The secret history of grammaticalization

James McElvenny
Universität Potsdam

Research into grammaticalization has an established pedigree, first certified by Lehmann (2015[1982]: 1-9) and confirmed, with various additions, by Heine et al (1991: 5-23) and Hopper & Traugott (2003[1993]: 19-38).[1] The standard genealogy records the birth of the term “grammaticalization” in more or less its present-day sense with Antoine Meillet (1866–1936), but recognises an intellectual lineage extending back at least to the Enlightenment. Among the immediate predecessors of Meillet, Georg von der Gabelentz (1840–1893) is accorded a significant place for proposing an account of the emergence of grammatical forms that prefigures Meillet’s in several key respects. The standard narrative is without doubt correct, but at the same time excessively sketchy, omitting important details. The place of Gabelentz, in particular, deserves greater attention.

The locus classicus of grammaticalization is Meillet’s (1921[1912]) paper “L’évolution des formes grammaticales”. There grammaticalisation is described as the “attribution du caractère grammatical à un mot jadis autonome” (“attribution of a grammatical character to a word that was once independent”; Meillet 1921[1912]: 131). In Meillet’s account, which builds on 19th-century agglutination theory, there is a continuum of forms in every language ranging from fully independent content-bearing words to affixes that have a purely grammatical meaning. Grammaticalization is the ever-acting and inevitable process by which these linguistic elements are “weakened” in their meaning and form, with the result that they move along this continuum from full words to affixes:

L’affaiblissement du sens et l’affaiblissement de la forme des mots accessoires vont de pair; quand l’un et l’autre sont assez avancés, le mot accessoire peut finir par ne plus être qu’un élément privé de sens propre, joint à un mot principal pour en marquer le rôle grammatical. Le changement d’un mot en élément grammatical est accompli.

The weakening of meaning and the weakening of form of accessory words go together; when they are both sufficiently advanced, the accessory word can end up as an element that no longer has its own meaning, but which is joined to a principal word in order to mark its grammatical role. The transition from a word into a grammatical element is accomplished.
(Meillet 1921[1912]: 139)

Additionally, he sees all languages as developing in a “sort of spiral”: “Les langues suivent ainsi une sorte de développement en spirale” (Meillet 1921[1912]: 140). As linguistic elements are weakened and worn away, they are replaced by new ones, which are in turn subject to the same process. This weakening in meaning and form results from simple repetition in normal usage. The introduction of new elements is driven by a desire on the part of speakers to be more “expressive” (Meillet 1921[1912]: 135-136, 146 et passim).

As is highlighted by Lehmann (2015[1982]: 3-4), Hopper & Traugott (2003[1993]: 20-21) and Heine et al (1991: 9), these key elements of Meillet’s account — the “weakening”, the spiral, and the complementary tendencies that lead to the spiral — were already present in much the same configuration in Gabelentz’ own summary of agglutination theory. In the following passage from Gabelentz’ magnum opus, Die Sprachwissenschaft (2016[1891]; quoted by Lehmann op. cit. and in part by Heine et al 1991: 8), a spiral conception of linguistic history is invoked, resulting from the opposing Bequemlichkeitstrieb (“drive to comfort”) and Deutlichkeitstrieb (“drive to distinctness”):

Nun bewegt sich die Geschichte der Sprachen in der Diagonale zweier Kräfte: des Bequemlichkeitstriebes, der zur Abnutzung der Laute führt, und des Deutlichkeitstriebes, der jene Abnutzung nicht zur Zerstörung der Sprache ausarten läßt. Die Affixe verschleifen sich, verschwinden am Ende spurlos; ihre Funktionen aber oder ähnliche drängen wieder nach Ausdruck. Diesen Ausdruck erhalten sie, nach der Methode der isolierenden Sprachen, durch Wortstellung oder verdeutlichende Wörter. Letztere unterliegen wiederum mit der Zeit dem Agglutinationsprozesse, dem Verschliffe und Schwunde, und derweile bereitet sich für das Verderbende neuer Ersatz vor: periphrastische Ausdrücke werden bevorzugt; mögen sie syntaktische Gefüge oder wahre Komposita sein (englisch: I shall see, — lateinisch videbo = vide-fuo); immer gilt das Gleiche: die Entwicklungslinie krümmt sich zurück nach der Seite der Isolation, nicht in die alte Bahn, sondern in eine annähernd parallele. Darum vergleiche ich sie der Spirale.

