Wilhelm Wundt and the Lautgesetze Controversy

Lia Formigari
Sapienza Università di Roma

Wundt with research group

Wilhelm Wundt (centre) with his research group, ca. 1880 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

A long-dominant historiographical tradition, culminating in Hugo Schuchardt’s essay Über die Lautgesetze (1885), depicted the Neogrammarians as the irreducible upholders of the unconditioned validity of phonetic laws. It is my view that, if we reconsider the theories of the Neogrammarians today, this representation should be radically revised. Instead of the long review that would be necessary to document the pros and cons of Schuchardt’s interpretation, I will limit myself to citing August Leskien’s Introduction to his Declination im Slawisch-Litauischen und Germanischen (1876), which contains an early and never disputed enunciation of the principle of the exceptionlessness (Ausnahmslosigkeit) of phonetic laws and of the way it must be understood:

I started […] from the principle according to which the form of a case in the way it has been transmitted to us is never the result of an exception to otherwise valid phonetic laws. To avoid any misunderstanding I would add the following: if by exception we mean the cases in which the expected phonetic change has not occurred due to specific and identifiable causes […] – that is, when a rule interferes to some extent with another one – nothing evidently contradicts the principle that phonetic laws have no exceptions. The law is still present and when this or that disturbing factor – that is, the action of other laws – is not present, it continues to operate as expected. If instead we admit to random exceptions, of whatever nature, that can in no way be related among themselves, we are basically saying that the object at hand, that is language, is not accessible to scientific knowledge. (Leskien 1876: xxviii)

Basically, Leskien is enunciating the principle, shared after him by all Neogrammarians, that there are factors that can interfere with the regularity of phonetic laws. When this happens, these factors can in principle be identified. So long as the exceptions can be explained the law in itself has not been invalidated. The point, therefore, is not that there are no exceptions to sound laws. It is rather that there are no exceptions that cannot be explained in terms of some other cause, at least in principle. Based on this interpretation, the Neogrammarian principle of the exceptionlessness of phonetic laws can be summarized as a methodological principle: the exceptions that systematically interfere with the regularity of a law can also be explained on the basis of other causes. This principle is a necessary condition for any scientific study of language phenomena. In other words, it is the prerequisite for a transition from an historico-descriptive linguistics of individual languages or language families to a general linguistics.

This notion of the relation between regularities and exceptions was not enunciated ad hoc for linguistics. Rather, it was a general epistemological principle common to both the empirical psychology of the first half of the century (see, for example, Eduard Beneke, [1832] 41877: 14) and later scientific philosophical trends. John Stuart Mill’s Logic, popular in Germany, and Ernst Mach’s theories, supported this principle. The validity of a law rests on its heuristic value in a given context and does not exclude exceptions, which must be explained as the result of other laws or causes.

Wilhelm Wundt interprets the position of Neogrammarians well when, in his essay Ueber den Begriff des Gesetzes (1886), he attributes to them this notion of “law”. His essay was a response to Hugo Schuchart, who had extended his attack on Neogrammarians to Wundt as one of their supporters. Schuchardt’s essay established the image of the Neogrammarians as the dogmatic asserters of the exceptionlessness of phonetic laws, an image that remained almost undisputed until the first half of the twentieth century and beyond. But if we read today, with the hindsight that is the privilege of historians, the Neogrammarians’ texts, first and foremost Hermann Paul’s Prinzipien, the impression we get is rather that of a collective elaboration of a method for a general linguistics. Read more ›

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Posted in 19th century, History, Linguistics, Psycholinguistics

Program January–April 2018

17 January Wilhelm Wundt and the Lautgesetze controversy
Lia Formigari
Sapienza Università di Roma
31 January ‛Karte und Gebiet′. Die Spatialisierung von Sprache in der Dialektologie des Deutschen von 1918 bis 1955
Jan David Braun
Östereichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Wien
14 February Developments in general linguistics as seen through the first International Congresses of Linguists
Emma Mojet
University of Amsterdam
28 February “Except in the case of Andrade”: Manuel J. Andrade’s Quileute (1933) on the questions of “drift” and “function”
Perry Wong
University of Chicago
14 March Lawyers, Linguists and Truthiness
Douglas Kibbee
University of Illinois
28 March What Zarathustra said. Sixty years of controversy over Anquetil-Duperron’s Zend-Avesta (1771)
Floris Solleveld
University of Amsterdam
11 April The uses and abuses of theory in contemporary sociolinguistics
Jon Orman
25 April Georg von der Gabelentz, der Sprachforscher im Rahmen seiner Familie
Annemete von Vogel
Ost-West-Gesellschaft für Sprach- und Kulturforschung, Berlin
Posted in Programs

