In the West, inquiry into language stretches back to the 5th century BC with Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. Both in India and in Greece, linguistic speculation predates the emergence of grammatical traditions of systematic description of language, which emerged around the 5th century BC in India (see Yāska), and around the 3rd century BC in Greece (see Rhianus).
In the dialogue Cratylus, Plato considered the question of whether the names of things were determined by convention or by nature. He criticized conventionalism because it led to the bizarre consequence that anything can be conventionally denominated by any name. Hence, it cannot account for the correct or incorrect application of a name. He claimed that there was a natural correctness to names. To do this, he pointed out that compound words and phrases have a range of correctness. He also argued that primitive names had a natural correctness, because each phoneme represented basic ideas or sentiments. For example, for Plato the letter l and its sound represented the idea of softness. However, by the end of the Cronic, he had admitted that some social conventions were also involved, and that there were faults in the idea that phonemes had individual meanings.
Aristotle interested himself with the issues of logic, categories, and meaning creation. He separated all things into categories of
species and genus. He thought that the meaning of a predicate was established through an abstraction of the similarities between various individual things. This theory later came to be called nominalism. However, since Aristotle took these similarities to be constituted by a real commonality of form, he is more often considered a proponent of "moderate realism".
The Stoic philosophers made important contributions to the analysis of grammar, distinguishing five parts of speech: nouns, verbs,
appellatives (names or epithets), conjunctions and articles. They also developed a sophisticated doctrine of the lektón associated with each sign of a language, but distinct from both the sign itself and the thing to which it refers. This lektón was the meaning (or sense) of every term. The completelektón of a sentence is what we would now call its proposition. Only propositions were considered "truth-bearers" or "truth-vehicles" (i.e., they could be called true or false) while sentences were simply their vehicles of expression. Different lektá could also express things besides propositions, such as commands, questions and exclamations.
Medieval philosophers were greatly interested in the subtleties of language and its usage. For many scholastics, this interest was provoked by the necessity of translating Greek texts into Latin. There were several noteworthy philosophers of language in the medieval period. According to Peter J. King, (although this has been disputed), Peter Abelard anticipated the modern ideas of sense and reference. Also, William of Ockham's Summa Logicae brought forward one of the first serious proposals for codifying a mental language.
The scholastics of the high medieval period, such as Ockham and John Duns Scotus, considered logic to be a scientia sermocinalis (science of language). The result of their studies was the elaboration of linguistic-philosophical notions whose complexity and subtlety has only recently come to be appreciated. Many of the most interesting problems of modern philosophy of language were anticipated by medieval thinkers. The phenomena of vagueness and ambiguity were analyzed intensely, and this led to an increasing interest in problems related to the use of syncategorematic words such as and, or, not, if, and every. The study of categorematic words (or terms) and their properties was also developed greatly. One of the major developments of the scholastics in this area was the doctrine of the suppositio. The suppositio of a term is the interpretation that is given of it in a specific context. It can be proper or improper (as when it is used in metaphor, metonyms and other figures of speech). A proper suppositio, in turn, can be either formal or material accordingly when it refers to its usual non-linguistic referent (as in "Charles is a man"), or to itself as a linguistic entity (as in "Charles has seven letters"). Such a classification scheme is the precursor of modern distinctions between use and mention, and between language and metalanguage.
There is a tradition called speculative grammar which existed from the 11th to the 13th century. Leading scholars included, among others, Martin of Dace and Thomas of Erfurth.
Linguists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods such as Johannes Goropius Becanus, Athanasius Kircher and John Wilkins were infatuated with the idea of a philosophical language reversing the confusion of tongues, influenced by the gradual discovery of Chinese characters and Egyptian hieroglyphs (Hieroglyphica). This thought parallels the idea that there might be a universal language of music.
European scholarship began to absorb the Indian linguistic tradition only from the mid-18th century, pioneered by Jean François Pons and Henry Thomas Colebrooke (the editio princeps of Varadarāja, a 17th-century Sanskrit grammarian, dating to 1849).
In the early 19th century, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard insisted that language ought to play a larger role in Western philosophy. He argues that philosophy has not sufficiently focused on the role language plays in cognition and that future philosophy ought to proceed with a conscious focus on language:
If the claim of philosophers to be unbiased were all it pretends to be, it would also have to take account of language and its whole significance in relation to speculative philosophy ... Language is partly something originally given, partly that which develops freely. And just as the individual can never reach the point at which he becomes absolutely independent ... so too with language.
The phrase "linguistic turn" was used to describe the noteworthy emphasis that contemporary philosophers put upon language.
Language began to play a central role in Western philosophy in the early 20th century. One of the central figures involved in this development was the German philosopher Gottlob Frege, whose work on philosophical logic and the philosophy of language in the late 19th century influenced the work of 20th-century analytic philosophers Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. The philosophy of language became so pervasive that for a time, in analytic philosophy circles, philosophy as a whole was understood to be a matter of philosophy of language.
In Continental philosophy, the foundation work was Ferdinand de Saussure's Cours de linguistique générale, published posthumously in 1916.