Philology is the study of ancient texts and languages. The term originally meant a love (Greek philo-) of learning and literature (Greek -logia). In the academic traditions of several nations, a wide sense of the term "philology" describes the study of a language together with its literature and the historical and cultural contexts which are indispensable for an understanding of the literary works and other culturally significant texts. Philology thus comprises the study of the grammar, rhetoric, history, interpretation of authors, and critical traditions associated to a given language. Such a wide-ranging definition is becoming rare nowadays, and "philology" tends to refer to a study of texts from the perspective of historical linguistics. In its more restricted sense of "historical linguistics," Philology was one of the 19th century's first scientific approaches to human language but gave way to the modern science of linguistics in the early 20th century due to the influence of Ferdinand de Saussure, who argued that the spoken language should have primacy.
One branch of philology is historical linguistics. Similarities between Sanskrit and European languages were first noted in the early 18th century and led to the speculation of Proto-Indo-European. Philology's interest in ancient languages led to the study of what were in the 19th century "exotic" languages for the light they could cast on problems in understanding and deciphering the origins of older texts.
In the United States, the American Journal of Philology was founded in 1880 by Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, a professor of Classics at Johns Hopkins University.
Philology also includes textual criticism, which tries to reconstruct an ancient author's original text based on manuscript copies. Higher criticism is the study of the authorship, date, and provenance of texts. These philological issues are often inseparable from issues of interpretation, and thus there is no clear-cut boundary between philology and hermeneutics or interpretive theory.
Another branch of philology is the decipherment of ancient writing systems, which had spectacular successes in the 19th century involving Egyptian and Assyrian. A list of decipherments:
See also: Codicology, Palaeography, Aramaic language, Volney prize
- ... Philologists, who chase
- A panting syllable through time and space,
- Start it at home, and hunt it in the dark,
To Gaul, to Greece, and into Noah's ark.
- William Cowper, 'Retirement' (1782)
Philology always leads to crime.
- Eugène Ionesco, The Lesson (1951)