In my internettic peregrinations yesterday, I came across a thoughtful personal essay, A Requiem for Philology, by Prof. William Harris of Middlebury College, who unfortunately passed away earlier this year at the age of 83. (I found it through this interesting reminiscence from Steve Cotler, linked yesterday by Mark Liberman on Language Log, and then all those articles were mentioned today on Language Hat. Thus ends my internetymology.) These extended reminiscences concern Joshua Whatmough (1897-1964), a prominent classical philologist of the mid-20th century and an expert on the non-Italic languages of Italy.

Philology is the academic discipline that focuses on the meaning and history of words and the comparative analysis of texts deriving from this analysis. I’m extremely sympathetic to philology as an academic discipline. It is a set of related practices and concepts exported from classics to a whole host of regionally and linguistically specific disciplines. Today, you have Egyptian philologists in Near Eastern studies/Egyptology, Anglo-Saxon philologists in English departments, and of course the classical philologists in classics … and so on. Now it’s not always that way (Whatmough was a true comparative philologist, and indeed his department at Harvard was first classical philology, then comparative philology, and eventually linguistics), and indeed, in the past, philology had much more substance and more impact than it does today. Philology is a set of methods and concepts that hang together quite nicely regardless of regional specializations. It is also extraordinarily useful for the historical and comparative investigation of languages and cultures. So as a discipline, it makes a great deal of sense to me on those grounds. Philological research is of enormous interest and relevance to my own scholarship on pre-modern numerical systems.

It is indeed the case that there are virtually no departments identified specifically with philology in the English-speaking world (although there are plenty in Eastern Europe); the only North American one I was able to find is Columbia’s Department of French and Romance Philology. However, this itself doesn’t tell us very much. The Columbia department is not producing scholarship that is substantially different than other Romance languages / French / comparative lit departments. Conversely, any number of scholars in departments that don’t bear the name ‘philology’ are, effectively, philologists – I can think of a few at my own institution, for instance, and we have a regularly taught Romance philology graduate course. Moreover, much of what was once labelled philology now simply falls under the rubric of historical linguistics – and again, most major institutions have at least one historical linguist, often more.

Indeed, the essay is neither focused on the (true but trivial) fact that there are virtually no philology departments these days or the issue of whether some academics are philologists. It is a lament that the form of close analysis of words and language undertaken by philologists is not taught to undergraduates in the way that Prof. Whatmough and others once did. And that is all it is. No one is asserting that no one does the kind of work that Whatmough once did – this would be ridiculous and patently false. In fact, given the proliferation and expansion of institutions, I’d wager that there are in fact more academics practicing philological research than ever before (even as they constitute an increasingly tiny percentage of the academy as a whole). But Harris is asserting that there has been a decline in the teaching of a set of rigorous methods towards language whose absence is detrimental to the cognition and character of students, who would have profited from it.

And now let’s ask ourselves: why is this so? Surely it was not that every undergraduate was once required to take philology – at least not in the twentieth century! But equally I don’t think it is that we have become distracted at a macrosocietal level, as Harris suggests: “our public eye has become loose, accustomed to glancing at two second flash-shots on block-buster film and TV. We tend to get overall meanings, we think and buy on impulse and we don’t read the fine print on our personal and political contracts well.” At a pragmatic level, declining enrollments in a major over a period of time result in fewer classes being offered in that major, which in turn reduce its visibility – and thus fewer students hear about it. So there is a positive feedback effect going on here that can result in the demise of many a small department or specialty, usually through merging it with another discipline. Indeed, not only did this happen with philology, but it is ongoing with classics as a whole, as many departments merge into history or lit-languages departments and become allied programs with graduate degrees, and then potentially just a few courses.

But at a bigger level, a societal level, the university has become a very different sort of place than it was 50 years ago, at institutions big and small. In an age where postsecondary education has really reached a mass clientele, and where the role of the university has become to a large degree professionalizing and pragmatic, and where very few students come from a life of leisure, it is completely unsurprising that disciplines like philology have difficulty justifying their existence within the social, economic, and political framework of higher ed. Foreign languages and cultures – sure, that’s good for business. Archaeology’s business model works because CRM firms provide jobs to graduates without the PhD. Classics gets by (barely) by taking a ‘cultural turn’ towards the study of race, gender, and class. And linguistics has linked its fate to cognitive science, for better or for worse, and has thus hitched itself to a behavioral-science model of funding and scholarship. Attributing the decline of the discipline to students losing interest is missing the point – it is indeed necessary that the modern university shed disciplines that do not conform to the structural needs of employment markets.

This is not the university that we have chosen – not academics (philologists or otherwise), and not students – not a free choice, at any rate, but one conditioned by an insatiable demand for relevance and applicability that philology simply lacks. And if we want to sit about and lament the loss of the university that once was, that’s all very well. But if we want to make the case for ‘irrelevant’ and ‘inapplicable’ disciplines – and I would insist that we can and must – we need to be cognizant that blaming students or faculty fails to address the larger issues in the contemporary academy.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

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