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Philology is the study of language in oral and written historical sources; it is the intersection of textual criticism, literary criticism, history, and linguistics (with especially strong ties to etymology). [1] [2] [3] Philology is more commonly defined as the study of literary texts as well as oral and written records, the establishment of their authenticity and their original form, and the determination of their meaning. A person who pursues this kind of study is known as a philologist.


In older usage, especially British, philology is more general, covering comparative and historical linguistics. [4] [5]

Classical philology studies classical languages. Classical philology principally originated from the Library of Pergamum and the Library of Alexandria [6] around the fourth century BCE, continued by Greeks and Romans throughout the Roman/Byzantine Empire. It was eventually resumed by European scholars of the Renaissance, where it was soon joined by philologies of other European (Germanic, Celtic), Eurasian (Slavistics, etc.), Asian (Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Chinese, etc.), and African (Egyptian, Nubian, etc.) languages. Indo-European studies involves the comparative philology of all Indo-European languages.

Philology, with its focus on historical development (diachronic analysis), is contrasted with linguistics due to Ferdinand de Saussure's insistence on the importance of synchronic analysis. The contrast continued with the emergence of structuralism and Chomskyan linguistics alongside its emphasis on syntax, although research in the field of historical linguistics is often characterized by reliance on philological materials and findings.


The term philology is derived from the Greek φιλολογία (philología), [7] from the terms φίλος (phílos) "love, affection, loved, beloved, dear, friend" and λόγος (lógos) "word, articulation, reason", describing a love of learning, of literature, as well as of argument and reasoning, reflecting the range of activities included under the notion of λόγος . The term changed little with the Latin philologia, and later entered the English language in the 16th century, from the Middle French philologie, in the sense of 'love of literature'.

The adjective φιλόλογος (philólogos) meant 'fond of discussion or argument, talkative', in Hellenistic Greek, also implying an excessive ("sophistic") preference of argument over the love of true wisdom, φιλόσοφος (philósophos).

As an allegory of literary erudition, philologia appears in fifth-century postclassical literature (Martianus Capella, De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii), an idea revived in Late Medieval literature (Chaucer, Lydgate).

The meaning of "love of learning and literature" was narrowed to "the study of the historical development of languages" (historical linguistics) in 19th-century usage of the term. Due to the rapid progress made in understanding sound laws and language change, the "golden age of philology" lasted throughout the 19th century, or "from Giacomo Leopardi and Friedrich Schlegel to Nietzsche". [8] In the Anglo-Saxon world, the term philology to describe work on languages and literatures, which had become synonymous with the practices of German scholars, was abandoned as a consequence of anti-German feeling following World War I. [9] Most continental European countries still maintain the term to designate departments, colleges, position titles, and journals. J. R. R. Tolkien opposed the nationalist reaction against philological practices, claiming that "the philological instinct" was "universal as is the use of language". [10] [11] In British English usage, and in British academia, philology remains largely synonymous with "historical linguistics", while in US English, and US academia, the wider meaning of "study of a language's grammar, history and literary tradition" remains more widespread. [12] [13] Based on the harsh critique of Friedrich Nietzsche, some US scholars since the 1980s have viewed philology as responsible for a narrowly scientistic study of language and literature. [9]



Cover of Indo-European Philology: Historical and Comparative by William Burley Lockwood (1969) Indo European philology historical and comparative 1969.jpg
Cover of Indo-European Philology: Historical and Comparative by William Burley Lockwood (1969)

The comparative linguistics branch of philology studies the relationship between languages. Similarities between Sanskrit and European languages were first noted in the early 16th century [14] and led to speculation of a common ancestor language from which all these descended. It is now named Proto-Indo-European. Philology's interest in ancient languages led to the study of what were, in the 18th century, "exotic" languages, for the light they could cast on problems in understanding and deciphering the origins of older texts.


Philology also includes the study of texts and their history. It includes elements of textual criticism, trying to reconstruct an author's original text based on variant copies of manuscripts. This branch of research arose among Ancient scholars in the 4th century BC Greek-speaking world, who desired to establish a standard text of popular authors for the purposes of both sound interpretation and secure transmission. Since that time, the original principles of textual criticism have been improved and applied to other widely distributed texts such as the Bible. Scholars have tried to reconstruct the original readings of the Bible from the manuscript variants. This method was applied to Classical Studies and to medieval texts as a way to reconstruct the author's original work. The method produced so-called "critical editions", which provided a reconstructed text accompanied by a "critical apparatus", i.e., footnotes that listed the various manuscript variants available, enabling scholars to gain insight into the entire manuscript tradition and argue about the variants. [15]

A related study method known as higher criticism studies the authorship, date, and provenance of text to place such text in historical context. [15] As these philological issues are often inseparable from issues of interpretation, there is no clear-cut boundary between philology and hermeneutics. [15] When text has a significant political or religious influence (such as the reconstruction of Biblical texts), scholars have difficulty reaching objective conclusions.

