How Does the Study of Linguistics Relate to the Study of History?
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How Does the Study of Linguistics Relate to the Study of History?

How does the discipline of linguistics relate to the discipline of history? This article discusses the history of linguistics and how it applies to historic perspective.
    For all intents and purposes, linguistics cannot be separated from history.  In fact, language cannot be understood to any true resolve without considering the history surrounding it.  Yes, linguistics in the broad sense of the term does include physiological and physical components relating to "sound production"--place of articulation (where the sound is produced: lips, teeth, throat), manner of articulation (how airstream is modified to produce sounds: nasals, fricatives/narrowing of vocal chamber), phonetics (stress, pitch, and length of tone), and morphology (the actual breakdown of word and word/syllable meaning), but none of that has real meaning without cultural context--and since every culture is dynamic and never static, the historical past (including oral tradition) must be considered.

     In a very real sense, the study of history is the study of linguistics; and linguistics is historically based in anthropology.  From the time of Franz Boas (1958--1942) [below], founder of American Anthropology, linguistics became the concerted study of linguistic patterns (Mother tongues) that are often traceable to thousands of years in the past, related to how they evolve cross-culturally. 

Many historians and historical linguists recognize that cultural and sociological developments are often tied directly to language--either those borrowed from other cultures or those evolving of a single language within a single society.  This sentiment is shared by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884--1942) [below] who a century ago said that the context of what people say is the only real indication of their unique history, mythology and worldview; Ferdinand de Saussure (1857--1913) [below left], the founder of modern linguistics, who in the late 1800s pointed out that how people actually speak (as opposed to how society says they should speak) is indicative of that group's comparative, societal uniqueness--thus reflective of their history; and Dell Hymes (1927--) [below right], creator of the field of "linguistic anthropology," who recognized that when you learn a culture's language, you are not just learning the verbal and sonic means of communication, you are gaining insight into that culture's history, influences, worldview, religious and ritual inclination, and perception of their place in the past--as well as the future.

  

     Today, historians rely on anthropological linguistics to greater and greater degrees to understand the past.  Trying to understand the evolution of linguistic patterns over just the past 50 years in the United States (i. e., "cool" to "groovy" to "lame" to "dis" to "chill" back to "cool") is hard enough to fathom--let alone the language patterns of a people a century or more in the past--in another cultural setting.  Yet then as today, those language patterns were direct reflections of the socio-cultural climate of that time--patterns largely unique to that period.  Thus as linguist and father of the "linguistic relativity" concept Benjamin Whorf (1897--1941) [below] said a century ago, "studying language and studying culture is the same thing."  And this holds true regardless of the language, regardless of the culture, and regardless of the historic setting.  Therefore, there are very few subdisciplines of linguistics that does not involve the past.  As quickly as our language evolves, even what we said a year ago is now in the past--and probably passe.

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