John Stoddart’s The Philosophy of Language: the “last truly universalist work”

Joseph L. Subbiondo
California Institute of Integral Studies


Sir John Stoddart (1773-1856) served as England’s advocate in Malta from 1803-1807, editor of The Times from 1814 to 1816, founder and editor of The New Times from 1816 to 1826, and Chief Justice and Justice of the Vice-Admiralty Court in Malta from 1826 to 1840. He was knighted in 1826. Stoddart’s formal education was as notable as his professional career: at Oxford, he earned Bachelor of Arts in 1794, Bachelor of Civil Law in 1798, and Doctor of Civil Law in 1801.

In addition to his career in public service and journalism, Stoddart studied and wrote about the history of universal grammar with remarkable breadth and depth. Moreover, he formulated his own theories regarding the philosophy of language and the historical development of ancient and contemporary languages. His lifetime of research is well represented in his Universal Grammar, or the Pure Science of Language published in 1849; Glossology, or the Historical Relations of Languages published posthumously in 1858, and The Philosophy of Language, a revised and enlarged 700 page edition of both books, published in 1861. My references in this paper are to the 1861 publication.

Peter H. Salus (1976) aptly described Stoddart’s The Philosophy of Language (1861) as “the last truly universalist work” (p. 99): he recognized that Stoddart’s publications conclude a significant period of universal grammar that spanned nearly nine centuries. Following Stoddart, universal grammar would not occupy center stage in linguistics until the emergence of transformational generative grammar nearly a century later. Yet despite Stoddart’s insightful and extensive study of universal grammar and its history from ancient origins to the mid-nineteenth century, his work has been overlooked by historians of linguistics.

William Hazlitt’s Preface

In his “Preface” to Stoddart’s Universal Grammar, William Hazlitt (1811-1873) provided a brief biography of Stoddart. Hazlitt was Stoddart’s nephew: his parents were Sarah Stoddart and William Hazlitt (1778-1830), the prominent art critic and literary essayist. Hazlitt noted that Stoddart was commissioned by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) to write The Philosophy of Language for the Encyclopædia Metropolitana, a collection of books intended to promote innovative ideas in the arts and sciences. Coleridge’s personal invitation attests to Stoddart’ reputation as a scholar as well the expansive and forward-thinking nature of his work.

According to Hazlitt, Stoddart attended Cathedral School at Salisbury; where he studied the grammar of William Lilly (1602-1681) as did most English students for over three centuries. During his school years, William Benson Earle (1740-1796), Stoddart’s godfather and ward of James Harris (1709-1780), introduced Stoddart to Harris’ Hermes: A Philosophical Inquiry Concerning Universal Grammar (1751) (see Subbiondo 1976). Harris’ theory of language inspired Stoddart to study universal grammar throughout his life.

Hazlitt correctly noted that Stoddart’s Philosophy of Language “amounts, in manner, to a new work, bringing up our knowledge on this most important subject to the present day” (p. x). He acknowledged the originality of Stoddart’s perspectives on the mental aspects of universal grammar theory as well as his wide-ranging history of language development documented by copious references to nearly every language known in 19th Century Europe.

Stoddart’s Introduction to The Philosophy of Language

In his “Introduction” to The Philosophy of Language, Stoddart provided an overview of his ambitious plan for both Universal Grammar and Glossology. He defined “language” with an understanding of its complex nature. He pointed out that language includes “all intentional modes of communicating the movements of the mind … the thoughts and feelings of man which belong to his mental and spiritual nature … [and] reason, the peculiar gift to man by his Creator, enables him to select, to combine, to arrange: and the result is language” (p.1). For Stoddart, language is far more than word selection as he argued that it is directed by “the Mind in seizing on the relation which [words] bear to each other, and on giving scope to the thoughts and feelings they are meant to excite” (p.2).

Stoddart’s encompassing view of consciousness and its relevance to the nature of language is very advanced not only for his time but for today as well. His many references to feelings throughout his writings suggested his appreciation of language as an act of the mind as well as of the body. He maintained that there was a set of universal logical principles in every articulated expression, and he made a compelling case that language has an intellectual and physical impact on a listener. Stoddart’s references to the spiritual nature of the human being moved his view of language beyond mind and body into a realm of what today constitutes consciousness studies.

Stoddart distinguished between the science and the history of language. He stated that the science of language is its grammar; and in Part I, Universal Grammar, or The Pure Science of Language, he proposed general principles that he believed framed a universal grammar. In Part II, Glossology, or The Historical Relations of Language, Stoddart outlined specific rules of particular languages that were, in his words, the result of “accidental and temporary circumstances, the investigation of which belongs rather to the history than to the science of Language” (pp.3-4). He pointed out that scholars often confused the science with the history of language; and in The Philosophy of Language, he convincingly detailed his rationale for differences as well as similarities between the science and history of language.