The history of languages moves across the diagonal of two forces: the drive to comfort, which leads to the wearing down of sounds, and the drive to distinctness, which prevents this wearing down from ending up in the destruction of the language. The affixes are slurred, and in the end disappear without a trace; but their functions or similar functions push again for expression. They receive this expression according to the method of the isolating languages, through word order or clarifying words. These words are in turn subject to the processes of agglutination over time, to slurring and disappearance, and meanwhile new replacements are are prepared for that which is decaying: periphrastic expressions are preferred, whether they are syntactic structures or true compounds (English “I shall see” – Latin videbo = vide-fuo). The same principle is always true: the line of development bends back to the side of isolation, not in the old path, but in a closely parallel one. For this reason I compare it to a spiral.
(Gabelentz 2016[1891]: 269)

Lehmann (2015[1982]: 4) and, presumably following him, Hopper & Traugott (2003[1993]: 21) and Heine et al (1991: 8) seem to credit Gabelentz as the originator of these notions. There are, however, clear antecedents in earlier linguistic scholarship, and indeed Gabelentz himself claims no originality. Of the spiral conception of history, he explicitly says, “Zu dieser Theorie sind gewiss schon viele Andere vor mir gelangt, — ich weiss nicht, wer zuerst” (“Many have definitely come to this theory before me — I do not know who [was] first”; Gabelentz 2016[1891]: 269; cf. Plank 1992).

The specific opposition that Gabelentz sets up between the drives to Bequemlichkeit and Deutlichkeit may be original, but considerations of this sort were not unknown in previous work. Georg Curtius (1820–1885), for one, had by mid-century already proposed Bequemlichkeit in articulation as the driving force behind sound change. Slowing the progress of the phonetic Verwitterung (“weathering”) brought about by the tendency to greater comfort in articulation was the need to preserve the distinctness of meaning-bearing elements in words. Curtius’ formulation was widely received by his contemporaries and is signposted by Berthold Delbrück (1842–1922; 1919: 172-173) as one of the waypoints in his history of Indo-European linguistics.

Similar notions appear in the work of William Dwight Whitney (1827–1894), with specific reference to the development of new grammatical forms through the process of agglutination. Whitney’s (1875: 49-74) “tendency to ease or economy”, much like Curtius’ Bequemlichkeit, operates on a phonetic level both to shorten individual words and to render the overall phonological system of languages easier to pronounce. But the tendency to economy does not simply wear away at words; it also serves to create new forms by compacting collocations and compounds:

Thus the tendency to economy, in the very midst of its destructive action, is at the same time constructive. It begins with producing those very forms which it is afterward to mutilate and wear out. Without it, compound words and aggregated phrases would remain ever such. Its influence is always cast in favor of subordinating in substance what is subordinate in meaning, of integrating and unifying what would otherwise be of loose structure — in short, of disguising the derivation of linguistic signs, making them signs merely, and signs easy to manage.
(Whitney 1875: 53)

What Whitney had in mind here has as much affinity to modern grammaticalization theory as anything Gabelentz had to say. Whitney’s illustrations of this process include such classic examples of present-day grammaticalization as the English suffix -ly and its Romance counterpart -ment(e), and the Romance future as represented by French donner-ai (Whitney 1875: 122-124).[2]

The historical background to grammaticalization is not only broader than the standard history suggests, but also much richer. Lehmann (2015[1982]: 4), Hopper & Traugott (2003[1993]: 21) and Heine et al (1991: 8) seem to confine Gabelentz’ drives to the phonetic plane. Hopper & Traugott, in particular, describe them as operating to effect only “renewal”; that is, the development of new means to express existing grammatical categories, whose forms have been worn away.

But Gabelentz’ drives went beyond renewal and could be considered to touch on what in present-day grammaticalization theory is referred to as “innovation”, or the creation of wholly new grammatical categories. This is of particular importance, since innovation is frequently cited — e.g. by Meillet (1921[1912]: 133) and Lehmann (2004: 184-186) — as the key property that sets grammaticalization apart as a unique process in human language.[3]

Gabelentz held that all of grammar is merely solidified style (see McElvenny 2016). In language there is a progression along the continuum Möglichkeit — Regel — Gesetz (“possibility — rule — law”; Gabelentz 2016[1891]: 406-408). What begins as just one among many possible means of expression chosen by a speaker becomes, through repeated use, the rule or standard form of expression, and then finally a law stipulating the required and only permissible form. This restriction can then be broken, leading to innovation in the grammar, but at this point the novel expression is no longer a free choice from among numerous possibilities, but rather an act of liberation from the law.

