Philology in Linguistics Studies: Why a Language Changes

by Vidia Ayundhari

Philology is defined as "love of learning and literature". In 19th-century, the meaning of Philology was narrowed to "the study of the historical development of languages". This study often engages students, professors, and independent scholars from Linguistics, literary history, literary criticism, and literary theory (Ziolkowski, 1990: 1-12). Knowing this definition, Philology is frequently reputed less attractive and old-fashioned study. It comes from the perspectives that Philology is only about written historical sources. Because of Philology wrestles with the activity of reading, comparing, and also interpreting old manuscripts, such activities are considered ‘no use’ as some believe Philology can hardly be a way out over abundant sophisticated problems in today’s era (Sudibyo, 2007: 107). Furthermore, the study of Philology is glued to the activity of editing and criticizing manuscripts that may spend an entire length of time.

As previously stated, those judging views may be severely denied, still. The existence of Philology is believed to contribute more over linguistic matters. That is why Philology and Linguistics are quite interrelated. The subject matter of Philology and Linguistics appears to be the same. Yet, Linguistics truly concerns for language as system of all to the spoken language, while Philology reflects in the narrow sense. Therefore, it derives not from a study of spoken language but from a study of literary remains (Brown, 1979: 295). Scientific studies which are closely related to Philology and share priceless contribution to the development of language (language change) from time to time are historical Linguistics and comparative Linguistics. In this essay, a number of Philology relationships with Linguistics will be critically examined by generally understanding Historical and Comparative Linguistics as studies, and also determining language change causes that each explanation carries with it.

According to Matasoviƈ (2000), Historical Linguistics is the historical study of language change and its development. Its results are directly commensurate with comparative Linguistics(comparative Philology). On the other hand, Comparative Linguistics is the scientific study of language from a comparative point of view, which means that it is involved in comparing and classifying languages. There are three principles of language comparison and classification: genetic, areal, and typological. First, the basic unit of genetic classification is language family. The proof is in form of set of languages that is developed from a single ancestor, called the proto-language. The conducted presumptively proof probably shows genetic relatedness and even considered as crucial, for it would emerge the assumption of all human languages might, or might not be derived from a single-proto language. Second, the basic unit of areal classification is language area.

It demonstrates that the set of languages can create a number of features caused by mutual contacts. The features can be identified from phonological, morphological, syntactical and the lexiconic systems of languages. Third, language type is the basic unit of typological principle, which refers to the set of languages that exert typological relevancies in set of features. By associating and comparing the history of languages(historical Linguistics), the results of language change that share some features would be easily understood. Language change may occur from one of three following reasons:

  1. the stem comes from some common source, or genetic relatedness of language;
  2. an intensive language contact, or areal affiliation of languages;
  3. Shared features failures that would distract basic principles concerning the structure of a possible human language, or typologically related (linguistic type similarities).

By engaging Historical and Comparative Linguistics, the language development would be rather visible. What we call “language development” states here will be explained by language change causes below.

The development of English language, for instance, is divided into three historical periods: Old English, from the earliest records (the Anglo-Saxon settlement of England around A.D. 450 until 1100); Middle English (1100 to 1500); and Modern English, since about 1500. The three divisions are ultimately based on significant language change about those times. Algeo (2005:10)states change is normal in language and every language is constantly turning into something different. In other words, change is natural because a language system is culturally transmitted.

He also elaborates there are three general causes of language change. The first language change is called syntagmatic change. It is a change whether words and sounds may affect neighboring words and sounds, or nearby elements may influence one another within the flow of speech. Like the word sandwich. It is often pronounced, not as the spelling suggests, but might be represented as“sanwich,” “sanwidge,” “samwidge,” or even “sammidge. ” Such spellings seem benighted, but actually they are perfectly normal. Second language change is paradigmatic or associative change.

Words and sounds may affect others that are not instantly present but with which they are associated. For example, the side of a ship was called the ladeboard, but its opposite, starboard, influenced a change in pronunciation to larboard. Because larboard was likely to be confused with starboard for their similarity of sound, it was then replaced by port. The last cause is social change. A language may change as the influence of the world events. New technology such as WWW (World Wide Web) needs new form like google ‘to search the Internet for information’. New forms of human behavior, how strange it is, require new terms like suicide bomber. In addition, new contacts with persons who use different speech from our own may affect our pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar, indeed.

Finally, because of its focus on historical development (diachronic analysis), Philology came to be used as a term contrasting with Linguistics: both historical manuscripts found in Philology and language science in Linguistics studies result immediately concerning language change and its development. Hence, a good approach to studying languages is the historical one. To understand how things are, it is often helpful and sometimes essential to know how they got to be that way. If we are psychologists who want to understand a person’s behavior, we must know something about that person’s origins and development. The same is true of a language (Algeo, 2005: 17). In brief, studying about Philology and scrutinizing it by means of Linguistics can help us to study the development of language. Knowledge of the history of language is no panacea for curing all our linguistic ‘ills’, but it can at least reduce several symptoms.


Algeo, John. (2005). The Origins and Development of The English Language. USA: Cengage Learning.

Brown, S. (1979). "Biblical Philology, Linguistics and the Problem of Method," Heytroup Journal, Vol. 20, pp. 295-298

Matasoviƈ, Ranko. (2000). “Comparative and Historical Linguistics”, Encyclopedia of Life Support System (EOLSS). <>

Sudibyo. (2007). “Return to Philology: Philology in Indonesia and Orientalism Tradition”, Humaniora, Indonesia, Vol. 19, No. 2, pp. 107-118.

Vikner, Sten. (2006). “Theoretical and comparative Linguistics”, Inaugural Lecture at Institute of Language, Literature & Culture, University of Aarhus, February 15, 2006. < pdf>

Ziolkowski, Jan. (1990). “What Is Philology?” Comparative Literature Studies, Penn State University Press, Penn, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 1-12. <>