Theories of Language

There have been different theories of language. Essentially, they are the different perspectives to view the diverse and complex word of verbal communication. Below is a brief chronological description of different language theories.

In the classical Greece and Rome, the focus of language study was the effective use of language, especially on rhetorical structures and stylistic excellence. They had a mystical view of language because they found language had a supernatural power in cursing, blessing, divining and exorcism. They believed language had inherently embedded insights on the nature of reality.

About at the same time there was a different approach to language emerged in India, as exemplified by the Sanskrit grammar of Panini. This grammar, developed sometimes in the period of 352 to 150 B.C., details the features of sound, word formulation and syntax of classical Sanskrit.

During the medieval period language became the tool of philosophy and logic, and Latin grammar became the model for pedagogical grammars of most Western European languages.

At the end of the 18th century the discovery of the Panini’s Sanskrit grandma had greatly changed the scholarly views about language in Western Europe. Scholars realized that Sanskrit was closely related to almost all Western European languages. This encouraged a period of intense and exhaustive study on the history of and differences between various languages. 

Then a different view of languages, a descriptive approach, was established as exemplified in Saussure’s contribution which highlighted the distinction between a historical view of language development (diachronic) and a description of language at a particular point of time (synchronic).

There were important developments in the structural study of language. Weinreinch contributed significantly to the understanding of the role of semantics in language structure. The semantic approach became so popular that it was used to explain almost everything in language.

Then there appeared a great deal of suspicionon the role of semantics. Scholars in Eastern Europe and North American developed different views in the structural study of language. For example, the Prague School focused on phonology and discourse, while Bloomfield emphasized on item and arrangement which was later adapted to be known as Tagmemics – a system focuses on spots, filters and hierarchical structures.

By elaborating networks of relations within and between strata, a stratificational approach to language was prompted by Sydney Lamb and Adam Makkai. Then there was the famous transformational-generative grandma (T-G grammar) raised by Noam Chomsky who argued to look at language from the dynamic perspective – a series of transformations from an abstract underlying base to the surface structure. In this theory, syntax is focal.

The T-G grammar evoked critiques and also inspired developments in language study. A type of generative semantics was developed to start from an underlying semantics level rather than an abstract and underlying syntax. Also, T-G grammar has indirectly prompted the development of sociolinguistics – a theory with emphasis on language as used in a society.

During the 20th century a functional approach was rather popular in anatomizing languages. In the early stage the focus was on how languages work and then it was well developed by Halliday into a theory of systemic grammar which focuses on a dynamic system and can treat numerous phases of language.

Sperber and Wilson developed a new way to explore language which emphasizes the role of relevance in language design and practice. It was rather prevailing at then time to seek single principles and structures to explore language. For example, Chomsky employed “autonomous syntax”, while Halliday and Hasan applied cohesion as a unifying principle.

Semiotics has been the universal approach to languages, with Peirce and Wittenstein as the star contributors. Language has been recognized as a system of signs. Therefore, it is widely believed that semiotics could provide insights to understand how the linguistic code works.

Although no one theory is adequate enough to embody the complexity of verbal communication, all these different theories of language provide important insights into the nature of language.

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