Whether you’re trying to learn a new language as an adult or you’re a student trying to understand reflexive pronouns in your native language, at some point you’ll realize that something about language is highly complex. At the same time, you might think about how babies from different cultures around the world begin forming their first words at the same time – all while speaking different languages. There is a simplicity to language as well, as you consider that it’s a fundamental part of humanity.
Linguistics, the scientific study of language and its structure, is a fascinating field. And though you may not realize it, the world may not be as we know it today without the influence of several important linguists. Let’s take a glimpse at five important linguists, spanning from B.C. to the modern era.
A list of famous linguists would be remiss not to start with the Father of the scientific study himself. In the 4th Century B.C., Pānini studied, preserved, and created language structures. In ancient India, Pānini’s language structure, called Astādhyāyī, used a complex algorithmic system to create a word bank using the sounds and symbols of his people. He compiled an eight-chapter, 4,000-rule Sanskrit grammar dictionary of sorts that was the first linguistic analysis in history.
Ferdinand de Saussure
The Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure is a forefather of linguistics and semiotics. Born in 1857, Saussure is well-known for his ingenious contribution to comparative linguistics: Memoir on the Original System of Vowels in the Indo-European Languages (translated). The memoir explained Indo-European vowel alternations. Saussure was also known for the lectures he gave as a teacher, which colleagues later compiled into Course in General Linguistics – a text that became integral to 20th-century structural linguistics.
Saussure believed that language was a socially structured system that one could view both synchronically and diachronically (as it exists at a particular time and as it changes over time). He also introduced linguists to two words now widely used in the study: parole and langue. Parole refers to the speech of an individual person. Langue is the system that underlies all speech activity. Many refer to Saussure’s theories as the starting point for structural linguistics.
Noam Chomsky, currently a 90-year-old professor at the University of Arizona, is famous for his groundbreaking theories of transformational and universal grammar. Chomsky is one of the world’s top intellectuals and has written more than 100 books on linguistics. This American linguist and language studies trailblazer has irrevocably altered how people study linguistics today.
Before Chomsky, there was an underlying assumption among scientists that languages were somehow connected to each other. Chomsky’s theory, however, states that language is a mode of thought itself, not just a method of communication. He theorizes that humans are genetically pre-programmed to acquire language, and that linguistics must study the humans as much as the words themselves. Chomsky’s idea of universal language led to the Chomsky Hierarchy, which organizes formal grammars into classes of different complexities.
Eve Clark, born in 1942, is a British linguist who currently works at Stanford University as a Professor of Linguistics. Clark’s extensive research on first language acquisition and the acquisition of meaning has shed light on how mankind first acquired language, as well as how children today do so. Clark revolutionized the way scientists understand how children acquire their first language, from incoherent noises to complete conversations. Her pioneering work can also help adults understand how they pick up second languages.
While the co-founder and CEO of Facebook might not be famous for his work as a linguist, he is making waves as he learns a new language. In 2014, Zuckerberg stunned an audience in Beijing by conducting a 30-minute Q&A session in Mandarin. By learning the language (which his Chinese wife and her family speak), Zuckerberg improved relations with China, where Facebook has been banned since 2009.
Language is many things – it’s complex, universal, and rule-governed to name a few. Studying language has always been important, and the field of linguistics is continuing to grow as an exciting field of study that impacts other fields as diverse as psychology, philosophy, education, sociology, anthropology, computer science, and artificial intelligence (AI).