In Europe through the 19th century, linguistics centered on the comparative history of the Indo-European languages, with a concern for finding their common roots and tracing their development.

Working from a biblical perspective some scholars believed that all human languages were descended from the language of Adam, a language called the Adamic language. Many of these scholars believed that the Hebrew language was, in fact, the same as the Adamic language. However, the existence of any such single ancestoral language on timescales indicated by a literal reading of the Bible is not consistent with modern linguistics.

About 1880, scholars in the United States began to record the hundreds of native languages once found in North America.

The concern with describing languages has spread throughout the world, and thousands of languages around the world have now been analyzed to varying degrees.

As this work was developing in the early twentieth century, mainly in America, linguists were confronted with languages whose structures differed greatly from those of known European languages.

Scholars decided they needed a theory of linguistic structure and methods of analysis.

From such concerns came the field of structural linguistics. Pioneers in it include the anthropologists Franz Boas and Edward Sapir, and Leonard Bloomfield.

When historical-comparative linguistics first met unfamiliar languages, the linguist's first job was to thoroughly describe the language.

In Europe there was a parallel development of structural linguistics, influenced most strongly by Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss student of Indo-European and general linguistics whose lectures on general linguistics, published posthumously by his students, set the direction of European linguistic analysis from the 1920s on; his approach has been widely adopted in other fields under the broad term "Structuralism."

During the second World War, Leonard Bloomfield and several of his students and colleagues developed teaching materials for a variety of languages whose knowledge was needed for the war effort.

This work led to an increasing prominence of the field of linguistics, which became a recognized discipline in most American universities only after the war.

From roughly 1980 onwards, pragmatic, functional, and cognitive approaches have steadily gained ground, both in the U.S. and in Europe.

See also: List of linguists