Some famous philologists you will have heard of include Jakob Grimm and JRR Tolkien. I do not pretend to rank myself with them, just to ally myself on the grounds of similar affections, as a lover of words.
I am a philologist. But let me explain what I mean by that, because we’re not all in agreement. Dictionary.com has three definitions, one that is first and “current,” a second it marks as older, which actually means quite another thing, and the third, which it lists as “obsolete” and is the one that I claim. Of course.
The word comes from the Greek roots meaning “lover of words.” Philo-logos. This means in its oldest form, it could refer to people who study (and love) language or those who study (and love) literature, that which we make from words.
The current definition falls on the side of literary, but not in the sense we think of; it means literature scholars who act as sleuths, trying to place and date texts given the raw data of what appears in a manuscript or other text. The “older” and therefore outdated meaning is the other side of that coin—historical linguistics, essentially, or the study of ancient sound systems and grammars and theories about how language changes.
Linguistics and literature go hand in hand for me and always have. One must understand the language in order to read the literature, of course. When I graduated from my undergrad institution, it was with a double major in English literature and French language. I knew I wanted to focus on the medieval period, and I looked everywhere for a graduate program that would let me do both literary and linguistic study (by which I meant historical linguistics and language study). I didn’t find one.
Instead I found a wonderful linguistics program in a department with four medievalists, and I started in linguistics (for two reasons, really: 1- I was still laboring under the notion that the more scientific-sounding the degree, the better, and 2- I wanted to learn the languages and how they changed, so I could really dig in to the literature). “Historical Linguistics” as a field, I was told on my very first visit, was dwindling, but I could certainly pump up my linguistics degree with medieval language classes.
Everyone felt my ill-fit. In linguistics classes I brought up literary considerations, and in literature classes, I asked about the translation and original language. My thesis for my MA in linguistics was really very literary, and I had to add one long, discursive, decidedly linguistic footnote to demonstrate my skills before one member of my committee would sign off on it.
One of my German professors laughed and told me I was born a century too late; I really belonged in the glorious 19th century tradition of German philologists, with the Grimms and others, who studied language and literature together. That’s where that “older” definition comes from. It used to be a thing. But in the modern academy, we have specialized far more, and now it’s tricky to do both.
Tricky, but not impossible. Some programs allow one to choose two specializations. Comparative Literature programs always include instruction in multiple languages. Or you can choose my way. Get a degree in linguistics, and then get another in literature. My way is not time- or cost-effective, but I wouldn’t change a thing.
(The image is of the first page of Beowulf in the Cotton Vitelius A.xv manuscript, now housed in London’s British Museum.)