Change in Language: Whitney, Breal, and Wegener

Change in Language: Whitney, Breal, and Wegener

Change in Language: Whitney, Breal, and Wegener

Change in Language: Whitney, Breal, and Wegener


The aim of this book is to provide a fresh view of the history of nineteenth-century language study by focusing on the writings of three linguists (Whitney, Breacute;al and Wegener) in three countries (the United States, France and Germany). The standard histories of linguistics portray the period between the 1840s and the 1890s as comprising a steady increase in philological knowledge, the discovery of sound laws and the astute study of minute philological curiosities. The three writers discussed here illustrate another trend in the evolution of the science of language. They are witnesses to an increasing interest on questions of 'general' linguistics, semantics and the study of human communication - new points of view from which they study the origin of language, language change and linguistic creativity.The life and work of these three outstanding scholars, their relationships with their friends and enemies and their efforts to free linguistics from the unreflecting use of biological metaphors, give a new insight into the evolution of language study in an interdisciplinary and international context.


To make language, the intent to signify must be present.

(Whitney: 768) Ph

The history of nineteenth-century linguists is relatively well known, including much of the work of William Dwight Whitney, Michael Bréal and Philipp Wegener. However, what is not so familiar and yet deserves to be, is that these three linguistics tried to solve the mystery of language-change in new ways. This is crucial for a better understanding of linguistics in the nineteenth century and for a better understanding of language and language-change per se. Despite their different intellectual and vocational backgrounds, and the different countries in which they worked (the United States, France, and Germany), Whitney, Bréal and Wegener converge upon a single point in their respective solutions to that problem: it can only be solved if linguists stop regarding language as an autonomous entity, or, in the fashion of that time, an organism that lives and dies independently of the users of the language, and instead start to focus on the actions, as advocated by Whitney, and the mind of the language users, as stressed by Bréal, together with the situation in which they use it, as recommended by Wegener.

This book is presented in two parts. Part one points out the similarities and differences between the approaches of Whitney and Bréal, two linguists working in the tradition of comparative

Whitney Ph: 768 (for ‘Philology, part 1: Science of language in general’) and I shall refer to those works which are quoted very often in abbreviated form, e.g. Bréal FF: 12 (for the article ‘De la forme et de la fonction des mots’). To those works for which translations exist I shall refer in the following mode: e.g. Bréal ES: 112/285, where the first page number refers to the French edition, the second to the English translation. All the other quotations will be given in the standard form, e.g. Müller 1861:14. a list of the abbreviations is provided at p. ix.

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