Christian Karl Reisig as an upholder of philosophical linguistics in 19th century Germany

Jacques François
Université de Caen & CNRS

In his introduction (p.6-18) to the Vorlesungen über lateinische Sprachwissenschaft (Lectures on Latin Linguistics, 1839), Christian Karl Reisig offered a philosophically grounded account of the epistemology of language as a Prinzipienwissenschaft (“Science of Principles”, in Hermann Paul’s wording, 1880). There is a crucial difference however between these two endeavours, namely : Reisig – who gave his lectures in 1817, i.e. twelve years before their publication – was a successor both to Wilhelm von Humboldt (and indirectly to Johann Gottfried Herder) in terms of conflating language, people and nation (in his principles 2 and 5, see below) and to Immanuel Kant in terms of his application to language of the latter’s table of the categories of understanding (see principles 6-7). In constrast to Paul, the impact of comparative grammar is hardly perceptible (see principles 12-13), although Reisig was certainly aware of the works of Friedrich Schlegel (1808) and Franz Bopp (1816).[1]

General principles of Language research

  1. (Natural) Language fundamentally exists as grammar rather than through grammar.
  2. Languages are products of peoples, not of a single individual or of a small group.
  3. Enthusiasm is the primary source of language. Imagination has an earlier effect than understanding, and the impressions of the senses are the first concern of speech. Onomatopoeia is particularly notable.

[“Allgemeine Grundsätze der Sprachforschung1. Sprache ist eher als Grammatik und nicht durch die Grammatik. – 2. Sprachen sind Völkererzeugnisse, nicht einzelner Menschen oder eines Einzigen. – 3. Begeisterung ist der Urquell der Sprache; Phantasie wirkt früher als Verstand, und sinnliche Anschauungen sind der erste Gegenstand des Sprechens. Man bemerke besonders die Onomatopöie.” (1839 :6)]

Principle 1 asserts the descriptive purpose of linguistics when compared to the prescriptive grammar of academies: linguists’ grammars describe languages, they are not designed to contextualise them. Principles 2 and 3 deal with the modus operandi of language development resulting from the exchange of designations for concepts and feelings: “What the other likes, he takes and spreads around” [“was dem Andern gefällt, nimmt er auf und breitet es aus” (ibid :7)]. Amongst the enthusiasm factors likely to generate neologisms, Reisig mentions major events, such as “the fight of the forces of the German people in the war of liberation from the French yoke” [“der Kampf der Kräfte des deutschen Volks in dem französischen Freiheitskriege”] in the recent past.

  1. Analyzing what mankind has experienced and thought of throughout its development is the task of philology, inasmuch as language is its expression.
  2. Every natural language is shaped by the history and the character of the nation speaking it, which is the source of its use.

[“4. Ergründung und Entwickelung dessen, was unter der Menschheit gefühlt und gedacht worden, insofern es in und durch die Sprache dargestellt ist, ist Aufgabe der Philologie. – 5. Jede Sprache wird durch die Geschichte und den Charakter ihrer Nation gestaltet und erhält dadurch ihren Sprachgebrauch.” (ibid:6)]

Principles 4-5 define the task and the foundations of philology as Humboldt conceived of them in his development of Herder’s ideas.

  1. Language usage is the motion inherent to every natural language within the framework of the general laws of language.
  2. The general laws of human languages are space and time as primary forms of intuition, the categories of understanding and sensory experience.

[“6. Sprachgebrauch ist die freie und eigenthümliche Bewegung der einzelnen Sprache innerhalb der allgemeinen Sprachgesetze. – 7. Allgemeine Gesetze menschlicher Sprachen sind Raum und Zeit als Grundformen der Anschauung, die Verstandeskategorien und die Empfindungen” (ibid.:6)]

The modern reader who looks at principle 6 in isolation may imagine that the “general laws of language” are those of historical comparative grammar, but this is not the case, as principle 7 shows; it is rather a matter of the conditions of intuition (“transcendental aesthetics”) and understanding (“transcendental analytics”) according to the Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Here we encounter the most appealing feature of Reisig’s linguistic epistemology: Reisig draws his inspiration not only from Kant’s four categories of understanding (quantity ; quality ; relation ; modality) – as Paul Grice was to later in the 20th century, but also from three selected values of each category. Table 1 summarizes the original organisation of the categories of understanding in Kritik der reinen Vernunft and Reisig’s (indicated by ‘R’) reworking.