Grammar is a Luxus (“luxury”) that we grant ourselves; it emerges from yet another drive, the Formungstrieb (“drive to formation”). This is the desire to shape our speech as we please, according to our whims and fancies, rather than just providing a flat, objective description of the world. The Formungstrieb, argues Gabelentz, is simply part of the more general Spieltrieb (“play-drive”), using Friedrich Schiller’s (1759–1805; 1960[1795]) term for the general aesthetic drive that motivates all artistic efforts:

Es ist doch nur eine höhere Stufe des Spieltriebes, jenes Gefallen an freier, künstlerischer Formung, das in frischer Laune jeder Schöpfung den Stempel der eigenen Individualität und Stimmung aufdrücken muss. Es sei die künstlerische Leistung noch so gering: schon jener Überschuss von Arbeit, die ich meinem Werke über den blossen Nützlichkeitsbedarf hinaus zugewendet habe, ist ein Stück Liebe gewesen und hat dem todten Stoffe für alle Zeiten einen Hauch des Persönlichen gegeben. Und ebenso geschah es mit der Sprache. Die Seele verlangte ein Mehreres als jenen Geschäftsstil, der in objectiver Klarheit alles Nothwendige sagt und weiter nichts. Sie will in der Sache sich selbst wiederfinden, wie sie sich ihrer Welt gegenüber gemüthvoll, phantastisch, launenhaft verhält, will, – dass ich den Ausdruck wiederhole, – nicht nur etwas, sondern auch sich selbst aussprechen, und wird um so sicherer den Hörer nicht nur zum Mitdenken, sondern auch zum Mitfühlen zwingen. Da wirthschaftet sie aus dem Vollen, – sie ist ja so reich; da wird auch dem Kleinsten etwas von eigener Zuthat angeheftet, erst nach der Eingebung des Augenblickes, scheinbar regellos und doch immer bedeutsam; dann je länger je mehr unter dem Zwange gewohnheitsmässiger Normen.

It is just a higher level of the play-drive, that joy at free, artistic formation, that in fresh fancy puts the stamp of its own individuality and mood on every creation. Even when the artistic achievement was still slight, that little surplus of effort that I made on my work over and above bare utility was already a piece of love, and gave the dead material a breath of the personal for all time. And precisely the same thing happened with language. The soul demands something more than that simple business-like style that says in objective clarity all that is necessary and nothing more. It wants to identify itself with the thing, how it relates to its world, temperamentally, fancifully, moodily. I repeat the expression from earlier: it wants not only to express something but also itself, and wants not only to more securely compel the listener to share a thought, but also share a feeling. Here it conducts its business to the full – it is indeed so rich that it adds some of its own ingredient even to the smallest bit, at first according to the inspiration of the moment, apparently without rule but always meaningfully; then as time progresses ever more under the force of habitual norms.
(Gabelentz 2016[1891]: 381)

Deutlichkeit or “distinctness”, in an extended sense, lies behind the Formungstrieb. On this level, distinctness is a temperamental and aesthetic category. It is not simply a matter of amplifying a faded phonetic signal; it is also about branding the linguistic expression with the speaker’s own individual, subjective feeling:

Nicht immer jedoch ist das Deutlichkeitsbedürfniss seinem Grunde und Zwecke nach geschäftlich: es kann auch gemüthlich und ästhetisch sein, und dann redet man wohl lieber von ausdrucksvoller, anschaulicher, eindringlicher Sprache, als von deutlicher. Und doch ist es im Grunde immer die Deutlichkeit, auf die es dabei ankommt. Es fragt sich nur: Was soll angedeutet werden, was wird bedeutet? Auch jene Formen und Wendungen in der Rede dienen der Deutlichkeit, in denen der Redende und Phrasen, die der Rede das Gepräge breiter Gemüthlichkeit, bedächtiger Überlegung oder heftiger Erregung verleihen, die Äusserungen der Bescheidenheit und Höflichkeit, Umschreibungen aller Art, Euphemismen und ihr Gegentheil, die der Sache besondere Merkmale abgwennen, – man denke an die vielerlei Ausdrücke für sterben, betrunken sein u.s.w. Deutlich in diesem Sinne ist das Persönliche und Zarte nicht minder, als das Sachliche und Derbe.