Call for Papers: Kolloquium des Studienkreises Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft 2018

Sprache und Kontext in der Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft
4.–7. Juli 2018

Der “Studienkreis ‘Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft’” lädt zu seinem XXIX. Internationalen Kolloquium ein, das von Mittwoch, den 4. Juli (Anreisetag), bis Samstag, den 7. Juli 2018, in Potsdam stattfinden wird.

Tagungsort werden die Foyerräume unter dem Auditorium maximum ( und 1.08.061) auf dem Campus am Neuen Palais der Universität Potsdam sein. Das Kolloquium beginnt am Abend des 4. Juli mit einem Warming up, zu dem auch die Teilnehmerinnen und Teilnehmer des an diesem Tag stattfindenden Kolloquiums des deutsch-französischen Doktorandenkollegs Kollokationen und Diskurstraditionen eingeladen sind.

Mit dem Thema Sprache und Kontext soll der Blick über die sprachsystematischen Kategorien und Konzeptualisierungsprozesse hinaus ausgeweitet werden. Im Fokus stehen dabei sowohl die Geschichte von Bedeutungstheorien, die dem sprachlichen Kontext eine wichtige Rolle bei der Semantisierung zuweisen, als auch die Entwicklung pragmatischer Ansätze, die das Funktionieren sprachlicher Zeichen in situativen und sozialen Kontexten zu erklären versuchen. Nicht zuletzt soll es auch um Kontexte der sprachwissenschaftlichen Theorienbildung gehen, die auf verschiedene Art auf die Entstehung von Theoremen einwirken. Willkommen sind Beiträge zu allen Epochen und Traditionslinien der Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft.

Wir bitten alle Interessenten, besonders aber diejenigen, die einen Vortrag halten möchten, sich möglichst bald, spätestens aber bis zum 15. Februar 2018, mit der Angabe des Vortragstitels und einem Abstract von ca. 200-300 Wörtern (in deutscher oder englischer Sprache) bei beiden Organisatoren, Gerda Haßler und Angelika Rüter, per e-mail anzumelden.

Die Vorträge können außer in deutscher und englischer auch in französischer oder spanischer Sprache gehalten werden.

Weitere Informationen: http://elverdissen.dyndns.org/~nodus/rb-tag’18.htm

Posted in Announcements

Call for papers: Central Australian Linguistics Circle

Central Australian Linguistics Circle Meeting
5 April 2018
Friends of the Strehlow Centre Symposium
6–7 April 2018

“Reflecting on the past, making tracks for the future”

The Symposium reflects on the rich and interesting history of Central Australia which is housed in the Strehlow Research Collection. It explores the tracks which could take us into the future in the fields of history, language, religion and culture.

The Symposium will be run over two days. There will be talks and lectures over the two days from many of those experienced in Remote Australian life.

Please send an abstract (c. 200 words) to the organising Committee by 16 February 2018: moored03@bigpond.com

Posted in Announcements

Primitive Languages: linguistic determinism and the description of Aranda eighty years on

David Moore
University of Western Australia

Strehlow Research Centre

Strehlow Research Centre, Alice Springs. Photo by Alex Nelson.


The view that Australian Aboriginal languages are primitive endured into the twentieth century and is still widespread throughout the Australian community. ‘Primitive languages’ were a means of using linguistic evidence from a language to prove the primitiveness of the associated culture. The assumption was made that primitive languages were spoken by those who belonged to primitive cultures (Henson 1974:9). A number of deficiencies were found with them: a lack of abstract nouns, grammatical categories, numerals and colour terms. One of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century who was ‘steeped in Social Darwinism’ was Otto Jespersen (1860–1943), who claimed that ‘the aborigines of Tasmania had no words representing abstract ideas’ (Errington 2008:130). There were very few actual descriptions of ‘primitive languages’ and ethnographic accounts were lacking in linguistic data, as Sommerfelt (1938:17) noted. It was these sparse accounts of Australian languages which enabled speculative views about ‘primitive languages’ to become widespread. The Aranda language of Central Australia appears to have been that most frequently identified as a ‘primitive language’.