(R: Größe)
(R: Beschaffenheit)
(R: Beziehung / Verhäaltnis)
(R: Modification des Seins)
(R: Position)
position / reality
substantia & accidens
(R: Substantialität)
substance and accident
Möglichkeit ~ Unmöglichkeit
Ursache & Wirkung
(R: Causalität)
cause and effect
Dasein ~ Nichtsein
(R: Wirklichkeit)
Limitation / limitation Gemeinschaft
(R: Communio)
Nothwendigkeit ~ Zufälligkeit

Table 1: Kant and Reisig’s categories of understanding

The first category, Quantity, is carried out by the “nomen substantivum”: the “nomen proprium” expresses unity by expelling the determiner, the “nomen appelativum” expresses plurality using grammatical categories (singular, plural and occasionally dual), and the “nomen collectivum” – or the “nomen appellativum” associated with the quantifier omnis – expresses totality.

With regard to the second category, Quality, Reisig replaces the “Reality” value with “Position”, which is designed to “assign a property to an object”, the two other values remaining unchanged. The “adjectivum” expresses the two values of Reality and Negation in a specific way (i.e. applied to an entity, e.g. doctus ~ indoctus), and the “adverbium” fulfils the same function in a generic way (i.e. related to a state-of-affairs, e.g. docte ~ indocte). Finally, the Limitation value is conveyed by the grammatical category of Degree in its two varieties, “comparativus” and “superlativus”[2]. The Pronomina substituted for adjectives fulfil the same functions as these adjectives.

Reisig’s argument with regard to prepositions is rather opaque, but the Negative value of Latin sine is obvious, as well as the Limitative value of prepositions specifying the relation to a place expressed by a substantive in the dative or accusative case. However, one could also argue the opposite regarding prepositions with varying complementation (which govern the dative case with a stative meaning and the accusative with a dynamic meaning, e.g. in horto vs. in hortum): here the accusative vs. dative case is responsible for restricting the locative value of the preposition, either ‘inessive’ or ‘illative’.

Finally, the Position value is conveyed by the cases endowed with an autonomous relational meaning (direction : accusative, membership : genitive, recipient : dative, source : ablative), involving a bijective relationship between case and function, which excessively idealises actual use in classical Latin.

Regarding the Relation category, the three values of Substantiality, Causality and Interaction (“Communio”) are illustrated by the morphological cases labelled as “oblique” (with the exception of the nominative and vocative cases):

Genitive is related to substantiality in so far as it conveys the relationship between essence and property; Dative and Ablative convey causality, and Accusative Communio. Nominative is inopportune, because it does not convey any designation of relationship.
[Der Genitiv entspricht der Substantialität, indem er das Verhältniß von Wesen und Eigenschaft ausdrückt; der Dativ und Ablativ entsprechen der Causalität, und der Accusativ der Communio. Der Nominativ gehört nicht hierher; denn er enthält gar keine Bezeichunung eines Verhältnisses.]

Finally, Reisig draws a parallel between the three values of the Modality category, i.e. Possibility, Reality (Reisig’s equivalent to Kant’s Existence) and Necessity, and three types of grammatical categories. This impressive rhetorical exercise deserves to be detailed. Reisig, in a predictable manner, identifies verb modes as the grammatical counterpart to Modality but, on a more original note, also associates Modality with tenses and persons. Table 2 summarizes the logico-grammatical correlations identified by Reisig.

category of
Verb modes Tenses Persons
Possibility modus potentialis future second
Reality indicative present third
Necessity imperative past first

Table 2: Logico-grammatical correlations in the domain of Modality according to Reisig (1839:11)

The reason why the imperative is used to convey the Necessity value is obviously the underlying speech act: “I declare that you have to carry out action A”. Future conveys the Possibility value because the content of the state-of-affairs predicated is only possible at the time of utterance, and conversely Past conveys the Necessity value because at the same time the content of the state-of-affairs predicated can no longer be called into question. Lastly:

He, she, that is Reality, everything we may observe. I is Necessity, for, when we are to become aware of the objects outside of ourselves, our thinking self has to dissociate itself from them (…) You is obviously only something possible, for it lies only in the will of the speaker or in circumstances enabling me to call out to him.
[er, sie, es ist die Wirklichkeit, Alles, was uns nur zur Betrachtung gegeben ist; ich ist die Nothwendigkeit ; denn wenn wir uns der Objecte, die außer uns sind, sollen bewußt werden, so ist es nothwendig, daß wir unser Ich, unser denkendes Subject, von ihnen absondern (…) Du ist offenbar nur etwas Mögliches; denn es beruht nur in dem Willen des Sprechenden oder in Verhältnissen, daß ich mich mit jemand auf den Fuß setzen will, ihn anzureden (ibid.:11)]

