledge in rhetoric and in the art of debate, they focused more on “language- in-use”[3] and how to convince people. They are considered to have contributed mainly to grammar, via distinguishing between categories such as: affirmative, negative and interrogative sentences.

Plato, who is one of the most famous Greek thinkers next to Socrates; his teacher and Aristotle; his disciple, had a lot to do with the development of linguistic thinking of his time. His most famous work may be what he referred to as the Onoma-Rhema distinction. According to Plato, onoma means subject (which is normally a noun), as for rhema it means predicate (which is normally a verb). This was the first time in the history of linguistic thinking that philosopher coins word-class categories, that will continue to develop and that is still the root of modern days’ grammar. On another level, Plato claims that the relation between rhema and onoma and their meaning was a pure product of convention; he was therefore a conventionalist. Aristotle, who was Plato’s disciple, keeps the previous distinctions made by his teacher and will add to them a new one. Syndesmoi, according to him are the words that are neither noun nor verbs. Adding therefore a new category to his teacher’s newly created concept of word-class. Aristotle also made a new distinction between two tenses: past actions and present actions and because he claims that words are symbols created by human beings; he is also considered to be a conventionalist[4].

Another prominent group of intellectuals are the Stoics. They were prominent in their study of logic in which they are known to have included grammar. The stoics are known to be naturalists, they therefore believe that the origin of language is natural, standing therefore against Plato, Aristotle and their teachings[5]. Their argument to support their claim is that although it is difficult to see aspects of the origin of language as being natural nowadays; it certainly originated from natural sources at the beginning of time. They are believed to have contributed a lot in the instauration of “Etymology” as a distinct science.


[1] The study of the sources and development of words

[2] Plato, & Jowett, B. (1937). The dialogues of Plato. New York: Random House.

[3] A concept very reminiscent of modern pragmatics.

[4] Chapman, S., & Routledge, C. (2005). Key thinkers in linguistics and the philosophy of language. New York: Oxford University Press.

[5] http ://plato.stanford. edu/ entries/stoicism/

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The European Linguistic Tradition - The Greco Roman Legacy
Universität Hassan II. Casablanca
ISBN (eBook)
421 KB
linguistics, greek, roman, legacy, ancient, tradition, aristotle, grammar
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Student-Researcher Amine Zidouh (Autor:in), 2012, The European Linguistic Tradition - The Greco Roman Legacy, München, GRIN Verlag,


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