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Theories of Language in the Eighteenth Century

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This article notes the persistence of questions that occupied theorists of language in the eighteenth century: How does language evolve from gesture to arbitrary signs? Does language convey propositions or social attitudes? These and other questions are addressed in an account of the main areas of linguistic theory in the eighteenth century: the relationship between language and mind, the origin and progress of language, and language as a means of persuasion and an object of taste. Concluding with a discussion of some likely areas of future research into eighteenth-century linguistic theory (its “cognitivism,” its interest in the human-animal boundary, its interest in language diversity), the article suggests that language studies are crucial to consider when determining what is meant by “the Enlightenment.”


Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Handbooks Online
Subtitle of host publicationLiterature, Literary Studies 1701-1800
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication statusPublished - 19 Oct 2015

    Research areas

  • eighteenth-century linguistics, Enlightenment philosophy of language, language origins, universal grammar, John Locke, James Harris, James Beattie, Thomas Reid, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Etienne Bonnot de Condillac

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