If Reisig is to be viewed as the inventor of a branch of linguistics, then, on the evidence of the views expressed above, it would not be “semasiology”[3] as Brigitte Nerlich (2001) claims, but rather pragmatics. To the best of my knowledge, no other linguist before his time came to the idea of assembling the categories of Person, Verb mode and Tense in the same logical frame. The “reality” of the third person referent prefigures the “non-person” category suggested by E. Benveniste (1966:225-236); the “necessity” of the first person referent, as negation of the third person is most probably a grammatical expansion of Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, but the “possibility” of the second person referent is likely to be the most original idea of Reisig since the speech act of addressing (Bühler’s appeal function in 1934, Jakobson’s conative function in 1960) changes the status of the referent from being a represented object (third person) to being an addressee. All in all, every alter ego is an object of the world that may acquire a new status by simply using one of the two personal pronouns I or you, thus generating a whole pragmatic programme.

  1. In its function of thought representation, language is itself only one form of these thoughts.
  2. The representation form is either that of objectivity or that of subjectivity, either that of reality or that of ideality.
  3. The diversity of the representation form lies in this, either only per se, or related to its content; formal and essential diversity.

[“8. Sprache als Darstellerin der Gedanken ist selbst nur eine Form dieser Gedanken – 9. Die Darstellungsform ist entweder die der Objektivität oder die der Subjektivität; entweder die der Realität oder die der Idealität – 10. Die Verschiedenheit der Darstellungsform beruht entweder nur in dieser als solcher, oder zugleich in ihrem Inhalte; formelle und wesentliche Verschiedenheit.” (ibid : 6-7)]

These three principles are related to the classical distinction made by Latin grammarians between “oratio recta” and “oratio obliqua”. The first relates to direct speech, which Reisig refers to as “objective” and which describes a “reality”, the second (named “allocutio obliqua” by Quintilian) relates to reported speech in Reisig’s view. However he does not confine himself to these two types of speech: his distinction is about the expression of judgements and it encompasses three modes of expression. The first one is objective in the sense that the thinking subject is absent, e.g. It is right. The second is subjective in so far as it is conveyed by an explicit statement (cf. Bally 1965: 38-48), e.g. I suppose it is right (a formulation pertaining to oratio obliqua). The third breaks down into an asserted clause (oratio recta) and an interpolated clause (also pertaining to oratio recta), e.g. That is right, I suppose. Assessing to what extent Reisig prefigures the view of ‘functional equivalences’ amongst the more or less obvious expressions of Modus next to or within the Dictum (according to Charles Bally), is difficult, because no similar formulation is to be found in that excerpt. Admittedly Reisig displays a theory of paraphrase in §14:

Many expressions convey the same content, but in various ways, in various turns of phrase, thus in different logical forms; that is formal variation. But many expressions convey not only a variety of logical forms, but at the same time a difference related to the thing, to the entity itself, and that gives us essential variation.
[Vieles bezeichnet denselben Inhalt, aber auf verschiedenen Wegen, in verschiedenen Wendungen, also in verschiedenen logischen Formen; dies ist der formale Unterschied. Vieles bezeichnet aber bei dem Unterschiede der logischen Form zugleich auch eine Verschiedenheit des Dinges, des Wesens selbst, und dies giebt den wesentlichen Unterschied. (ibid.:14).]

Nevertheless, he does not seem to apply this theory (see §13) to the two expressions I suppose that P and P, I suppose.

Indeed, This is true, because I believe it is a subjective judgement but what designates it as such is not the form of the clauses for every clause exists for itself. [‘Dies ist, wie ich glaube, wahr’ ist zwar ein Subjectsurtheil, aber nicht die Form der Sätze bezeichnet es als solches; denn jeder Satz besteht für sich (ibid:13)].[4]

  1. Euphony, firmness and clarity are the major qualities of language and the main reasons for its use among cultured peoples.
  2. The grammatical way for discovering language use is analogy.
  3. Comparing several languages in their similarities is a useful contribution to studying one of them when their relatedness is historically established.

