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7 Intellectual Giants of Language Studies

Language is as important to us as a biological mechanism, and perhaps as taken for granted! For most of us, it is an easy facility, which only sometimes demands thought. How did language originate? What role does it play in society? How are different languages related to each other? Read about seven scholars whose work has influenced not only the study of language, but the world it expresses!
BY Shirsho Dasgupta |   19-02-2015


The study of language goes back to 4th Century BCE, ancient India. The first historical figure to ever study Language as a subject was Pāṇini.

Pāṇini was a Sanskrit grammarian, who is known for his formulation of 3996 Sanskrit Morphology rules or Sutras. He wrote the famous book Aṣṭādhyāyī, (Eight Chapters), which is famous for being the first ever grammar book still extant.

Sir William Jones

The second name that comes to the mind when the history of Linguistics is discussed is that of Sir William Jones.

He was an Anglo-Welsh philologist and scholar, known best for his discovery and propagation of the innate relationship between the Indo-European languages. In 1786, Sir Jones gave a speech proposing that due to the striking structural similarities between Latin, Greek and Sanskrit, there was undoubtedly a relation between them. He arrived at the conclusion that these three ancient languages, along with numerous other sister languages, had originated from a common source known as Proto Indo-European. He is credited with inspiring the genesis of both Comparative Linguistics and Indo-European, or Orientalist, studies.

Ferdinand de Saussure

The third person of interest to us here is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of Modern Linguistics. Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss Linguist and Semiotician, is known for his concepts of linguistics sign, langue and 'parole'. He was the first person to state that language is not a peripheral activity, but a central and collective product of the society that we live in. In his theory, he stated that every language has an abstract set of systemic rules, independent of individual users, known as langue. The concrete use of those rules in speech is known as parole.

Edward Sapir

Edward Sapir is one of the most influential and important figures in the development of Modern Linguistics. Sapir was an American Anthropologist-Linguist, widely known for the development of Linguistic Relativity. He, along with his student Benjamin Lee Whorf, suggested that the structure of a language affects the ways in which a person views and conceptualizes the world; thus creating an exact relationship between Anthropology and language. The hypothesis is also known as Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.

Steven Arthur Pinker

An experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, and linguist, Professor Steven Arthur Pinker is one of the most influential figures in the present era. His specializations includes Psycholinguistcs, children's language development, shape recognition, the neural bases of words and grammar and the theory of language acquisition. Some of his famous works are The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, Words and Rules, The Blank Slate, The Sense of Style, etc.

William Labov

Another famous linguist, also known as the Father of Sociolinguistics, is William Labov. He has been described as one of the most original and influential figures for his methodology. His study of The Social Stratification of Language has made the way for modern Sociolinguistics. He was one of the first persons to say that the use of language depends on the social context. He is also the creator of Observer's Paradox, which refers to the phenomena where the observation of an event or action is influenced by the observer.

Noam Chomsky

The last, and perhaps the most important name in this entire list, is that of Avram Noam Chomsky.
Chomsky, an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, logician and political commentator, has written more than a hundred books and spent most of his career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His contributions to the subject are so comprehensive, entire books can be written about them!

Perhaps the best and the most famous of his works, is the concept of 'universal grammar (UG).' According to Chomsky, UG is the basic rules and grammar of every language in the world and it is hard-wired to the brain of every human being. It is the UG that helps a person to learn any natural language in the world after he/she is born. To support his theory, Chomsky said that every child in the world learns language in the exact same way! This theory implies that language is, in fact, a biological facility!

Image Credits: Wikipedia  



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