The science that has been developed around the facts of language known as linguistics has passed through three distinct stages before finding its modern form as a respected science. First, something called “grammar” was studied. This study, initiated by the Greeks and continued mainly by the French, was based on logic. It lacked a scientific approach and was detached from language itself. Its only aim was to give rules for distinguishing between correct and incorrect forms; it was a normative discipline, far removed from actual observation, and its scope was limited. The early grammarians were focused on the correct use of a particular language with no regard to past manifestations of the language, or its relation to neighboring foreign languages.
Next appeared what might be termed “classical philology.” A “philological” school had existed much earlier in Alexandria, but this name is more often applied to the scientific movement which was started by Friedrich August Wolf in 1777 and which continues to this day. Language is not its sole object. The early philologists sought especially to correct, interpret and comment upon written texts. Their studies also led to an interest in literary history, customs, institutions, etc. They applied the methods of criticism for their own purposes. When they dealt with linguistic questions, it was for the express purpose of comparing texts of different periods, determining the language peculiar to each author, or deciphering and explaining inscriptions made in an archaic or obscure language. Doubtless, these investigations broke the ground for historical linguistics. The religious studies of Wolf are actually linguistic in basic form, but their philological criticism is still deficient on one point: it follows the written language too slavishly and neglects the living language. Moreover, it is concerned with little except Greek and Latin antiquity.
The third stage began when scholars discovered that languages can be compared with one another. This discovery was the origin of “comparative philology.” In 1816, in a work entitled The Relations Between Sanskrit and Other Languages, Franz Bopp compared Sanskrit with German, Greek, Latin, etc. Bopp was not the first to record their similarities and state that all these languages belong to a single family. That had been done before him, notably by the English orientalist W. Jones (died in 1794); but Jones’ few isolated statements do not prove that the significance and importance of comparison generally had been understood before 1816. While Bopp cannot be credited with the discovery that Sanskrit is related to certain languages of Europe and Asia, he did realize that the comparison of related languages could become the subject matter of an independent science. To illuminate one language by means of another, to explain the forms of one through the forms of the other, that is what no one had done before him. Bopp was also known to study language change within a single language by studying a wide range of works from different time periods in order to see the change in usage.
Whether Bopp could have created his science — so quickly at least — without the prior discovery of Sanskrit is doubtful. With Sanskrit as a third witness besides Latin and Greek, Bopp had a larger and firmer basis for his studies. Fortunately, Sanskrit was exceptionally well-fitted to the role of illuminating the comparison.
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