However, the reason and purpose of the need for distinctness is not always related to business: it can also be temperamental and aesthetic, and in this case we prefer to speak more of expressive, vivid, striking language than distinct language. But it is still related to essentially the same distinctness. The question is only: what is supposed to be indicated, what is meant? Distinctness is served even by those forms and turns of speech in which the speaker manifests his subjectivity or wants to influence the mood of the hearer, those particles and phrases that give speech the character of broad temperament, considered thought or hefty excitement, the manifestations of modesty and politeness, circumlocutions of all kinds, euphemisms and their opposites, which emphasise particular properties of things. We might think of the many expressions for “to die”, “to be drunk”, etc. What is clear in this sense is no less the personal and tender than the objective and rough.
(Gabelentz 2016[1891]: 194)

Meillet’s use of “expressive” would seem to involve similar subjective and aesthetic considerations. Expressivité was a central concept in the contemporary stylistic work of such figures as Charles Bally (1865–1947), which drives speakers to shun old and hackneyed linguistic expressions and promotes the creation of new, more vivid forms (see Hellmann 1988: 65-70). Bally (1965[1913]: 41-43) also illustrated one of his discussions of expressivité with those now familiar examples of grammaticalization in the Romance languages, the cyclical development of the periphrastic future and the emergence of the -ment(e) suffix. While Meillet was not uncritical of Bally’s work in stylistics and other related efforts of the time (see, e.g., Meillet 1910; 1913; 1926), he cites, in a footnote later added to his classic grammaticalization paper (Meillet 1921[1912]: 148), Bally and Leo Spitzer (1887–1960) for the light they cast on the “rôle du sentiment dans la création des formes grammaticales” (“role of sentiment in the creation of grammatical forms”).

There is much more to be said about the place of Gabelentz in the history of grammaticalization than the standard narrative might suggest. In one respect, he was not necessarily the great innovator he is often portrayed to be: his competing forces of comfort and distinctness and the spiral they produce were all very much present in contemporary linguistic discourse. In another respect, his conceptions of the nature of grammar and of what consituted comfort and distinctness are more multi-faceted than generally assumed.

I would like to thank Arwen Cross and Johannes Mücke for their comments on draft versions of this post.


[1] Lehmann (2015[1982]) and Gabelentz (2016[1891]) have both recently appeared in new editions from the open access publisher Language Science Press. These books can be downloaded for free or bought from print on demand for the price of printing and postage alone.

[2] In their summary history of grammaticalization, Heine et al (1991: 7-8) mention Whitney (1875) for principles of semantic change he proposed that involve the movement of linguistic elements towards grammatical meanings. They do not discuss his “tendency to ease or economy”, however.

[3] While Meillet (1921[1912]) clearly discussed the notion of innovation as a key property of grammaticalization, he only introduced an explicit distinction between “renewal” and “innovation” later, in Meillet (1921[1915]; cf. Lehmann 2015[1982]: 5).


Bally, Charles. 1965[1913]. Le langage et la vie. Genève: Droz.

Delbrück, Berthold. 61919. Einleitung in das Studium der Indogermanischen Sprachen. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel.

Gabelentz, Georg von der. 2016[1891]. Die Sprachwissenschaft: ihre Aufgaben, Methoden und bisherigen Ergebnisse. Herausgegeben von Manfred Ringmacher and James McElvenny. Berlin: Language Science Press.

Heine, Bernd, Ulrike Claudi and Frederike Hünnemeyer. 1991. Grammaticalization: a conceptual framework. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hellmann, Wilhelm. 1988. Charles Bally: Frühwerk — Rezeption — Bibliographie. Bonn: Romanist Verlag.

Hopper, Paul & Elizabeth Traugott. 2003[1993]. Grammaticalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lehmann, Christian. 2004. Theory and method in grammaticalization. Zeitschrift für germanistische Linguistik 32.2: 152-187. Pre-print:

Lehmann, Christian. 2015[1982]. Thoughts on Grammaticalization. Berlin: Language Science Press.

McElvenny, James. 2016. The fate of form in the Humboldtian tradition: the Formungstrieb of Georg von der Gabelentz. Language and Communciation 47: 30-42.

Meillet, Antoine. 1910. Compte-rendu: Ch. Bally — Traité de stylistique française. Bulletin de la Société de linguistique de Paris 16: cxviii-cxxii.

Meillet, Antoine. 1913. Compte-rendu: Ch. Bally — Le langage et la vie. Bulletin de la Société de linguistique de Paris 18: clxxix-clxxxii.

Meillet, Antoine. 1921[1912]. L’évolution des formes grammaticales. In: Meillet (1921), 130-148. (Original in Scientia [Rivista di Scienza] 12.26. Available at: )

Meillet, Antoine. 1921[1915]. Le renouvellement des conjonctions. In: Meillet (1921), 159-174. (Original in Annuaire de l’École Pratique des Hautes Études, section historique et philologique 48.1: 9-28)

Meillet, Antoine, ed. 1921. Linguistique historique et linguistique générale. Paris: Champion.

Meillet, Antoine. 1926. Compte-rendu: Ch. Bally — Le langage et la vie, seconde édition. Bulletin de la Société de linguistique de Paris 27.82: 14-16.