In this post I explore an incident which occurred following the publication, nearly eighty years ago, of an armchair study of Aranda, a language which was primitive in the opinion of a leading intermational scholar. This episode in Australian linguistic history shows how intensive fieldwork, deep understanding of languages and the use of linguistic records could be used to counteract false ideas about Aboriginal languages which persisted even in scholarly publications. Read more ›

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, Australia, Grammars, History, Linguistics, Missionary Linguistics, Typology

Benvenuto Terracini and the history of linguistics between the 19th and 20th century

Diego Stefanelli
University of Pavia

Benvenuto Terracini (1886–1968) Source: Atlante Linguistico Italiano

Benvenuto Terracini (1886–1968) was a notable Italian linguist who lived through all the most important methodological innovations that characterize linguistics in the first half of the 20th century. In the Italian context, he played a fundamental transitional role in two crucial periods: during the crisis of positivism and the emergence of new methods and approaches at the beginning of the 20th century, and at the time of the discussions between structuralism and historicism in the 60s. Moreover, he experienced the sadly common trauma of many European scholars of Jewish origin: because of the Fascist Italian Race Laws, he was forced to leave Italy in 1938, going into exile in Argentina, where he taught Lingüística románica and Lingüística general at the University of Tucumán (1941-1946). Terracini is a typical – and nowadays quite unknown outside Italy – example of a European linguist, deeply connected to the historical, theoretical and cultural context of the first decades of the century.

A good starting point to rediscover Terracini is his activity as a historian of European linguistics at a key point in its history: the crisis of the positivistic paradigm and the rise of new approaches in the first decades of the 20th century. Read more ›

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, History, Italy, Linguistics

From godly analogy to “distant like floating clouds”: the inevitability of the Sino-Dene hypothesis and the scalability of comparative linguistics

Yukun Zeng
University of Chicago

Li Fang-Kuei and Edward Sapir

Li Fang-Kuei and Edward Sapir (Sources: Li & Sapir)

1. The Problem of Scaling in Language Classification

Language classification is a matter of scale and scaling. Most basically, it assigns languages into mutually exclusive categories. The scale underpins the categorization but does not come from nowhere. It displays an historical configuration and is invariably centered on the authoritative voice of science (Gal 2016:95). Both linguistics and anthropology are essentially Western disciplines that scale themselves up from provincial to universal sciences (Chakrabarty 2008). For instance, comparative linguistics depends on the expandability of the colonial project, which is best exemplified by the British colonialization of India and the discovery of Indo-European linguistics (Trautmann 1997). To understand the dialectical relationship between language classification and political agenda, it is useful to follow the recent conceptualization of scaling as pragmatics (Carr and Lempert 2016). Language classification is necessarily political in terms of both pragmatic presupposition (colonial exploration) and entailment (governing colonized territory).

It is reasonable to question the absence of intellectual agency in such an account and to reconsider one of the most intellectually triumphant moments in the development of linguistics, Bloomfield and Sapir’s adoption of the originally Indo-European comparative method to study Native American languages. As Sapir famously commented on Bloomfield’s reconstruction of Primitive Central Algonkian, their applications of neogrammarian comparative method brought “postulates of exceptionless […] autonomous phonological change” (Silverstein 2014) from mere assumptions to “proved truth.” Read more ›

Posted in 20th century, America, China, History, Linguistics

10th Conference of Missionary Linguistics, 21-24 March 2018

10th Conference of Missionary Linguistics
21-24 March 2018, Rome

The International Conference on Missionary Linguistics focuses on older texts (colonial, postcolonial, mainly from missionaries) with the following objectives: the history of linguistics, linguistic documentation, translation studies and sociocultural analysis. The aim of historical linguistics is to describe older stages of languages as well as (processes of) language change, while the history of linguistics studies early thinking on languages, linguistic typologies and structures. These studies are often interrelated with those of the cultural context in which colonial and postcolonial societies developed. Non-Western languages are our main focus.

