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The Linguistics of History

Roy Harris

Hardback (Printed to Order)

The task of the historian would be impossible without verbal resources for dating and describing past events. Historians from Herodotus onwards traditionally relied uncritically on their own native languages (including Greek, Latin and English) to provide all they needed. In so doing, they also took over a traditional Western view of the relationship between language, the world and the passage of time. This determined for them the rational limits of historical knowledge. Their 'histories' could not go beyond these limits without straying into the realms of myth or imagination. Their philosophy of history was circumscribed by their (often unstated) philosophy of language.

This book is the first comprehensive attempt to trace the relationship between Western philosophy of history and Western philosophy of language. It spans the whole development of education from the ancient Greeks down to the present day. It examines the impact on history of modern movements, including structuralist and postmodern approaches, as well as the recent advent of television history.


  • The first comprehensive attempt to relate Western philosophy of history to Western philosophy of language
  • The author is a leading authority on linguistics and the philosophy of language
  • The book is written in an accessible style for all levels of reader.


1. The language of history
2. History and the literate revolution
3. History as palimpsest
4. Historicism and linguistics
5. History and ordinary language
6. The truth about history.

About the Author

Roy Harris is Emeritus Professor of General Linguistics in the University of Oxford. His prize-winning translation of Saussure’s Cours de Linguistique Générale appeared in 1983. He is also the author of many publications on the work of Saussure.


When Harris helps historians to understand what theorists of language have argued - as in his masterly exposition of Saussure's structuralism and how historians misunderstand it - he is powerful and compelling.