What Is the Study of Philology?

What Is the Study of Philology

A question often asked by novices in the field of history and social sciences, what is the study of philology is a common one. Philology is the study of ancient history; however, it also includes much more than that. A philologist is someone whose work deals with ancient languages. He must analyze ancient texts and determine their meaning.


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The subject of philology has many ramifications. In the most basic sense it is a term used to classify people into two categories: those who are native speakers of the language and those who are not. The native speaker is one who learns the language and preserves it throughout his lifetime. The non-native is one who learns the language and then loses the memory of his learning.

The study of philology is thus a study of how words were used by people in the past. It is not an easy task. Not only does the language have many words but it is written in a variety of ways. As such, the philologist has to search through a great number of written sources, both ancient and modern, in order to find the relevant data.

A very important part of philology is the description of word usage. In the course of his studies he must determine what kinds of words appeared in ancient texts. This is called ‘the inventory’ and the description is usually quite elaborate. The inventory will include all words used in one language by someone of the same culture or nation who was not a native speaker of that language.

What is the study of philology can be seen from the example of how James Joyce wrote his highly successful Ulysses. Joyce’s choice of words is quite astonishing. He uses every possible word. He even speaks about the use of certain words as adjectives or adverbs. This is all perfectly legal since the Irish language uses all forms of adjective and adverbial phrase as long as they are properly constrained.

A difficulty that most students of what is the study of philology face is the problem of what to call new words that appear in newly written texts. Such a problem arises because the varieties of existing languages tend to change with time. If we take Latin for example, we find that words from that language gradually turn into words that tend to have the ending -us in the modern period. Even words that are originally nouns are found in modern literature having the ending -er (as in Edward).

One problem faced by students of what is the study of philology is the sheer complexity of the English language. Even the simple word ‘the’. Even when joined with an adjective it becomes a complex word. Even in simple words like mother and father we find many variations, e.g., We are mother and father or we are mother and daughters. In this respect the study of philology is not so simple. We should perhaps admit that the English language is too complex to be studied by philologists, although we must admit that the complexity of the English language is inherent in the very nature of its grammatical system and that no approach can fully overcome it.

Another difficulty facing students of what is the study of philology is the question of word usage. Students of philology must be aware of the fact that many common etymological (etymology) errors are made, for example, when people write etymologize the words of their professors. To avoid such mistakes students of philology must become consciously aware of the usage of their language, i.e., the rules of correct grammar, punctuation, spelling and word usage. The effort to be conscious of these basic things will help greatly in dealing with the problems that beset the study of philology.

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