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Philology is the study of ancient texts and languages. The term originally meant a love (Greek philo-) of learning and literature (Greek -logia). In the academic traditions of several nations, a wide sense of the term "philology" describes the study of a language together with its literature and the historical and cultural contexts which are indispensable for an understanding of the literary works and other culturally significant texts. Philology thus comprises the study of the grammar, rhetoric, history, interpretation of authors, and critical traditions associated to a given language. Such a wide-ranging definition is becoming rare nowadays, and "philology" tends to refer to a study of texts from the perspective of historical linguistics.

In its more restricted sense of "historical linguistics", philology was one of the 19th century's first scientific approaches to human language but gave way to the modern science of linguistics in the early 20th century due to the influence of Ferdinand de Saussure, who argued that the spoken language should have primacy. In the United States, the American Journal of Philology was founded in 1880 by Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, a professor of Classics at Johns Hopkins University.


Branches of philology

Comparative philology

One branch of philology is comparative linguistics, which studies the relationship between languages. Similarities between Sanskrit and European languages were first noted in the early 18th century and led to the speculation of a common ancestor language from which all of these descended - now named Proto-Indo-European. Philology's interest in ancient languages led to the study of what were in the 19th century "exotic" languages for the light they could cast on problems in understanding and deciphering the origins of older texts.

Text reconstruction

Philology also includes elements of textual criticism, trying to reconstruct an ancient author's original text based on variant manuscript copies. A related study, known as Higher criticism, which studies the authorship, date, and provenance of texts, proves invaluable in these attempts, but also is informed by them.

These philological issues are often inseparable from issues of interpretation, and thus there is no clear-cut boundary between philology and hermeneutics. As such, when the content of the text has a significant political or religious influence (such as the reconstruction of early versions of christian gospels), it is difficult to find neutral or honest conclusions.

Deciphering ancient texts

Another branch of philology is the decipherment of ancient writing systems, which had spectacular successes in the 19th century involving Egyptian and Assyrian. Beginning with the sensational publication of the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone by Jean-François Champollion in 1822, a number of individuals attempted to decode the great inscriptions of the ancient world.

Work on the ancient languages of the middle east progressed rapidly, with Hittite decoded in 1915 by Bedřich Hrozný, and the cuneiform languages of the Behistun Inscription, namely Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian, being decoded by Sir Henry Rawlinson.

The most famous inscriptions, also amongst the most important for what they tell of the ancient Mediterranean civilisations, are Linear A, and Linear B. While Linear B was deciphered in the 1950s by Michael Ventris and proclaimed as an early form of Greek (indicating that the Mycenaean language, and thus likely the Mycenaeans, was Greek), this conclusion is still heavily debated in the field. Linear A, the unknown language of the Minoans (which would shed much light on this ancient civilisation), on the other hand, still resists translation.

Work still continues on scripts such as Mayan hieroglyphics (with great progress made in the late 20th century), and on Etruscan.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a noted philologist of his day, although he is now best known for writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Another was C.S. Lewis, his friend and colleague at Oxford, who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia and the Space Trilogy. Perhaps the most famous however was Friedrich Nietzsche, who started his career with an extensive knowledge in classical philology ( He was Extraordinary Professor of Classical Philology at the University Of Basel) but soon took up philosophy. However his love of language never left him, and it formed the basis of some of his most illuminating works.

See also

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