[“11. Wohllaut, Nachdrücklichkeit und Deutlichkeit sind die größten Vorzüge der Sprache und die hauptsächlichsten Bewegungsgründe des Sprachgebrauchs bei gebildeten Völkern – 12. Der grammatische Weg zur Auffindung des Sprachgebrauchs ist die analogie – 13. Vergleichung mehreren Sprachen in ihren Aehnlichkeiten ist ein brauchbares Hülfsmittel zur Erforschung der einen, wenn die Verwandtschaft derselben historisch nachgewiesen ist.” (ibid : 7).]

Culture prompts speakers to favour an utterance whose musicality resonates with the conceptual form (Begriffsform). Here Humboldt’s ideal shows through, as well as his claim – addressed to François Abel Rémusat (1827) – that the genius of flectional Indo-European languages and specifically of classical Greek prevails over that of Chinese, because building periodic sentences is impossible in Chinese. Reisig’s argument about the ‘firmness’ (Nachdrücklichkeit) of classical Greek, based on its ability to build words which may reach some eight or nine syllables, is rather disturbing. Friedrich Schlegel (1808) argued namely that the perfection of ‘Sanskritic’ and related ancient languages lay, on the contrary, in the prominent place assigned to apophony (Ablaut), the pinnacle of the organic growing of natural languages. By contrast, Reisig’s defence of tropes is fully understandable, see. e.g. “Tropes excite sensitivity; what delights sensitivity makes the language pleasant” [“Tropen reizen die Sinnlichkeit; was die Sinnlichkeit erfreut, macht die Sprache angenehm” (ibid. :15)], prompting him (see principle 12) to assign a core role to analogy, Quintilian’s proportio.

The last point (see principle 13) appears self-evident, but one must keep in mind that Reisig died in 1829, before two of the three definitive books in the establishment of the comparative grammar of the so-called ‘Indo-Germanic’ languages were published; namely Franz Bopp’s Vergleichende Grammatik (from 1833 on) and August Wilhelm Pott’s Etymologische Forschungen (at the same time)[5]. It is therefore quite natural that in his Vorlesungen (Lectures) in 1827 attacked those “who link isolated sounds from one language to another though these languages are historically far from each other” [“Das hier gesagte ist sehr wichtig und gegen diejenigen gerichtet, welche einzelne Klänge in verschiedenen Sprachen, die in der Geschichte einander fern liegen, von einander ableiten” (ibid.:16)] and that the two works of James Harris (1751) and Bernhardi (1801) which he recommends his readers to read are then very much outdated.

Finally, these thirteen principles of linguistics listed by Reisig were original and pioneering for a Latinist who passed away at the age of thirty-seven, before the emergence of comparative grammar. However, in the remaining parts of his introduction to the Vorlesungen, he maintained a conservative attitude: after describing the three stages of “the spirit and history of the Latin language” (§34: 40-41), from the “harshness” of the beginnings to the blooming of the specific qualities of that language due to lawmakers, poets and orators, and lastly to the corrupted medieval Latin, he came to one of the core purposes of his Lectures, namely the seven “general principles and ideas for acquiring a high quality Latin” (§38 : 45 [“allgemeine Grundsätze und Ideen zur Erwerbung einer guten Latinität” (ibid:45)]), where he stated:

3. It [the Latin language] is represented by linguistics as an organic whole. However, the idea that grammar alone can depict may grow into a profound feeling during the studious reading of writers from the most appropriate period, that in which the healthiest taste blooms
[3. Als ein organisches Ganze wird sie zwar durch die Sprachwissenschaft dargestellt, doch wird die Idee, welche die Grammatik nur schildern kann, zum tiefen Gefühl gebracht erst durch fleißige Lectüre der Schriftsteller des besten Zeitalters, worin der gesundeste Geschmack herrscht (ibid.:45)].

Reisig’s students had an obligation that may explain their interest in his Lectures: they had to write up their theses in the most classical and distinguished Latin. The assignment Reisig gave himself as an academic was therefore double: on the one hand to assert the descriptive character of linguistic approach, and on the other hand to pass on the prescriptions of elegant classical style in such a way that classical Latin would remain the favourite mode of academic communication over the following few decades.[6]


[1] This paper is an adaptation of §2.5.2 of Le siècle d’or de la linguistique en Allemagne : de Humboldt à Meyer-Lübke (The golden century of linguistics in Germany – from Humboldt to Meyer-Lübke), forthcoming [Limoges : Lambert-Lucas].

[2] Reisig specifies (p.10) that the superlative actually fulfils a limitative function. Indeed, the devil, who is unique, is defined as “the evil one” and not “the most evil one” but a centaur, belonging to a class of individuals, may be referred to as “the best one” to indicate its superlative quality.

