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Linguistic Theories
Linguistic Theories

Linguistic Theories

Linguistic Theories

Linguistic-Theories-and-Historical-Linguistic-300x128 Linguistic Theories

Linguistic Theories and Historical Linguistic

1.    Traditional Grammar

              Linguistic theories recognize three types of grammars based upon their purposes: normative, descriptive, and explanatory. The first is the oldest and most common type. These grammars, which have become known as ‘traditional’ were written for one basic purpose: to inform people of the ‘correct’ or ‘proper’ rules of a prestige dialect so that it will not change but remain intact through time. Of course, there are other goals of normative grammars, but this has always been the primary one. Since all the earliest grammars were normative or prescriptive in that they instructed people on how they ought or ought not use a language, it is not unreasonable to say that it is the most traditional or oldest interpretation of grammar. (But this fact alone does not make them appropriate for a modern curriculum.) In addition, I would be last to deny that 95% of even educated people believe that grammars are sets of rules for ‘correct’ or ‘proper’ usage; by the same token, most of these same 95% hated studying grammar in school. And this includes most teachers. Perhaps there is a correlation between these two sets of phenomena, particularly if we look at research that shows very little relationship between high scores on standard grammar tests and actual language proficiency.

          It is for this reason that the trend in modern education is to teach grammar as an academic subject in its own right that has little to do with language performance skills. In fact, from the beginning of modern scholarship, it has been felt that an understanding of language and how it works is a necessary part of the training of any educated mind. Using modern educational terminology, it is now felt that the basic reason that one should study grammar is to develop one’s mental capacities, one’s critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

          The basic goal of the ‘scholarly’ traditional grammarians is understanding as opposed to prescribing.Hence, these traditional grammarians were more interested in studying and describing the way that language actually worked than they were in correcting and judging people. Although these grammarians were not what modern linguists would call ‘objective’ since they still continued to believe in a standard or prestige dialect and only sought to explore and understand that dialect and though their insights into language were not based upon the scientific method, many believe that the approach of these 19th and early 20th century scholars can provide a model for students in contemporary America.

2. Normative Grammars

           Let me give an example of how normative grammars work. First of all, we have to understand what dialects are because all normative grammars are based upon a single preferred, standard or prestige dialect (that of whoever writes the books). Dialects are defined by modern linguists as ‘mutually intelligible forms of a single language which differ in systematic ways from each other.’ In other words, American English and French are two different languages. South Bronx (New York) street English and San Fernando Valley teen English are dialects of American English. So in reality, no one speaks a pure form of English; there is no such thing. Every native speaker speaks a dialect or variation of English. Therefore, the specific rules of normative grammars of English are all based upon a specific dialect of English. But since most teaching grammars are based upon written as opposed to spoken English, they claim to be neutral and objective. But the fact is that written sentences are modeled on speech, and the sentences of American standard English are closer to some spoken dialects of American English than others. Traditional Grammar focuses mainly on the meaning of the collection of words portrayed. Structural linguistics is primarily concerned with the form of the language. For example, structural linguistics would emphasize that a sentence have a noun and verb in agreement, while traditionally, a sentence needs to be a “complete thought”.

         Structural linguistics set itself apart from historical-descriptive grammarians early in its history. Instead of studying a language from a historical perspective, structural linguists stressed studying the language of the people that was currently being spoken in the speech community, not the speech patterns that occurred in times past. Historical information about times past was irrelevant to the primary concerns of a structural linguist. Structural linguists also believed that the linguistic behaviors of the members of a speech community were based on orderly structures that each member of the community shared. On the other hand, historical-descriptive grammarians were picking language samples from individuals instead of from community speech patterns at large. The results of their research and studies varied greatly.

 3. Historical linguistics

            Branch of linguistics concerned with examining changes in phonology, grammar, and semantic during a language’s evolution, reconstructing earlier stages, and uncovering evidence of the influence of other languages. Its roots are in Classical and medieval writings on etymology and in the comparative study of Greek and Latin during the Renaissance. Only in the 19th century did more scientific language-analysis methods lead to the development of historical linguistics as a scholarly discipline. The Neogrammarians, a group of German linguists who formulated sound correspondences in the Indo-European languages, were especially influential. In the 20th century the methods of historical linguistics were extended to other language groups.

Historical linguistics (also called diachronic linguistics) is the study of language change. It has five main concerns:

  • to describe and account for observed changes in particular languages;
  • to reconstruct the pre-history of languages and determine their relatedness, grouping them into language families (comparative linguistics);
  • to develop general theories about how and why language changes;
  • to describe the history of speech communities;
  • to study the history of words, i.e. etymology.

Modern historical linguistics dates from the late 18th century and grew out of the earlier discipline of philology, the study of ancient texts and documents, which goes back to antiquity. At first historical linguistics was comparative linguistics and mainly concerned with establishing language families and the reconstruction of prehistoric proto-languages, using the comparative method and internal reconstruction. The focus was initially on the well-known Indo-European languages, many of which had long written histories, and on the other hand on the Uralic languages, another European language family for which less early written material exists. Since then, significant comparative linguistic work has been done outside European languages well, on the Austronesian languages and various families of Native American languages, among many others. Comparative linguistics is now, however, only a part of a more broadly conceived discipline of historical linguistics. For the Indo-European languages, comparative study is now a highly specialised field, and most research is being carried out on the subsequent development of these languages, particularly the development of the modern standard varieties.

          Some scholars have undertaken studies attempting to establish super-families, linking for example Indo-European, Uralic and other families into Nostratic. These attempts have not been accepted widely because the information necessary to establish relatedness becomes less available as the time depth is increased. The time-depth of linguistic methods is limited because of chance word resemblances and variations between language groups, but a limit of around 10,000 years is often assumed. The dating of the various proto-languages is also difficult. Several methods are available for this but only approximate results can be obtained.

4. Evolution into other fields

        Initially, all modern linguistics was historical in orientation – even the study of modern dialects involved looking at their origins. But Saussure drew a distinction between synchronic and diachronic linguistics, which is fundamental to the present day organization of the discipline. Primacy is accorded to synchronic linguistics, and diachronic linguistics is defined as the study of successive synchronic stages. Saussure’s clear demarcation, however, is now seen to be idealised. In practice, a purely synchronic linguistics is not possible for any period before the invention of the gramophone: written records always lag behind speech in reflecting linguistic developments, and in any case are difficult to date accurately before the development of the modern title page.  Also, the work of sociolinguists on linguistic variation which has shown synchronic states are not uniform: the speech habits of older and younger speakers differ in ways which point to language change. Synchronic variation is linguistic change in progress.

          The biological origin of language is in principle a concern of historical linguistics, but most linguists regard it as too remote to be reliably established by standard techniques of historical linguistics such as the comparative method. Less standard techniques, such as mass lexical comparison, are used by some linguists to overcome the limitations of the comparative method, but most linguists regard them as unreliable. The findings of historical linguistics are often used as a basis for hypotheses about the groupings and movements of peoples, particularly in the prehistoric period. In practice, however, it is often unclear how to integrate the linguistic evidence with the archaeological or genetic evidence. For example, there are a large number of theories concerning the homeland and early movements of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, each with their own interpretation of the archaeological record.

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