Please send abstracts of no more than 500 words to missionarylinguistics2018@gmail.com by 1 December 2017.

For more information, see the conference website.

Posted in Announcements

Speech act theory and Georg von der Gabelentz

Forms of speech

Sven Staffeldt
University of Würzburg

1. The modernity of the ancestors

Georg von der Gabelentz

Georg von der Gabelentz
(Ezawa & Vogel 2013, 28)

There is a trend in linguistics – or maybe even in general – to reclaim the works of older authors. Older authors are sometimes used as sources of information for finding the origin of certain schools of thinking or the origin of particular assumptions. For example, feminist linguistics sees its origin in repeatedly cited parts of Fritz Mauthner’s (esp. Mauthner: 31923, 56-61) and Otto Jespersen’s (esp. Jespersen: 1925, 220-238) works (cf. Samel: 22000, 27). In phonetics and phonology reference is sometimes made to Sievers (51901) to explain tenseness as a phonetic feature (cf. Chomsky/Halle: 1968, 324 f.).

Sometimes older authors are rediscovered in their own right. The slogan that would sum up such rediscoveries is: “That has been said (or written) before (by the ancestors).” For example, Hermann Paul plays a major role in recent developments in cognitive semantics, as described by Dirk Geeraerts:

Paul’s usage-based model of semantic change fits seamless in any contemporary view on the dialectic relationship between semantics and pragmatics; and the regular patterns of metaphor and metonymy investigated in cognitive semantics may sometimes be found almost literally in the older literature.
(Geeraerts: 2010, 277)

Speech act theory can also be traced back to older authors. A major candidate for being a predecessor is Karl Bühler (Bühler: 1934), who is one of the most important sources of information for pragmatics as a whole. Besides Bühler, there are other potential candidates: Cloeren (1988) identifies 19th century German language critics as the predecessors of speech act theory. According to Burkhardt, legal philosopher Reinach (1921) developed a theory of social acts, anticipating speech act theory:

Zunächst soll jedoch die in ihren Umrissen skizzierte Geschichte der Sprechakttheorie um eine Position ergänzt werden, die wesentliche Aspekte der sprechakttheoretischen Betrachtung bereits vorwegnimmt und bisher fast völlig unbeachtet geblieben ist. Es handelt sich um die ‚Theorie der sozialen Akte‘ des Rechtsphilosophen und Husserl-Schülers Adolf Reinach, die – neben ihrer philologischen Bedeutung – geeignet ist, einige Probleme der Sprechakttheorie in neuem Lichte anzugehen.
(Burkhardt: 1986, 10)

(First of all, the history of speech act theory sketched here should be completed by a position that anticipates major aspects of speech act theory and that has gone more or less unnoticed. It is the ‘theory of social acts’ of Adolf Reinach, legal philosopher and disciple of Husserl, which, alongside its philological importance, can be applied to see some of the problems of speech act theory in a new light.)

In this post, we do not intend to rediscover Georg von Gabelentz as yet another predecessor of the speech act theory of J.L. Austin and J.R. Searle. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see if and to what degree speech act theory is foreshadowed in Gabelentz (2016/1891). The higher the degree of foreshadowing, the less clearly we can speak of a sudden pragmatic shift, coming out of nowhere, radically breaking with long-standing positions. Rather, pragmatic ideas, descriptions and claims had been in the wind for a long time and the pragmatic shift did not come out of nowhere.
Read more ›

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Posted in 19th century, Europe, History, Linguistics, Pragmatics

Vivien Law Essay Prize 2017

Vivien Law

The Vivien Law Prize is offered annually by the Henry Sweet Society for the best essay in the history of linguistic ideas. The competition is open to all currently registered students, and to scholars who have received their PhD or equivalent qualification within the last five years. Essays can be in English, French or German and up to 8000 words in length. Closing date is 30 September 2017.

Further information is available here: http://www.henrysweet.org/grants-and-prizes/vivien-law-prize/

Posted in Announcements