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.

As a young scholar at the University of Turin, Terracini was educated in the positivist Italian school, the so-called scuola storica, which was widely recognized for its contributions to European positivistic linguistics (Lucchini 22008). One of the most prestigious journals of the time was the Archivio Glottologico Italiano, founded in 1873 by the great Italian linguist Graziadio Isaia Ascoli (1829–1907). In the Archivio, Terracini published his first linguistic work, Il parlare di Usseglio, a study of the dialect of a Piedmontese Alpine village, Usseglio (Terracini 1914–1922). A typical positivistic linguistic inquiry – based on interviews with native speakers and accurate descriptions of the phonetic, morphological, lexical and syntactical system of a language – the theoretical basis of the study was Jules Gilliéron’s linguistique géographique, which had a great methodological importance at the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, the Atlas Linguistique de la France (1902–1910), realized by Gilliéron and Edmond Edmont (1849–1926), as well as Gilliéron’s studies based on that monumental work (such as, for example, Gilliéron-Roques 1912) represented a surprising discovery for many positivist scholars of the time. As the Italian linguist Carlo Tagliavini (1903–1982) wrote:

I lavori di Gilliéron, scritti generalmente in collaborazione con allievi e colleghi, aprirono una nuova via nella linguistica moderna e rivelarono un’infinità di problemi che prima erano assolutamente ignorati. (Tagliavini 61982: 27)

(Gilliéron’s works, generally written in collaboration with colleagues and pupils, opened a new way in modern linguistics and revealed a whole host of problems that were completey ignored before.)

One of the leading Italian representatives of the linguistica spaziale was Terracini’s teacher, Matteo Giulio Bartoli (1873–1946; see Bartoli 1945), who founded in 1924 the Atlante Linguistico Italiano. Terracini’s first work clearly reflected Bartoli’s approach but with specific attention to some issues that he would develop in the following years, mainly the role of individual in linguistic change and the historical basis of linguistics. Like Gilliéron and the geographic linguistics, Terracini was mostly interested in how a linguistic innovation was born and how it entered the common language of a community of speakers: geography could be a relevant factor in etymological explanations. Usseglio presented a particularly interesting case study. None of its five main hamlets (borgate) had sufficient cultural or political prestige to be able to impose its own linguistic innovation on the others: the struggle was open. Already in this first study, Terracini gave great importance to the concept of struggle (lotta) between words, which he would significantly deepen in his later works, especially during his Argentinian exile.

In 1951, he published an entire volume dedicated to linguistic conflicts: Conflictos de lenguas y cultura, which first appeared in Spanish (Buenos Aires, 1951), and was translated into Italian (and considerably revised) six years later. The conflict was no longer between the borgate of a small village, but between complex linguistic (and cultural) systems – such as the Gaulish language and Latin in Provence during the Roman domination or Spanish and Quichua in the Argentinian province of Santiago del Estero in the 40s – whose contact determined the death or the gradual extinction of one of these systems. In this case, Terracini’s focus was no longer on winners, but on losers.

In the opening chapter of the book – Come muore una lingua – Terracini studied several historical examples of dead (or dying) languages. In this case as well, he found an important antecedent in Bartoli’s study of the extinct Romance language spoken until the end of the 19th century in Dalmatia (the dalmatico; Bartoli 1906). However, in the 40s and 50s, Terracini’s perspective was quite different: even if he continued to use, as a methodological basis, the geographical linguistics of Bartoli (and Gilliéron), his main interests were the struggle between individual and language, the interaction between language and culture, as well as the historical nature of language.