Plank, Frans. 1992. Language and Earth as Recycling Machines. In: Naumann, Bernd, Frans Plank, Gottfried Hofbauer, eds., Language and Earth: effective affinities between the emerging sciences of linguistics and geology, 221-269. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Schiller, Friedrich. 1960[1795]. Briefe über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen. Edited by Albert Reble. Bad Heilbrunn: Klinkhardt.

Whitney, William Dwight. 1875. The Life and Growth of Language. London: King & Co.

How to cite this post

McElvenny, James. 2016. The secret history of grammaticalization. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, Article, Europe, History, Linguistics, Pragmatics, Semantics
4 comments on “The secret history of grammaticalization
  1. jeanmfort says:

    thank you for this post James. You show very well how dual phenomena (decay / innovation or reformation) and dual principles (economy / expressivity) are a sort of common frame on which the linguists you mention spin their own story. Looking into the history of other sciences would be worthy of interest, I think. Craig Christy in his book on uniformitarianism in linguistics has emphasized the connection to geology, and uniformitarianism is clearly the background for cyclic views of linguistic change (see too the notion of cyclic evolution in geology). In the case of Gabelentz’s version of the dual principles, the Formungstrieb seems to owe something to the organic Bildungstrieb of Blumenbach, whom Humboldt was acquainted with. Is this a line of research you would like to pursue?

    • James says:

      Thanks very much for your comment, Jean-Michel.

      On the possible links between the notion of cyclic evolution in geology and linguistics respectively, Frans Plank also has quite a bit to say in the paper of his that I’ve cited above.

      In McElvenny (2016), also cited above, I briefly explored the possible influence of the Bildungstrieb on Gabelentz’ Formungstrieb (following a tip-off from you). Humboldt has a notion of the Bildungstrieb in language, which is no doubt inspired by the vitalistic Bildungstrieb of Blumenbach. My sense is that Gabelentz was well informed about linguistics — which, by his time, was a well-established field — but had limited knowledge and contact outside his own discipline. So there is no doubt a lineage Gabelentz — Humboldt — Blumenbach to be explored, and I’d very much like to look into it, but I suspect Gabelentz’ own contact with vitalism and biology more generally does not extend beyond what he read in the writings of other linguists, including Humboldt.

  2. Hi James, I enjoyed your post. I was wondering, given Gabelentz’s expertise in Chinese, to what extent in his own writings he mentions the native Chinese linguistic tradition, which quite early on had noticed the phenomenon of lexical words becoming grammatical words, something, as you will know, that is obvious to anyone learning even the modern language, since they are most written with the same character. The locus classicus for this is the dictum of Zhou Boqi 周伯琪 writing during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) that “today’s empty (functional / grammatical) words are all ancient full (notional / lexical) words: 今之虚字,皆古之实字. There’s an interesting recent piece by a Chinese scholar – English and Chinese publication details below – which argues that Zhou was actually talking about the creation of written characters, and even by the time of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) philologists such as Yuan Renlin 猿人林 were still struggling to separate the discussion of words (lexical and grammatical) from the different character types. Does Gabelentz reference the phenomenon and / or the description of grammaticalisation in Chinese at all? It would be interesting to know if he was adding this element into the European intellectual mix, something presumably not accessible to other scholars like Meillet.

    Liu, Yonghua. 2013. Investigation into the idea that “Today’s functional words all came from yesterday’s notional words”. Language Sciences, 12.2, 171-177.
    刘永华 “今之虚字,皆古之实字”考察《语言科学》第12卷第二期,2013年3月

    • James says:

      Thanks for your comment, Edward.

      Yes, Gabelentz was very aware of the “full/empty word” distinction in the Chinese linguistic tradition and explicitly refers to it. I think it’s fair to say that it was pretty well known throughout European linguistic scholarship by this time.

      Here Gabelentz (1881), Chinesische Grammatik, pp. 112-113, introduces the traditional Chinese distinction, with some references to other European grammars that pick it up:

      Earlier, pp.90ff, he discusses the apparent “isolating” character of Chinese and how Chinese cannot be seen as a “pure root language”:

      In his Sprachwissenschaft he talks at various points about how Chinese is caught up in the grammaticalization spiral — how the language was probably not originally isolating and how the modern language is once again tending towards agglutination. He also mentions auxiliary words (Hülfswörter in his now antiquated German) as true formal elements even in isolating languages. You can read comments to this effect on pp. 270, 365-366 et passim:

      See, e.g., Ringmacher (1996), pp. 163-164, for a brief discussion with references of what Steinthal, Humboldt and Abel Rémusat had to say about “empty words” in the Chinese tradition:

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