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The inquiry into language stretches back to the beginnings of western philosophy with Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.

Plato argued in the dialogue Cratylus that there was a natural correctness to names. To do this, he pointed out that compound words and phrases have a range of correctness. For example, it is obviously wrong to say that the term "houseboat" is any good when referring to, say, a cat, because cats have nothing to do with houses or boats. He also argued that primitive names (or morphemes) also had a natural correctness, because each phoneme represented basic ideas or sentiments. For example, the letter and sound of "l" for Plato represented the idea of softness. However, by the end of the Cratylus, he had admitted that some social conventions were also involved, and that there were faults in the idea that phonemes had individual meanings.

Aristotle concerned himself with the issues of logic, categories, and meaning creation. He separated all things into notions 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 is called a theory of nominalism (see the section below for more details).

Medieval philosophers also had some interest in the subject -- for many of them, the interest was provoked by a dependence upon their job of translating Greek texts. Of particular interest is the work of Peter Abelard, noteworthy for his remarkable anticipation of modern ideas of language.

Many modern western philosophers such as Umberto Eco, Ferdinand de Saussure, J.L. Austin, J. R. Searle, Leibniz, John Locke, Vico, Johann Georg Hamann, Johann Gottfried Herder, Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Charles Peirce, Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein also saw the field as important.

Though philosophers had always discussed language, it took on a central role in philosophy beginning in the late nineteenth century, especially in the English speaking world and parts of Europe. The philosophy of language was so pervasive that for a time, in analytic philosophy circles, philosophy as a whole was understood to be a matter of mere philosophy of language. In the 20th century, "language" became an even more central 'theme' within the most diverse traditions of philosophy. The phrase "the linguistic turn", was used to describe the noteworthy emphasis that modern-day philosophers put upon language.