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Which was the first opus in linguistics ever?

August 26, 2010
The ancient Greek Philosopher

In Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons)

This is a touch question, isn’t?  Sometimes I like to play with others. I try to make a point or to say something original.  I asked on this comment thread “Which Plato’s dialogue may be considered as one of the first linguistic opus ever written?”….No answer so far. Then I asked again

-Να το πάρει το ποτάμι; (idiomatic Greek expression meaning: May I reveal the answer?)

Still, no answer…Ancient Philosophy is a difficult subject for study, indeed. Surely we are not all experts in Ancient Greek  Philosophy, but Plato is considered as a milestone for the Western Civilization.

So far so good. What’s the big deal. Plato didn’t speak about I-pods, Internet, Global Government or biotechnology. Sure. So why do we need him for?

Maybe because he set the way that we ask questions today. And it is not an exaggeration to say that we ask his questions for our problems after 2500 years !

Suppose that we have the answer.  People always wondered about where the names of things come from.  Do they relate to the nature of the subject that they name? Or this is just a convention between the people  who use these words? Or to rephrase the question, are names “conventional” or “natural”?

Which parts of the speech are stable and which are those that are changing all the  time? Why we have different words for the same things in different languages?  Is it everything about language arbitrary? or there are some stable elements on which we can ground  our knowledge?

Are all these obsolete questions?  Do we have just new modern approaches today in the science of linguistics beyond these trivial questions?

Cratylus became one of the earliest philosophical texts of the Classical Greek period to deal with matters of etymology and linguistics. When discussing how a word would relate to its subject, Socrates compares the original creation of a word to the work of an artist. An artist uses color to express the essence of his subject in a painting. In much the same way, the creator of words uses letters containing certain sounds to express the essence of a word’s subject. There is a letter that is best for soft things, one for liquid things, and so on. He comments, “This would be the most perfect state of language.”

Plato, under the mask of Socrates goes beyond a simple discussion about languages. The whole perspective is if words have the power of ideas in the Platonic sense and the answer is no.

Socrates ultimately rejects the study of language, believing it to be philosophically inferior to a study of things themselves.

I never liked the arrogant  attitude of Plato, his contempt for democracy  and for  great pre- socratic philosophers like Heraclitus and Democritus.

Surely the discussion about linguistics has evolved since Plato wrote this dialogue. Since then linguistics has evolved in great extent, having today many sub-fields like phonology, semantics , discourse analysis etc. From the earliest linguistic activities in  Iron Age India  to Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of modern structural linguistics, there is no doubt  a long way.

Cratylus is a critical step in this course for the rise of Western Linguistics. Surely for those who preserve a genuine interest for languages I strongly recommend to read the book. I have an old edition with the original text and a Modern Greek translation in parallel. But you can find a free English translation in Gutenberg Project, in html and many other formats.

Do the study of linguistics actually helps us to  improve our capacities in learning languages; I doubt. What do you think ?

Note: This post  contains parts of the equivalent article of Wikipedia and for that reason is under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License

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