Some scholars avoid all critical methods of textual philology, [15] especially in historical linguistics, where it is important to study the actual recorded materials. The movement known as New Philology has rejected textual criticism because it injects editorial interpretations into the text and destroys the integrity of the individual manuscript, hence damaging the reliability of the data. Supporters of New Philology insist on a strict "diplomatic" approach: a faithful rendering of the text exactly as found in the manuscript, without emendations.


Another branch of philology, cognitive philology, studies written and oral texts. Cognitive philology considers these oral texts as the results of human mental processes. This science compares the results of textual science with the results of experimental research of both psychology and artificial intelligence production systems.


In the case of Bronze Age literature, philology includes the prior decipherment of the language under study. This has notably been the case with the Egyptian, Sumerian, Assyrian, Hittite, Ugaritic and Luwian languages. Beginning with the famous decipherment and translation of the Rosetta Stone by Jean-François Champollion in 1822, a number of individuals attempted to decipher the writing systems of the Ancient Near East and Aegean. In the case of Old Persian and Mycenaean Greek, decipherment yielded older records of languages already known from slightly more recent traditions (Middle Persian and Alphabetic Greek).

Work on the ancient languages of the Near East progressed rapidly. In the mid-19th century, Henry Rawlinson and others deciphered the Behistun Inscription, which records the same text in Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian, using a variation of cuneiform for each language. The elucidation of cuneiform led to the decipherment of Sumerian. Hittite was deciphered in 1915 by Bedřich Hrozný.

Linear B, a script used in the ancient Aegean, was deciphered in 1952 by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick, who demonstrated that it recorded an early form of Greek, now known as Mycenaean Greek. Linear A, the writing system that records the still-unknown language of the Minoans, resists deciphering, despite many attempts.

Work continues on scripts such as the Maya, with great progress since the initial breakthroughs of the phonetic approach championed by Yuri Knorozov and others in the 1950s. Since the late 20th century, the Maya code has been almost completely deciphered, and the Mayan languages are among the most documented and studied in Mesoamerica. The code is described as a logosyllabic style of writing, which could be used to fully express any spoken thought.

In the Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis, the main character, Elwin Ransom, is a philologist – as was Lewis' close friend J. R. R. Tolkien.

Dr. Edward Morbius, one of the main characters in the science fiction film Forbidden Planet , is a philologist.

Philip, the main character of Christopher Hampton's 'bourgeois comedy' The Philanthropist, is a professor of philology in an English university town.

Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld, the main character in Alexander McCall Smith's 1997 comic novel Portuguese Irregular Verbs is a philologist, educated at Cambridge.

The main character in the Academy Award Nominee for Best Foreign Language film in 2012, Footnote , is a Hebrew philologist, and a significant part of the film deals with his work.

A main character of the science fiction TV show Stargate SG-1, Doctor Daniel Jackson, is mentioned as having a PhD in philology.

See also

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Ferdinand de Saussure Swiss linguist

Ferdinand de Saussure was a Swiss linguist, semiotician and philosopher. His ideas laid a foundation for many significant developments in both linguistics and semiotics in the 20th century. He is widely considered one of the founders of 20th-century linguistics and one of two major founders of semiotics, or semiology, as Saussure called it.

Sanskrit Ancient Indo-Aryan language of South Asia

Sanskrit is a classical language of South Asia belonging to the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European languages. It arose in South Asia after its predecessor languages had diffused there from the northwest in the late Bronze Age. Sanskrit is the sacred language of Hinduism, the language of classical Hindu philosophy, and of historical texts of Buddhism and Jainism. It was a link language in ancient and medieval South Asia, and upon transmission of Hindu and Buddhist culture to Southeast Asia, East Asia and Central Asia in the early medieval era, it became a language of religion and high culture, and of the political elites in some of these regions. As a result, Sanskrit had a lasting impact on the languages of South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia, especially in their formal and learned vocabularies.

Literary theory The systematic study of the nature of literature

Literary theory is the systematic study of the nature of literature and of the methods for literary analysis. Since the 19th century, literary scholarship includes literary theory and considerations of intellectual history, moral philosophy, social prophecy, and interdisciplinary themes relevant to how people interpret meaning. In the humanities in modern academia, the latter style of literary scholarship is a development of critical theory. Consequently, the word theory became an umbrella term for scholarly approaches to reading texts, some of which are informed by strands of sociology and continental philosophy.

Historical linguistics, also termed diachronic linguistics, is the scientific study of language change over time. Principal concerns of historical linguistics include:

  1. to describe and account for observed changes in particular languages
  2. to reconstruct the pre-history of languages and to determine their relatedness, grouping them into language families
  3. to develop general theories about how and why language changes
  4. to describe the history of speech communities
  5. to study the history of words, i.e. etymology
Textual criticism Branch of textual scholarship, philology, and literary criticism

Textual criticism is a branch of textual scholarship, philology, and of literary criticism that is concerned with the identification of textual variants, or different versions, of either manuscripts or of printed books. Such texts may range in dates from the earliest writing in cuneiform, impressed on clay, for example, to multiple unpublished versions of a 21st-century author's work. Historically, scribes who were paid to copy documents may have been literate, but many were simply copyists, mimicking the shapes of letters without necessarily understanding what they meant. This means that unintentional alterations were common when copying manuscripts by hand. Intentional alterations may have been made as well, for example the censoring of printed work for political, religious or cultural reasons.

