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Updated on February 23, 2012

Philology includes several fields of study connected with language or literature. The term comes from a Greek word that means love of learning. It has had several meanings through the years. Philology originally denoted the study of ancient manuscripts and the search for authentic versions of ancient literary works. Later it also came to mean the comparative study of languages and their development.

Finally, the term has been used to describe the study of a given society as seen through its literature and traditions, for philology deals not only with languages themselves, but also with the culture and history of languages, the traditions behind languages, and the literary output of languages.

Philology was at first devoted to the search for correct readings and interpretations of texts by Latin and Greek authors. Current knowledge of Latin and Greek literature is based mainly on manuscripts that have been copied and recopied through the years. Philologists have attempted to determine which manuscripts are closest to the original works. Since the original works are often lost, the task of the philologist usually involves painstaking analysis and research. Friedrich August Wolf (1759-1824) was one of the pioneers of modern philological scholarship. His investigations of ancient literary conventions revolutionized the interpretation of Classical and Biblical texts.

During the 19th century, philology also became concerned with the study of languages. This field of study is now commonly called comparative linguistics. The Danish scholar Rasmus Rask (1787-1832) and the German scholar Franz Bopp (1791-1867) were among the first to notice basic similarities between widely different European languages. Bopp's comparison of various European and Asiatic tongues with Sanskrit, the classical Indian language, opened new areas of linguistic study. Other important comparative philologists included Jakob Grimm (1785-1863), August Schleicher (1821-1868), and August Fick (1833-1816). By analysis of sounds and grammar, linguist have been able to group many of the world's languages together and discover important facts about their change and development.

The term "philology" is also used to describe the study of the life and history of a given group of people by means of an examination of their language, literature, and folklore. The principles of this type of philology were first formulated by the Italian philosopher Giovanni Battista Vico (1668-1744). Vico believed that insights into history and culture could be achieved through a study of the works of the imagination. Although this study often involves textual analysis or linguistics, it is primarily concerned with formulating a broad picture of a given society through its works of art.

Such investigations are more commonly considered today, however, to be within the fields of anthropology and ethnology. As a study of human cultures and languages, philology has come to be divided into such areas as Classical philology, Romance philology, Germanic philology, and Slavic philology.


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    • bookwormsglo profile image

      bookwormsglo 5 years ago from Waltham, Massachusetts

      I first encountered the word "philology" in a class on fairy tales. The Grimms were in a sense philologists of their time. They and their story collections are also vital to the understanding of philology because they revolutionized the way people thought about national literature--as something of the "folk" rather than the rich.