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Section C

Theoretical and Applied Linguistics


LI12: History of Ideas on Language

This paper runs in alternate years and is SUSPENDED for the academic year 2023-24.

This paper looks at the history of many of the key concepts in linguistics and explores how language and languages were described and analysed in different periods and different social and intellectual contexts. Geographically, the focus is on Western Europe, and particularly England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy. Chronologically, we look particularly at the period c.1500-1900, or broadly from the time of the publication of the first vernacular grammars to the appearance of Saussure’s celebrated Cours de linguistique générale. Students are encouraged to work with source documents, reading the material in the original language whenever possible; good English translations of key texts and anthologies and readers are, however, readily available. Finally, we consider methodological issues, and what it means to do the history of linguistics.


The lecture schedule will include the following topics:

  • Approaches to the history of linguistics: methodological and theoretical issues
  • The Classical background
  • Early vernacular grammars
  • Language planning and standardisation
  • Universal grammar
  • Lexicography
  • Theories of the origin of language
  • The birth of comparative and historical linguistics
Preparatory reading: 
  • Allan, K., The Western Tradition in Linguistics, London: Equinox, 2007.
  • Robins, R. H., A Short History of Linguistics, 4th edition, London: Longman, 1997.
  • Seuren, P. A. M., Western Linguistics. An Historical Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.
Teaching and learning: 

There will be sixteen lectures in total, eight in Michaelmas Term and eight in Lent Term. All students will be offered three supervisions in the Michaelmas Term, four in the Lent Term and a revision supervision in the Easter Term. Supervisions will be organised centrally. 

The paper's Moodle site can be found here.


This course is assessed through a three-hour written examination. The paper is divided into two sections: students are required to answer three questions, at least one from Section A and one from Section B.

Course Contacts: 
Professor Wendy Bennett