Universal Grammar

Stoddart opened Universal Grammar by introducing “Preliminary View of those Faculties of the Intellect and Will on which the Science of Language depends.” In the first chapter, he treated sentences; in the second, words, and in the remaining chapters, various parts of speech. He concluded Universal Grammar with a chapter entitled “Mechanism of Speech” in which he examined articulatory and acoustic phonetics with extensive references to John Wilkins (1614-1672) (see Subbiondo 1987).

In the “Introduction,” Stoddart engaged in an intriguing discussion of the relationship between consciousness and language: “In the mind of man” he wrote “the consciousness of simple existence is the source and necessary condition of all other powers; as in language, the expression of that consciousness by the verb to be, is at the root of all connected expression” (p.5). Stoddart argued that the mind is the force driving language, not the reverse. He maintained that feeling represented the passive state of mind and will the active, and he concluded that will “may be called the life of the human mind (p.6)…It is the forming and shaping power within us” (p. 7). He sharply disagreed with Étienne de Condillac (1714-1780) who advanced John Locke’s (1632-1704) theory of tabula rasa. Stoddart asserted the singularity principle initially posed by Rene Descartes (1596-1650) by contending that each human should be defined as “a substance called self, to which each man gives the name of I; and thus I feel and I know that I am the cause of all the active states of my being” (p. 11).

As a proponent of universal grammar, Stoddart insisted on universal truth. Citing the straight line as an example, he insisted that all people, regardless of culture, share an identical concept of the straight line. He attacked what he considered the fallacy of John Horne Tooke (1736–1812), his perennial target in the history of linguistics, who insisted that there were no universal truths – only differing opinions. Stoddart refered to the experiments of Isaac Newton (1643-1727) to support what he regarded as universal truths. Stoddart concluded that

it is this active energy, the mind or the spirit of man, which gives to speech its forms; that is to say the characteristics of noun, of verb, and of those constituent parts of speech, which I have noticed as essential to a combined signification of any thought or feeling (p.23).

Stoddart divided the parts of speech into two categories: the principal parts and the accessories. The principal parts form the concept and are (in his nomenclature) nouns, nouns substantives, nouns adjectives, participles, pronouns, and verbs. The accessories modify concepts and consist of articles, prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs, interjections, and particles. Stoddart concluded that accessories were probably derived from parts of speech that were, at one time, principal in the history of a language. As a result, “The mind dwells on them more slightly; they express a more transient operation of the intellect” (p.137).

Throughout Universal Grammar, Stoddart exhibited remarkable erudition in primary grammars and secondary sources starting with those of the Greeks and Romans as well as those written in his own time. His references to many languages – major and minor, living and dead – reflect an almost boundless knowledge of universal grammar, He located language in the mind; and he considered the interrelationship of language, thought, and culture making his work relevant to those currently examining language and consciousness.


For Stoddart, Glossology was “the applied science which investigates the various languages spoken or written …with reference, on the one hand, to the pure science of Universal Grammar, as the source of principles in which [languages] necessarily agree and, on the other hand, to the historical facts which constitute or cause their differences” (p. 1). He added: “Every pure science emanates from an Idea in the human mind, … permanently and universally true; and every applied science combines with that idea the effect of circumstances, which, being partial and subject to change, necessarily fall within the domain of history” (p. 1). He recognized that “the applied science of Language, if confined to the speech of a single country or district, forms the particular Grammar (p.1).

Stoddart explained that Universal Grammar should be approached by “deduction from a universal law” (p.2.) while Glossology should be studied by “induction from particular facts” (p. 2.). He stated: “the Classification of Languages, Dialects, or Idioms, with a view to their scientific arrangement in Glossology, may be said to be as yet in its infancy” (p. 5). Opposing the dialect work of Robert Gordon Latham (1812 – 1888), Stoddart favored a systematic classification as exemplified by Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) in which progressions are calculated to track what each part contributes to the whole. In Glossology, Stoddart provided chapters on the following: languages; dialects; idioms; voice; articulation; vowel sounds; consonantal sounds; accent, quantity and emphasis; interjections; onomatopoeia or imitative words; roots; particles; words; and parts of speech.

In his chapter “Languages,” Stoddart showed an uncommon grasp of Indo-European languages as presented by William Jones (1746-1794). He also displayed broad knowledge of non-Indo-European languages including Chinese and the languages of the Americas. Uncharacteristically free of a bias of language superiority, he considered languages equal because speakers have equal capacities of mind. Because he viewed scholarship as “a work in progress,” he revised his principles whenever he found contradictions – be they in New Mexico or Mongolia. Besides the predominant work of Jones, Stoddart drew on that of James Burnett, Lord Monboddo (1714-1799), Jacob Grimm (1785-1863), Rasmus Rask (1787-1832), and Johann Vater (1771-1826) among many others. Stoddart was as well read in historical linguistics as anyone of his generation.

