Obituary: Professor Henry Hoenigswald ; Guiding Force in Historical Linguistics

Article excerpt

THE HISTORICAL linguist Henry Hoenigswald belonged to that generation of German refugees who profoundly altered American academic and intellectual life.

Born in 1915 in the city of Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland), he learned the classical languages in the German Gymnasium and trained as an Indo- Europeanist and a historical and comparative linguist in various universities (Munich, Zurich, Padua, Florence), none of which kept him for long because of his refugee status - his grandparents were Jewish. In 1939 he escaped to the United States.

As a research assistant in linguistics at Yale he encountered all at once freedom, personal safety and a level of intellectual exhilaration which 30 years later he remembered with emotion (though in his usual self- deprecatory style): "I would not have had the courage. . . to quote Wordsworth to the effect that to be young in that dawn was very heaven, but the feeling is just about right."

At the time in the US, linguistics was turning to structuralism and had shifted from the earlier historical approach to a theoretical and synchronic approach. The 24-year-old Hoenigswald had no training in theory, methodology or description. The new experiences led him to question the rationale for the results obtained by historical linguists, to ask what their justification was and to explore the possibility of formalising the method. As he wrote, "what was exciting beyond words was the way in which old things fell into place".

In its turn, his work, which impressively combined the approaches of the old and the new world, gave a new dignity to historical linguistics. "Historical linguists, he said, "have typically done very good work, magnificent work as a matter of fact, without being able to state the principles very well." Hoenigswald's main task became that of stating the principles, while not neglecting the concrete philological work.

The 1950s and 1960 saw a number of very influential articles on internal reconstruction, the comparative method and language change, some of which preluded to his two books Language Change and Language Reconstruction (1960) and Studies in Formal Historical Linguistics (1973) and to his later edited volumes. …