Biblical studies Academic study of the Bible

Biblical studies is the academic application of a set of diverse disciplines to the study of the Bible. For its theory and methods, the field draws on disciplines ranging from archaeology, ancient history, historical criticism, cultural anthropology, textual criticism, literary criticism, historical backgrounds, mythology, and comparative religion.

Etymology is the study of the history of words. By extension, the etymology of a word means its origin and development throughout history.

Indo-European studies Subfield of linguistics

Indo-European studies is a field of linguistics and an interdisciplinary field of study dealing with Indo-European languages, both current and extinct. The goal of those engaged in these studies is to amass information about the hypothetical proto-language from which all of these languages are descended, a language dubbed Proto-Indo-European (PIE), and its speakers, the Proto-Indo-Europeans, including their society and Proto-Indo-European mythology. The studies cover where the language originated and how it spread. This article also lists Indo-European scholars, centres, journals and book series.

Radoslav Katičić was a Croatian linguist, classical philologist, Indo-Europeanist, Slavist and Indologist, one of the most prominent Croatian scholars in the field of humanities.

William Dwight Whitney

William Dwight Whitney was an American linguist, philologist, and lexicographer known for his work on Sanskrit grammar and Vedic philology as well as his influential view of language as a social institution. He was the first president of the American Philological Association and editor-in-chief of The Century Dictionary.

Milan Budimir was a distinguished Serbian classical scholar, professor, Serbian philosopher and Chair of the Department of Classical Philology.

Germanic philology is the philological study of the Germanic languages, particularly from a comparative or historical perspective.

Cognitive philology is the science that studies written and oral texts as the product of human mental processes. Studies in cognitive philology compare documentary evidence emerging from textual investigations with results of experimental research, especially in the fields of cognitive and ecological psychology, neurosciences and artificial intelligence. "The point is not the text, but the mind that made it". Cognitive Philology aims to foster communication between literary, textual, philological disciplines on the one hand and researches across the whole range of the cognitive, evolutionary, ecological and human sciences on the other.

Proto-language Common ancestor of a language family

In the tree model of historical linguistics, a proto-language is a postulated once-spoken ancestral language from which a number of attested languages are believed to have descended by evolution, forming a language family. Proto-languages are usually unattested, or in some cases only partially attested. They are reconstructed by way of the comparative method.

Filologicheskie Zapiski

Filologicheskie Zapiski was the oldest Russian scientific journal "dedicated to research and development of various issues in language and literature in general - and comparative linguistics, Russian language and literature in particular - and Slavic dialects", published in Voronezh on an every second month basis between 1860 and 1917.

John T. Hamilton is a literary scholar, musician, and William R. Kenan Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. He previously held positions at the University of California-Santa Cruz and New York University. He has also taught as a visiting professor at the Institute of Greece, Rome, and the Classical Tradition at Bristol University. Numerous academic fellowships include the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, the ETH-Zürich, and the Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung Berlin.

Anna Morpurgo Davies

Anna Elbina Morpurgo Davies, was an Italian philologist who specialised in comparative Indo-European linguistics. She spent her career at Oxford University, where she was the Professor of Comparative Philology and Fellow of Somerville College.

A Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English (LAEME) is a digital, corpus-driven, historical dialect resource for Early Middle English (1150–1325). LAEME combines a searchable Corpus of Tagged Texts (CTT), an Index of Sources, and dot maps showing the distribution of textual dialect features. LAEME is headed by the University of Edinburgh's Margaret Laing, and includes contributions from Roger Lass, and web-scripts by Keith Williamson, Vasilis Karaiskos and Sherrylyn Branchaw.

Leonard Neidorf is an American philologist who is Professor of English at Nanjing University. Neidorf specializes in the study of Old English and Middle English literature, and is a known authority on Beowulf.


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  12. A. Morpurgo Davies, History of Linguistics (1998) 4 I. 22.
  13. M. M. Bravmann, Studies in Semitic Philology. (1977) p. 457.
  14. This is noted in Juan Mascaro's introduction to his translation of the Bhagavad Gita, in which he dates the first Gita translation to 1785 (by Charles Williams). Mascaro claims the linguist Alexander Hamilton stopped in Paris in 1802 after returning from India, and taught Sanskrit to the German critic Friedrich von Schlegel. Mascaro says this is the beginning of modern study of the roots of the Indo-European languages.
  15. 1 2 3 4 Greetham, D. C. (1994). Textual Scholarship: An Introduction. Garland Publishing. ISBN   9780815317913 . Retrieved 2011-07-16.