Before moving to phonetics, Stoddart devoted chapters to dialects and idioms. While he considered dialects and idioms significantly different, he realized that many people experience them as easily blending. His understanding of language change is extraordinary for his day. He suggested that language be considered a whole, a dialect a fraction of the whole, and an idiom a fraction of the dialect. Referring to Scottish, he noted that some, including himself, believed it to be a separate language – not simply a dialect of English. He drew examples from French, Latin, and Greek among others to illustrate the differences between dialects and languages. Stoddart conceded that while it is challenging to distinguish dialects from languages, it is even more difficult to distinguish idioms from dialects.

At the end of his chapter on idioms, he wrote “Lastly, I would observe that the comparative study of the idioms of different languages closely connects Glossology with the Philosophy of the Human Mind” (p. 68). Foreshadowing the work of Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897-1941), Stoddart attacked a prevailing view of his time that speakers of Native American languages “have few ideas, and their languages are consequently poor” (p.69). Rather, he emphasized that “The grammatical character of the Cree, as an inflected language on an extended plane, leads to the inference of a higher origin than the mere casual, irregular, invention of man: and an attentive analysis of its structure confirms this view” (p. 69). His conclusion is profound: “I cannot but recognize … a circumstantially conclusive proof that the whole is the emanation of One, and that a Divine mind” (p.69).

Stoddart provided an extraordinarily broad overview of the state of 19th Century phonetics in his chapters “Of the Voice,” “Of Articulation,” “Of Vowel Sounds,” and “Of Consonantal Sounds.” His approach to grammatical traditions was comparative (e.g., Sanskrit and Greek) and his references included John Wallis (1616-1703) and Lindley Murray (1745-1826). Also, he offered his own view regarding the articulation of vowels and consonants; and he acknowledged the impossibility of identifying all possible sounds in the world’s languages, past and present. Here as throughout The Philosophy of Language, Stoddart cited an extraordinary range of languages: Indo-European and non-Indo-European alike.

In his chapters “Of Accent, Quantity, and Emphasis” and “Of Interjections,” Stoddart noted: “Articulation … is by no means sufficient alone to communicate the operations of the human mind” (p. 150). He included the suprasegmentals by referring to the oratorical traditions initiated by the Greeks and Romans and continuing to his own day. Stoddart advances the notion of “whole mind” – embodied mind compared to disembodied mind. He stated: “If we adopt the narrower view of mind [disembodied mind] as the basis of grammar, … we must consider language as a signifying or showing forth, not of our whole internal consciousness, but of a certain limited part only” (p. 181). He insisted that narrow mind was unrealistic because “it is practically impossible to separate the faculties of perceiving, distinguishing, and knowing, from those of loving, desiring, and enjoying…” (p. 181).

He concluded Glossology with comprehensive and comparative analyses in chapters “On Onomatopei, or Imitative words,” Of Roots,” “Of Particles,” “Of Words,” and “Of Parts of Speech.” In extraordinary detail, he documented language universals in varying ways through many languages – past and present, familiar and unfamiliar.


Despite Stoddart’s contribution to the history of linguistics, historians of linguistics except for Salus have ignored his work. I hope that my paper will prompt an overdue study of Stoddart’s work because it has much to contribute to our understanding of the history of universal grammar as well as issues in contemporary linguistics, especially regarding the increasingly emerging and enigmatic relationship between language and consciousness.


Salus, Peter. 1976. “Universal Grammar 1000-1850” in History of Linguistic Thought and Contemporary Linguistics, edited by Herman Parret, 85-100. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co.

Stoddart, John. 1861. (3rd edition, revised and enlarged). The Philosophy of Language; Comprising Universal Grammar, or the Pure Science of Language: and Glossology, or the Historical Relations of Language. London and Glasgow: Richard Griffin and Company. Reprinted in 2012 by Forgotten Books (

Subbiondo, Joseph. 1976. “The Semantic Theory of James Harris: A study of Hermes (1751).” Historiographia Linguistica 3:275‑291.

Subbiondo, Joseph. 1987. “John Wilkins’ Theory of Articulatory Phonetics.” Proceedings of the Third International Conference on the History of Language Sciences, edited by  Hans Aarsleff, L.G. Kelly and Hans-Josef Niederehe, 263-270. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

How to cite this post

Subbiondo, Joseph. 2015. John Stoddart’s The Philosophy of Language: the “last truly universalist work”. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in 18th century, 19th century, History, Philosophy

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