Friday, April 29, 2022


Philology Defined

Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, rev. ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003), pp. 8-9, with notes on p. 362:
Dictionary definitions are, symptomatically, unhelpful. The OED, though conceived and created by philologists and borne along by the subject’s nineteenth-century prestige, has almost nothing useful to offer. ‘Philology’ it suggests, is: ‘I. Love of learning and literature; the study of literature in a wide sense, including grammar, literary criticism and interpretation … polite learning. Now rare in general sense.’ Under 2 it offers ‘love of talk, speech or argument’ (this is an offensive sense in which philology is mere logic-chopping, the opposite of true philosophy); while 3 recovers any ground abandoned in 1 by saying it is ‘The study of the structure and development of language; the science of language; linguistics. (Really one branch of sense 1.)’ So ‘philology’ is ‘lang.’ and ‘lit.’ too, all very charitable but too vague to be any use. The Deutsches Wörterbuch set in motion by Jacob Grimm (himself perhaps the greatest of all philologists and responsible in true philological style for both ‘Grimm’s Law of Consonants’ and Grimms’ Fairy Tales) could do little better, defining philologie with similar inclusiveness as ‘the learned study of the (especially Classical) languages and literatures’. The illustrative quotation from Grimm’s own work is more interesting in its declaration that ‘none among all the sciences is prouder, nobler, more disputatious than philology, or less merciful to error’; this at least indicates the expectations the study had aroused. Still, if you didn’t know what ‘philology’ was already, the Grimm definition would not enlighten you.

The matter is not cleared up by Holger Pedersen’s assertion of 1924 that philology is ‘a study whose task is the interpretation of the literary monuments in which the spiritual life of a given period has found expression’6 (for this leaves you wondering why ‘spiritual’ has been put in and ‘language’ for once left out); nor by Leonard Bloomfield’s aside a year later, when, proposing the foundation of a Linguistic Society for America, he explicitly rejected the term ‘philological’ and noted that while British scholars tended to use it to mean ‘linguistic’, Americans would prefer to keep the latter term and to revere philology rather more from a distance as ‘that noblest of sciences … the study of national culture … something much greater than a misfit combination of language plus literature’.7 Anyway some Britons were very far removed from his position. John Churton Collins, nineteenth-century man of letters and candidate for an Oxford Chair, had written in 1891 (it was part of his campaign to keep men like Joseph Wright, Tolkien’s tutor, out of any prospective English School at Oxford):
it [i.e. philology] too often induces or con rms that peculiar woodenness and opacity, that singular coarseness of feeling and purblindness of moral and intellectual vision, which has in all ages been the characteristic of mere philologists … [it] too often resembles that rustic who, after listening for several hours to Cicero’s most brilliant conversation, noticed nothing and remembered nothing but the wart on the great orator’s nose.8
Opinions such as this clung on a long time in England. Tolkien wrote in 1924 ‘“Philology” is in some quarters treated as though it were one of the things that the late war was fought to end’ (YWES 4, p. 37). When I first read this I took it to be a joke. However just three years before the British Board of Education had printed a Report on The Teaching of English in England which declared, among much else, that philology ought not to be taught to undergraduates, that it was a ‘German-made’ science, and (this comes in a footnote on p. 286) that by contributing to German arrogance it had led in a direct way to the outbreak of World War I.

6 Holger Pedersen, The Discovery of Language: Linguistic Science in the Nineteenth Century, trans. J.W. Spargo, 1931 (reprinted ed. Bloomington: Indiana U.P., 1962), p. 79.

7 L. Bloomfield, ‘Why a Linguistic Society?’, Language vol. 1 (1925), p. 1.

8 J.C. Collins, The Study of English Literature, 1891, but quoted here from D.J. Palmer, The Rise of English Studies (London: Oxford U.P., 1965), pp. 83–4.
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