LINGUIST List 9.741

Mon May 18 1998

Disc: Philology vs. Linguistics

Editor for this issue: Brett Churchill <>


  1. manaster, Re: 9.721, Disc: Philology vs. Linguistics
  2. Chris Beckwith, Re: 9.685, Disc: Philology vs. Linguistics

Message 1: Re: 9.721, Disc: Philology vs. Linguistics

Date: Sat, 16 May 1998 00:58:49 -0400 (EDT)
From: manaster <>
Subject: Re: 9.721, Disc: Philology vs. Linguistics

I dont see what Prof. Chandler-Burns's discussion of
the ill-definition of the term morpheme has to do
with the question of how different people use the
term philology. If he bemoans the fact that many
linguists have turned away from historical linguistics,
I agree, but to attack Bloomfield or Saussure on this
point is inappropriate given that they were among the
the leading historical linguists of their times and
indeed of all time and moreover like Sapir, Paul,
Whorf, Humboldt, Greenberg, and others, they represented precisely
the kind of linguistics, so rarely practiced today
but by no means extinct, in which the leaders of
the field were always BOTH comparativists AND
theoreticians. Saussure's views on the subject
of synchrony and diachrony are a technical subject
although not a hard one, and there is no relation
between them and the bowdlerization, invented I
suspect by people who have not read a word of what
he published in his lifetime, which holds that he
erected some kind of barrier between them or that
he in any way denigrated diachrony. As some of you
do know, every single thing he published was actually
on IE comparative linguistics. 

It is also kind of ironic to see that in this
day and age, when in fact there is a shortage of
people like that and historical linguistics is
under siege, we need to have critiques of Bloomfield
or Saussure, whose works hardly any student of ling
is ever introduced to in the first place. If
someone is unhappy with the state of linguistics
today (as I am certainly), (s)he should pray for
a couple of Saussures or Bloomfields to come to
our rescue.

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Message 2: Re: 9.685, Disc: Philology vs. Linguistics

Date: Sun, 17 May 1998 16:28:26 -0500 (EST)
From: Chris Beckwith <>
Subject: Re: 9.685, Disc: Philology vs. Linguistics

There have been several interesting postings in this discussion, but
perhaps the view of someone who is both a philologist and a linguist would
be relevant.

First, my background: I started out in 'linguistics' (Charles
Fillmore was my first linguistics teacher) and Chinese, then moved into
'philology' (Helmut Hoffmann--an Indologist and Tibetologist; Denis Sinor,
an 'Altaicist'; and G.N. Kiyose, a specialist in Japanese and Tungusic,
were my main teachers), then after some ten years doing mainly the
philology of Old Tibetan and other early medieval languages of Central
Eurasia, I began doing 'linguistics' again (especially the typology of
classifiers and the problem of 'Sino-Tibetan'). This nomadic mental
lifestyle has, inexplicably to me, bewildered many of my Central
Eurasianist historian colleagues. (To them I am a historian!) 

So, what is the difference between philology and linguistics (and, how can 
a philologist/linguist be--or be considered to be--a historian)? The
difficulty in defining the difference is that the two fields partly
overlap. Philology is essentially the study of texts, for whatever
purpose the investigator has in mind. There are certain techniques,
more or less scientific (i.e., involving measuring and counting), such as
paleography and critical edition, that are largely used only by
well-trained philologists--and thus, not by linguists. Also, the texts
are nearly always pre-modern (the author[s]--and often the languages--are
generally dead), and the investigation can, and often does, use 
practically any disciplinary approach known to modern academia--from
anthropology to zoology--in order to elucidate the texts and languages of
the texts. Conclusions drawn from this empirical study are often used by
philologists in "comparative philology" or "historical-comparative
philology," a sub-branch of the field which is, essentially, pure
linguistics (I'm coming to that). I.e., these specialists are interested
in the reconstruction of earlier stages of the languages they work with,
and use strictly linguistic methodology--"Basic Linguistic Theory," as
I think it's called by R.M.W. Dixon in his recent book The Rise
and Fall of Languages, incidentally an impressive, thoughtful book that
covers both "linguistics" and "comparative-historical philology".
However, many philologists work primarily in literature, or history,
or--most frequently--in a foreign language department, i.e., some other
viable academic field where they can find work, because philology
today has retreated so far under the pressure of linguistics that it is no
longer represented as an academic unit per se in American universities (at
least not to my knowledge). It is, instead, taught in language
departments. For example, Indo-European comparative-historical
philology--i.e., more or less the same field as comparative-historical
linguistics--is generally a subject that may be studied by taking courses
in the Romance, Germanic, Slavic, etc. language departments of a
university, which generally include one or more historical linguists who
have specialized in the respective language families within Indo-European,
and ideally have themselves learned Indo-European historical
philology/linguistics too. (In some cases, even non-Indo-European
language departments include one or more historical
philologists/linguists.) Of course, in some universities the modernists
were a little too successful, and such things may not be taught at all, or
at least not taught sufficiently well so that a young student can learn
what needs to be learned.
	Now, for linguistics. The discipline of linguistics is a modern
development, as someone in the discussion has already noted. Although
even Saussure was a historical philologist, the split between linguistics
and philology would seem to have begun around his time. (Perhaps a
historian of linguistics can clarify this point.) Although the
Neogrammarians--the Indo-European historical philologists who developed
the first "linguistic" theory--were essentially simply historical
linguists, the idea of linguistics as something different from philology
TODAY is based on the idea that "linguists" have theoretical and
methodological training in the "scientific study" of language, both
"Language" in general and languages, especially modern spoken languages.
The focus on theoretical rigor--an idea actually established by the
Neogrammarians, though most linguists today are unaware of the fact--is
primarily what, to linguists, distinguishes them from philologists.
While this is certainly untrue today, when historical philologists are
simply the same as historical linguists--both use essentially the same
methodology and theoretical framework, regardless of quibbles-- 
it is notable that linguistics has developed many subfields
devoted to questions largely ignored by the earlier (not modern)
historical-comparative philologists, such as syntax, typology, pragmatics, 
semantics, and so forth. Many of these subfields have developed their own
jargon and theoretical frameworks, such that other linguists are unable to
understand their work at all. (This is, of course, not accidental in the
academic world...) It is probably safe to say that most of these
subfields are of little interest to the vast majority of
comparative-historical philologists, whose main interest coincides with
the main interest of most comparative-historical linguists, namely,
reconstruction of the earlier stages of languages they are interested in.
	There is much more that can be said, so I may have overlooked
something important, but I think that basically covers it. In short,
philology focuses on the study of TEXTS, and includes many
disciplines (linguistics [increasingly including subjects studied in the
subfields of linguistics], study of particular languages and
language families, language pedagogy, literature, history, art, music,
anthropology, etc.), while linguistics focuses on the study of LANGUAGE,
and includes many subdisciplines (phonology, syntax, pragmatics, typology,
historical linguistics, study of particular languages and language
families, applied linguistics [i.e., language pedagogy and especially the
THEORY of language pedagogy!], etc., to the exclusion of other disciplines 
such as those listed above under philology). 
	As a final note to those wondering how to do it today, in most
cases a student should be advised to do a double Ph.D., i.e., a
simultaneous Ph.D. in the linguistics department and one in the language
department of choice. This should provide the best professional training
for an academic career.

Chris Beckwith
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