Defining Philology

James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton University Press, 2014).

Philology is the study of changes over time in a particular language or language family. (A person who conducts such studies is known as a philologist.) Now more commonly known as historical linguistics.

In his book Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (2014), James Turner defines the term more broadly as "the multifaceted study of texts, languages, and the phenomenon of language itself." See the observations below.

Etymology: From the Greek, "fond of learning or of words"


David Crystal: Hardly any academic research was taking place into grammar in the early decades of the [twentieth] century in Britain. And the academic work which was being done--the historical study of the language, or philology--was considered to be irrelevant to children whose primary need was literacy. Philology was particularly repugnant to teachers of English literature, who found it a dry and dusty subject.

James Turner: Philology has fallen on hard times in the English-speaking world (much less so in continental Europe). Many college-educated Americans no longer recognize the word. Those who do often thinks it means no more than scrutiny of ancient Greek or Roman texts by a nit-picking classicist. . . .
"It used to be chic, dashing, and much ampler in girth. Philology reigned as king of the sciences, the pride of the first great modern universities--those that grew up in Germany in the eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries. Philology inspired the most advanced humanistic studies in the United States and the United Kingdom in the decades before 1850 and sent its generative currents through the intellectual life of Europe and America... The word philology in the nineteenth century covered three distinct modes of research: (1) textual philology (including classical and biblical studies, 'oriental' literatures such as those in Sanskrit and Arabic, and medieval and modern European writings); (2) theories of the origin and nature of language; and (3) comparative study of the structure and historical evolution of languages and language families.

Top Shippey: What was happening from about 1800 on was the coming of 'comparative philology,' best described as the Darwinian event for the humanities as a whole. Like The Origin of Species, it was powered by wider horizons and new knowledge. By the late 18th century, conscientious British colonial administrators, who had had Latin and Greek drummed into them at school, found that they needed classical Persian, and even Sanskrit, to do their jobs properly. They could not help noticing the similarities between the Eastern languages and their classical counterparts. But what did these mean, and what was the origin, not of species, but of language differentiation? Comparative philology, tracing the history and development of especially the Indo-European languages, rapidly gained immense prestige, most of all in Germany. No discipline, declared Jacob Grimm, doyen of philologists and fairy-tale collector, 'is haughtier, more disputatious, or more merciless to error.' It was a hard science in every sense, like math or physics, with a ruthless ethic of finicky detail.

Henry Wyld: The public is extraordinarily interested in all sorts of questions connected with English Philology; in etymology, in varieties of pronunciation and grammatical usage, in the sources of the Cockney dialect, in vocabulary, in the origin of place and personal names, in the pronunciation of Chaucer and Shakespeare. You may hear these matters discussed in railway carriages and smoking-rooms; you may read long letters about them in the press, adorned sometimes with a display of curious information, collected at random, misunderstood, wrongly interpreted, and used in an absurd way to bolster up preposterous theories. No, the subject-matter of English Philology possesses a strange fascination for the man in the street, but almost everything that he thinks and says about it is incredibly and hopelessly wrong. There is no subject which attracts a larger number of cranks and quacks than English Philology. In no subject, probably, is the knowledge of the educated public at a lower ebb. The general ignorance concerning it is so profound that it is very difficult to persuade people that there really is a considerable mass of well-ascertained fact, and a definite body of doctrine on linguistic questions.

W.F. Bolton: If the nineteenth was the century in which language was 'discovered,' the twentieth is the century in which language was enthroned. The nineteenth century took language apart in several senses: it learned how to look at language as an amalgam of sounds and hence how to study sounds; it came to understand the significance of variety in language; and it established language as a separate study, not part of history or of literature. Philology was called 'the nourishing parent of other studies' at best. It was when the other studies, notably new ones like anthropology, began in their turn to nourish philology that linguistics emerged. The new study became unlike its origins: as the century wore on, linguistics began to put language back together again. It became interested in the way sounds amalgamate to form words and words combine into sentences; it came to understand the universals beyond the apparent variety in language; and it reintegrated language with other studies, notably philosophy and psychology.

Pronunciation: fi-LOL-eh-gee

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Nordquist, Richard. "Defining Philology." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Defining Philology. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Defining Philology." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).