Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Philological mysteries

I have long known that my discipline is descended from philology, but I've never had a very firm sense of just what philology is other than the study of language with a historical emphasis. Language Log has taken up the quest. Mark Liberman, for whom philology means "an old term for linguistic analysis, and especially comparative and historical linguistics as applied to analyzing and understanding texts in dead languages such as Old English and Middle English", starts off with a post wondering just what Paul de Man meant by philology when he urged a return to philology in one of his late essays. Liberman cites a number of dictionary definitions of the term and his commenters have quite a bit to say on the matter. 

He adds another post, based on remarks by one of his commenters, Omri Ceren, and himself notes "the supreme intellectual prestige of 'philology' in Europe through the middle of the 19th century, and to some extent until WW I." He closes with a publisher's blurb for James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (2014):
Many today do not recognize the word, but "philology" was for centuries nearly synonymous with humanistic intellectual life, encompassing not only the study of Greek and Roman literature and the Bible but also all other studies of language and literature, as well as religion, history, culture, art, archaeology, and more. In short, philology was the queen of the human sciences. How did it become little more than an archaic word? In Philology, the first history of Western humanistic learning as a connected whole ever published in English, James Turner tells the fascinating, forgotten story of how the study of languages and texts led to the modern humanities and the modern university.
The redoubtable Victor Mair weighs in with on Philology and Sinology, explaining that:
a Sinologist is a philologist who specializes on matters pertaining to China. To which [people] will generally ask, "Huh, what's that?" Whereupon I will say, "A philologist is someone who studies ancient texts for the purpose of understanding the languages and cultures of the times in which they were written."

I definitely think of myself as a philologist specializing in Sinology. Disciplines parallel to Sinology are Indology, Japanology, Semitology, and so forth. For the majority of scholars, these have now morphed into Indian Studies, Japanese Studies, Semitic Studies, and so on, but I'm old fashioned and still cling to the old ideals and old methods of Sinology, though happily assisted now by modern technology and techniques (computers, data bases, online resources, etc.).

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