Like many other linguists of the time, Terracini was deeply influenced by the Romance linguist Hugo Schuchardt (1842–1927): the centrality of the individual activity (Tätigkeit) as the main source of linguistic change (Sprachwandel), as well as his idea of linguistic contact and language mixing (Sprachmischung) were crucial for Terracini’s concept of linguistic conflict (conflitto). At the same time, the aesthetics (estetica) of Benedetto Croce (1866–1952) had a great impact on Terracini, as it did on the majority of Italian linguists and literary scholars of the first decades of the 20th century. Even if he did not agree with Croce’s identification between linguistics (linguistica) and aesthetics (estetica), Terracini shared the conviction that it is necessary to consider linguistic facts in conjunction with culture and history.

Another key reference point for Terracini was the Romance scholar Karl Vossler (1872–1949): a great friend of Croce, he wrote influential works on the interaction between language and the individual, linguistics and cultural history (Kulturgeschichte). Even though he was not an idealist, Terracini derived from Croce and Vossler’s (neo-)idealistic linguistics the belief in the strict bonds between language and other human activities, particularly literature. Terracini admired Vossler’s great study of the connection between French culture and the development of French language: in fact, language (Sprache) as a mirror of culture (Kultur), and consequently the direct interaction between language, culture, history and literature, was the fundamental principle of Vossler’s Frankreichs Kultur im Spiegel seiner Sprachentwicklung (Vossler 21921). Moreover, Vossler (like Leo Spitzer [1887–1960], another scholar who was of great importance for Terracini) provided concrete examples of the connections between linguistics and style, which was at the basis of modern stylistics (Stefanelli 2017). We should not be surprised at the fact that Terracini was also one of the leading representatives of Italian stylistics after World War II: his Analisi stilistica (Terracini 21975) is one of the most significant works of European stylistics in this period.

The various reference points of Terracini’s thought found a common source in Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835): the Humboldtian dialectic between language as an objective fact (ergon) and language as a subjective activity (Energeia) was at the basis of the complex theoretical reflection of Terracini. His historicism (storicismo) was strictly connected to his focus on individual activity: only in a diachronic, historical perspective could we hope to understand the individual and “spiritual” roots of linguistic change. Terracini considered language as unavoidably connected to historical (and cultural) events, and insisted on investigating linguistic change from a historicist perspective. As he wrote in the first chapter of his Guida allo studio della linguistica storica, Schuchardt’s main role in the history of the linguistics was having put at the centre of linguistic research the historical and cultural individuality of each word. This was part of a general “return to Humboldt” (ritorno a Humboldt), which at the end of the 19th century characterized not only linguistics, but also many other disciplines (aesthetics, literary studies, psychology; Trabant 1990; Venier 2012).

What is most interesting in Terracini’s case is the fact that his theoretical interests strictly and constantly interacted with an awareness of the history of modern linguistics: Terracini was simultaneously a great theoretician and a great historian. The subtitle of Analisi stilistica shows the coexistence of theory, history and practical examples in Terracini’s perspective on stylistics: Teoria, storia, problemi. The structure of the book similarly reveals this alliance of theory and history; the book is divided into a historical-theoretical part and a practical one. After three chapters dealing with the history and theory of stylistics in the first half of the 20th century in its relation with linguistics and aesthetics, we read four concrete stylistic analyses applied to Italian literary texts (the canto XXVII of Dante’s Inferno and Dante’s Vita nova; Manzoni’s poem Il Cinque Maggio; Pirandello’s tales).

However, the most interesting example of Terracini’s historiography is the Guida allo studio della linguistica storica (1946). It represents not only a remarkable historiographical work, but also a peculiar mix between two periods of Terracini’s life (before and after the exile in Argentina), as well as two worlds (Italy and South America). His composite structure reflects this cultural and geographical complexity. The first chapter (Che cosa è la linguistica?) was originally published in Spanish, in Argentina, at the beginning of the 40s (Qué es la lingüística?, Tucumán, 1942). Conceived as an introduction to the main theoretical problems of linguistics in the first half of the 20th century, it was a concise and conceptually thick history of linguistics from the beginning of the 19th century to the first decades of the 20th century:

  1. La linguistica empirica;
    Empirical linguistics;
  2. Le origini della linguistica scientifica;
    The origins of scientific linguistics;
  3. Primo periodo: il metodo comparativo;
    First period: the comparative method;
  4. Periodo storico-evolutivo;
    Historical-evolutionary period;
  5. I problemi della linguistica contemporanea.
    The problems of contemporary linguistics.

