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If you’re into linguistics, it’s important to be familiar with the founding linguists. Here are some of the big thinkers — and some of their important ideas — from ancient times to today:

  • Pāṇini (around the 5th century BCE): Not to be confused with the Italian word panini ‘sandwich’ — this guy is famous for developing the first comprehensive and scientific theory of grammar. His Sanskrit grammar is the first known attempt to provide a complete description of a language — he logged almost 4,000 rules!

    But more important than the individual rules was his analysis of how Sanskrit words are formed — Western linguists didn’t catch up with his work until the middle of the 20th century, when Noam Chomsky (check Noam out below) appeared on the scene.

  • Aristotle (3rd century BCE): You may associate Aristotle more with philosophy, but he was also a great linguist! He lived in Greece and thought a lot about how words relate to their meanings. Aristotle developed a system of categories that continues to influence the way linguists approach the question of how language carries meaning.

  • Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913): Credited with establishing modern linguistics, Saussure was one of the founders of structuralism. At a very young age, he applied principles of structural analysis to solve a problem concerning the reconstruction of the Indo-European language family.

    Saussure's great insight was that the relation between sound and meaning is arbitrary and that all languages are structured in a fundamentally similar fashion. His work had a huge impact on linguists in Europe and North America. Well-known European structuralists included Nikolay Trubetzkoy, Roman Jakobson, Louis Hjelmslev, and André Martinet. Well-known American structuralists included Leonard Bloomfield, Eugene Nida, Bernard Bloch, Charles Hockett, Zellig Harris, Kenneth Pike, and George Trager.

  • Noam Chomsky (1928–…): Although well-known for his political views, Chomsky’s thinking on language has influenced not only linguistics, but also computer science, mathematics, and psychology.

    One of the most cited living scholars, Chomsky’s best known for the idea that knowledge of language — in particular the productive and creative aspects of language — can be modeled by a formal generative grammar that uses a finite rule system to generate an infinite set of sentences. He also proposed that some aspects of linguistic knowledge are innate — this is called universal grammar.

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