The Modistae (also called Modists or speculative grammarians) were the members of a school of grammarians of the 13th century, known as Modism, with members known as most of them active in northern France, Germany, Britain and Denmark, their influence being much less felt in southern part of Europe, where the somewhat opposing tradition of the so-called "pedagogical grammar" never lost its preponderance.

Theory of modes

Their philosophy, as indicated by their name, was based on a tripartite theory of modes: modes of being (modi essendi), modes of understanding (modi intelligendi), and modes of signifying (modi significandi). To the Modistae, the various parts of speech were viewed as representing reality in terms of these modes. For example, the verb is conceived as signifying through the mode of existence independent of a specific substance, claiming that every verb may be reduced to the copula and an adjective. Their work predicted the concept of universal grammar, suggesting that universal grammatical rules may be extracted from all living languages.

Opposing nominalism, they assumed that the analysis of the grammar of ordinary language was the key to metaphysics. For the modistae, Grammatical forms, the modi significandi of verbs, nouns, and adjectives, indicate deep ontological structure. Roger Bacon inspired the movement with his observation that all languages are built upon a common grammar, a shared foundation of ontically anchored linguistic structures: Grammar is substantially the same in all languages, even though it may undergo in them accidental variations.


William of Conches, Peter Helias, and Ralph of Beauvais, also referred to as 'speculative grammarians' predate the Modist movement proper.

The Modist philosophy was first developed by Martin of Dacia (d. 1304) and his colleagues in the mid-13th century, though it would rise to prominence only after its systematization by Thomas of Erfurt decades later, in his treatise De modis significandi sive grammatica speculativa, probably written in the first decade of the 14th century. Until the early twentieth-century it was assumed to be by John Duns Scotus. Widely produced and commented upon in the Middle Ages, it is the most complete speculative grammar extant. The mistaken authorship arose out of the natural affinity of Erfurt's speculative grammar with Scotus's metaphysics. For Erfurt, as for Scotus, being (ens) means essence (essentia); hence a complete account of the modes of meaning, the categories of categories, is assumed to exhaust being.


The movement was influenced by the philosophy of Duns Scotus, which held that every level of experience is permeated by understandability, by essentia. The sheer undefinable and unnameable 'thisness' of experience, haecceitas, is not a material residue outside the intelligible sphere of essentia, it is not Aristotle's potentia, nor Aquinas's existentia — but rather, the most determinate and concrete mode of essentia. Although it could not be directly defined, this deep intelligibility leaves traces in ordinary language. There are parallels between speculative grammar and phenomenology, a fact that was picked up early on by Martin Heidegger, who wrote his first book, Die Kategorien-und Bedeutungslehre des Duns Scotus, on Thomas of Erfurt's treatise.


See also


  • Ashworth, E. J., The Tradition of Medieval Logic and Speculative Grammar, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto. 1977.
  • Bursill-Hall, G. L., Speculative Grammars of the Middle Ages: The Doctrine of the partes orationis of the Modistae, Approaches to Semantics, 11, Mouton, The Hague, 1971.
  • Fredborg, Karin Margareta: Universal Grammar According to Some 12th-Century Grammarians, in Studies in Medieval Linguistic Thought, ed. Konrad Koerner et al., Historiagraphia Linguistica, VII.1/2, John Benjamins, Amsterdam, 1980, 69-84.
  • Fredborg, Karin Margareta, Speculative Grammar, in A History of Twelfth-Century Philosophy, ed. Peter Dronke, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge-New York, 1988, 177-195.
  • Marmo, Costantino: A Pragmatic Approach to Language in Modism, in Sprachtheorien in Spätantike und Mittelalter, ed. Sten Ebbesen, Gunter Narr Verlag, Tübingen, 1995, 169-183.

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