Terracini’s Guida does not simply follow the structure of a classical handbook. After the first chapter, the structure of the book changes: rather than offering a description of each historical period, Terracini focussed on the activity of some leading linguists: Franz Bopp (1781–1867), William Dwight Whitney (1827–1894), Ascoli, Wilhelm Meyer-Lübke (1861–1936), Antoine Meillet (1866–1936), Gilliéron and Schuchardt became the “heroes” of a complex history, based on continuities and interruptions, crises and methodological revolutions. Some of these critical and biographical sketches of important linguists had already appeared in the 20s and 30s and had already been collected by Terracini in another Argentinian book, the Perfiles de lingüístas (Tucumán, 1946). Once again, the Guida summed up various periods (and places) of Terracini’s activity, as a sort of summary of his linguistic thought, strictly connected with the historical and cultural context of the first decades of the century.

The most intriguing feature of Terracini’s Guida is its deep awareness of the inevitably contemporary motivations of all historiographical activity. Terracini seemed to follow the famous and always valid motto of Croce: “all true history is contemporary history” (ogni vera storia è storia contemporanea). If he chose to become a historian of his own discipline, it was because he felt that something surprisingly new and potentially puzzling had happened at the beginning of the 20th century: the positivistic methods were in crisis and one could not exactly understand what had replaced them. Using a botanic analogy, Terracini depicted the relation between the “old trunk” of the comparative grammar and the “sprouts of a younger linguistics”, which he called “linguistics 900”, in order to define the methodological and theoretical innovations of the discipline in the first decades of the 20th century:

Mentre questo antico tronco continua a gettare i suoi rami, vi si inseriscono i germogli di una linguistica più giovane che vorrei chiamare linguistica 900: quella con cui cerchiamo di operare noi oggi, quando la dialettica della nostra ricerca ci conduce a renderci conto che i nostri espedienti metodici – e quindi le nostre esigenze teoriche – non sono più gli stessi che potevano accontentare la maggioranza dei nostri maestri. Di questa linguistica, come di qualunque scienza in azione, è meno facile fissare i risultati che indicare i problemi che la caratterizzano. (Terracini 1949: 32-3)

(While this old trunk continues to sprout its branches, the sprouts of a younger linguistics, which I would call linguistics 900, grow on it: the linguistics with which we try to work today, when the dialectics of our research leads us to realize that our methodological devices – and therefore our theoretical necessities – are no more those that could satisfy the majority of our masters. It is less easy fixing the results of this linguistics (as well as of every science in action) than showing the problems that characterize it.)

The main purpose of Terracini’s Guida was to understand the problems characterizing linguistica 900. To do so, he traced the origins of German comparative linguistics, the creation of the comparative method and the new approaches between the 19th and the 20th centuries. The last chapter of the book was dedicated to Schuchardt, a central figure in Terracini’s fascinating narration of the history of modern linguistics: linguistica 900 started with Schuchardt, who was the ideal father of a new era of linguistic studies.

To sum up, Terracini’s Guida was not only a remarkable example of non-canonical and structurally original historiography, but it was also a sort of summary of the most important theoretical and methodological issues of the linguistics of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. The fruitful interaction between history and theory, the great historical (and historiographical) awareness of the most important theoretical problems of linguistics, together with a conceptually complex but extremely clear style, make Terracini’s Guida a still valuable example of historiography.


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Bartoli, Matteo Giulio (1945). Saggi di linguistica spaziale. Torino: Rosenberg & Sellier.

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How to cite this post

Stefanelli, Diego. 2017. Benvenuto Terracini and the history of linguistics between the 19th and 20th century. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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

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