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Philology, Etymology, is the love of words. It is most accurately defined as an affinity toward the learning of the backgrounds as well as the current usages of spoken or written methods of human communication. The commonality of studied languages is more important than their origin or age, though those factors are important as well. The term originally meant a love (Greek Φιλος or philos) of (a) word (Greek λογος or logos). In a sense, to understand a language, philology seeks to understand the origins of that language, and so it is often defined as the study of ancient texts and languages, although this is a rather narrow view and is entirely inaccurate.

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 that 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 with a given language.

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 spoken language should have primacy.

Most importantly, philology commends the ability to recognize the words of one language from the roots of another, by recognition of common (shared) roots and grammar. It is for this reason that someone who is fluent in Portuguese can, naturally and without training in the Spanish language, read a Spanish newspaper and know what is going on in the world[How to reference and link to summary or text]. Although not every word is directly translatable, the overall meaning of the text is readily apparent.

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 16th century[1] 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 18th century "exotic" languages for the light they could cast on problems in understanding and deciphering the origins of older texts.

Radical philology

Radical philology is a contemporary re-appropriation of a centuries-old tradition of scholarly interaction with the materiality of texts. In its main outlines, radical philology diverges from mainstream philology in its understanding of the relationship between textual scholarship and literary interpretation. While mainstream philology uses the fruits of textual research as "evidence" for broader, more abstract claims, radical philology sees textual research as an end in itself. Nietzsche's philological explorations of ancient and modern cultures in his written work are an example of this.

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 method, known as higher criticism, which studies the authorship, date, and provenance of texts, can prove 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 grammar. Beginning with the sensational 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.

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 understanding of cuneiform script led to the decipherment of Sumerian. Hittite was deciphered in 1915 by Bedřich Hrozný.

In the ancient Aegean, Linear B was deciphered in 1952 by Michael Ventris, who demonstrated that the script recorded an early form of Greek, now known as Mycenaean Greek. Linear A, the writing system which records the still unknown language of the Minoans, resists decipherment, despite many attempts.

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

See also

  • Codicology
  • Elocution
  • Palaeography
  • American Journal of Philology


  1. This fact is noted in Juan Mascaro's introduction to his translation of the Bhagavad Gita, where he dates the first Gita translation to 1785 (by Charles Williams). Mascaro claims 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.

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