[3] Its actual founders were two followers of Reisig’s in the second part of the 19th century; see Haase (1874) and Heerdegen (1875-1881).

[4] Here Reisig‘s argument is dubious: he does not explain how we may recognize if it is a subjective judgment in the absence of a subordination relationship between the judgement clause and the content clause. Theoretical grammar was probably still too primitive to recognise the equative conjunction wie as the logical converse of the object conjunction daß and to conclude that the two expressions are functionally equivalent, as Charles Bally and Lucien Tesnière (see 1959) were to a century later, in the 1930s.

[5] Only Grimm’s Deutsche Grammatik was already published in the 1820s (1st ed. 1819, 2nd ed. with “Grimms’ law” 1822-1826).

[6] As an illustration, in 1864, i.e. 36 years after Reisig’s Lectures, Hugo Schuchardt still wrote his PhD, De sermonis Romani plebei vocalibus, in Latin, before publishing it in German in 1866-1868.


Bally, Charles (1965), Linguistique française et linguistique générale, Berne 1965 (4th ed.)
Benveniste Emile (1966), Problèmes de linguistique générale. Paris : Gallimard

Bernhardi, August Ferdinand (1801), Sprachlehre. Berlin.

Bopp, Franz (1816), Über das Conjugations-System der Sanskritsprache in Vergleichung mit jenem der griechischen, lateinischen, persischen und germanischen Sprache. Frankfurt/Main

Bopp, Franz (1833-1849), Vergleichende Grammatik des Sanskrit, Zend, Griechischen, Lateinischen, Lithauischen, Altslawischen, Gotischen und Deutschen, Berlin

Bühler, Karl (1934), Sprachtheorie : Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache . 2d ed. 1999, Stuttgart : UTB

Grimm, Jacob (1822-1826), Deutsche Grammatik [2nd ed., 1st. ed. 1819]

Haase, Friedrich (1874), Vorlesungen über lateinische Sprachwissenschaft, gehalten ab 1840, 2 vols., Leipzig : Simmel.

Harris, James (1751), Hermes, a philosophical inquity concerning universal grammar. London. Translated into German in 1788

Heerdegen, Ferdinand (1875-1881), Untersuchungen zur lateinischen Semasiologie, 3 vols. Erlangen : Deichert.

Humboldt, W. von (1827), Lettre à M. Abel-Rémusat sur la nature des formes grammaticales en général et le génie de la langue chinoise en particulier. Paris.

Jakobson, Roman (1960), “Linguistics and Poetics: Closing Statement”, in Th. Sebeok (ed.) Style in Language. Cambridge (mass.) : MIT Press.

Kant, Immanuel (1781, 21787), Kritik der reinen Vernunft. Riga

Nerlich, Brigitte (2001), “The study of meaning change from Reisig to Bréal”, in Auroux Sylvain / Koerner E.F.K. / Niederehe Hans-Joseph / Versteegh Kees (eds.), History Of The Language Sciences / Geschichte der Srachwissenschaften / Histoire des Sciences du Langage: An International Handbook (…). vol.2. Berlin : De Gruyter, 1617-1628.

Paul, Hermann (1880, 21886), Principien der Sprachgeschichte. Halle

Pott, August Friedrich (1833-1836). Etymologische Forschungen auf dem Gebiete der indogermanischen Sprachen, mit besonderem Bezug auf die Lautumwandlung in Sanskrit, Griechischen, Lateinischen, Litauischen und Gotischen, Lemgo.

Quintilian (ca. 95 CE), Institutio oratoria:

Schlegel, Friedrich [von] (1808), Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Indier – Ein Beitrag zur Begründung der Althertusmkunde. Heidelberg : Mohr & Zimmer

Schuchardt, Hugo (1866-1868), Der Vokalismus des Vulgärlateins, 3 vol. Leipzig [original dissertation : De sermonis Romani plebei vocalibus (“About the vocals of vulgar Latin discourses”).

Tesnière Lucien (1959), Éléments de syntaxe structurale.Paris : Klincksieck.

How to cite this post

François, Jacques. 2016. Christian Karl Reisig as an upholder of philosophical linguistics in 19th century Germany. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in 19th century, Article, Europe, Germany, History, Linguistics, Pragmatics, Semantics
One comment on “Christian Karl Reisig as an upholder of philosophical linguistics in 19th century Germany
  1. Lovely summary of Reisig’s work!

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