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What is a Philologist?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
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A philologist is a type of linguist, though the exact meaning of the term has changed over the years. Philology literally means "love of words," and the field often deals with literature more than other branches of linguistics do. In the modern academic world, the term is usually understood to mean the study of written texts, usually ancient ones.

It was much more common in the 19th century than it is today for a linguist to be called a philologist. Philology was the precursor to today's linguistics, which has changed to favor spoken data over written data. Comparative and historical linguistics, in which words from different languages are compared and contrasted to determine the current or historical relationships between languages, have their roots in the 19th century field.

In an earlier era, this person focused his or her study on language as it pertains to literature and culture. Individual words, their history, and the common history of words in different languages were also of interest. Literary interpretations and the study of language went hand in hand; in this respect, the modern field of comparative literature can also be seen as having its roots in philology.

Today, the field is no longer concerned with literary interpretation but is instead concerned with deciphering texts and understanding language through texts — not understanding literary texts through language. A philologist may work with little understood languages that are no longer spoken, such as when a textual record is all that is known of the language.

The modern methods of philology also began in the 19th century, notably with the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone in 1822, which paved the way for the translation of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Deciphering ancient texts is complicated by the poor physical quality of many records and the lack of consistency in the spelling and writing styles of many ancient authors and scribes. Work is ongoing on some writing systems, such as those of the ancient Mayans and the Etruscans, and some, like the notorious Linear A of the ancient Minoans, remain a complete mystery.

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Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By anon289065 — On Sep 02, 2012

Well, for example I am studying Modern Greek Philology where we study everything, from Modern Greek (which is our major) to Ancient Greek,Byzantine Greek, authors, literature, again ancient, byzantine, modern history, culture, linguistics, translation, other languages and much more. I am a student of the University of Sofia, a highly prestigious university with languages among all European universities.

By anon261777 — On Apr 17, 2012

Or see the Israeli movie "Footnote" and then pick another field of study.

By anon242277 — On Jan 22, 2012

"Today, philology is no longer concerned with literary interpretation." As a philologist, I must note that this statement is patently wrong. Philologists are concerned with the study of the written text at every level of study, from description, to interpretation, to evaluation.

The philological method does not preclude literary interpretations, rather it is especially suited for such analyses since it relies upon close study of the language that brings the non-native reader closer to understanding the meaning of the text.

By anon133147 — On Dec 09, 2010

look up one Tom Shippey. He can best direct one to a course of study in this area.

By anon106362 — On Aug 25, 2010

One very famous philologist was J.R.R.Tolkien, the writer of "The Hobbit" and "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

Some of the original works he undertook which helped lay the groundwork for the stories was the construction of new languages, which you can see evidence of all throughout, from Elven to Orcish dialects.

By anon104286 — On Aug 16, 2010

RE Anon98973 and about a philologist working with languages that are no longer spoken.

Perhaps one could find employment with Congress.

Or am I thinking of Etymology? Meanings change with common usage. It would be copacetic if my senator was cool enough to dig it when I ask a Constitutional question. --ed

By anon98973 — On Jul 24, 2010

Is there much of a job market for philologists?

By anon52314 — On Nov 12, 2009

You might also consider studying comparative literature, which does stem from philology (as the article says), and/or take courses in biblical literature and philosophy, both of which may contain elements of hermeneutics, which concerns the interpretation of a text. Good luck!

By anon49652 — On Oct 22, 2009

try getting a degree in classics, in a programme that has a strong philological bent (other classics programmes might concentrate on art history, history, archaeology). You should concentrate on obtaining training in the ancient languages.

By anon17601 — On Sep 02, 2008

Study linguistics and then narrow your focus to philology in your graduate or postgraduate work. Because it's such a narrow field, programs in philology are extremely rare. It's good to have a well-rounded background in all aspects of linguistics for any career in the field anyway.

By rchumbley — On Sep 02, 2008

How does one become a philologist? This sounds like exactly the sort of thing I would love to study, but I am unaware of a college that offers such a degree program and am sure that any college that does is not accessible to me.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide...
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