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Language, medieval theories of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-B068-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2018, from

Article Summary

A great deal of theorizing about language took place in western Europe between 1100 and 1400. The usual social context of this theorizing was the teaching of grammar, logic or theology. Rhetoric was traditionally counted as one of the language disciplines (scientiae sermocinales) together with grammar and logic, but in practice it received little attention. Medieval thinkers produced a vast literature on aspects of linguistic theory, but they did not write books with such titles as ‘A Theory of Language’. The theories that have come down to us today have been reconstructed from a large number of sources, even when they are attributed to a single person.

Although the medieval writers on language were very innovative, they owed some key ideas to ancient Greek and Latin authors, for example: (1) words acquire their meaning by an act of ‘imposition’ when a sound is chosen as the label of some thing; (2) there are three key ingredients in signification: the word, a concept and the thing signified; (3) concepts can be thought of as mental words; (4) the grammaticality of a sentence cannot be explained purely in terms of morphology; and (5) words have different contents when used as predicates of creatures and when predicated of the Creator.

The medieval thinkers disagreed as to whether words signify things directly or only through concepts. The latter view ran the danger of making concepts a screen between language and reality, but it had the advantage of being able to explain why different words can signify the same object without being quite synonymous. Many thought that general terms signify universal things, but there were also nominalist schools which held that the general terms themselves are the only universal things. Fourteenth-century nominalists located universality in concepts, also called mental terms, and only secondarily in spoken words. The language of thought had gained priority over that of speech.

The theory of grammar known today as modism was developed in the thirteenth century. This theory assumed that there are only two contributors to the sense of an expression, lexical meaning and grammatical features, and that only the latter belong to the province of grammar, which thus became a purely formal science that could claim applicability to all languages irrespective of their surface differences. The problem with modism was that it had no tools for dealing with even slightly deviant, yet intelligible expressions. Thus it would have to reject a statement such as ‘the crowd are rushing’ because of the lack of concord of number.

A number of medieval scholars focused on the various forms of metaphorical language and ambiguity, which were more appropriate for dealing with deviant expressions of the type mentioned above. It was realized that speaker, listener and context must be taken into account in order to explain how words can communicate something different from their primary sense, and how it is possible for a listener to grasp the intended sense of an ambiguous message. One motivation for this study was a need to understand how theological discourse functions. Theology also lay behind a heated debate about the ontological status of the meanings of propositions, and sacramental theology joined grammar in developing a notion of performative locutions.

The study of syntax yielded many new concepts, including those of government and dependence. Much less work was done on the evolution of languages, but Roger Bacon and Dante did offer some perceptive observations. Though never creating fully fledged artificial languages, logicians did develop a semi-artificial Latin.

Citing this article:
Ebbesen, Sten. Language, medieval theories of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-B068-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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