Henry Sweet, a model for John Rupert Firth?

Angela Senis
Université Bordeaux Montaigne

This post introduces a few of the insights developed during the Henry Sweet Society colloquium in 2017. My full research on this topic is the subject of a paper that is soon to be proposed for academic publication and where the topic is much further developed.

This is also the occasion to thank again the Henry Sweet Society for awarding me the Verburg-Salmon 2017 grant, which made this contribution possible.

Henry Sweet is widely mentioned and quoted throughout John Rupert Firth’s work. Palmer claims Firth even liked to be compared to Sweet and that there were similarities, with both acting as “a voice crying in the wilderness” on academic grounds (Palmer 1968:1). However, the relation between both men is hardly a simple one and, although they never met, their connection most certainly contributed to the scientific orientation of the London School.

The goal here is to show that Firth’s regard for Sweet is consistent with the views of many other contemporary members of the London School. Firth’s appraisal of Sweet sheds light on common points between both men. Firth’s assessment of Sweet’s contribution to the field unveils Firth’s own academic pre-occupations. In spite of the would-be continuity advocated by Firth himself, this paper aims at showing the limits of such a stance by focussing on major contradictions which jeopardize Firth’s claims.

1. Sweet and the members of the London School

Firth’s admiration of Sweet stands out in his writings but was not isolated, since other members of the London School – such as Daniel Jones, Charles Leslie Wrenn and Jane Andrina Eugenie Henderson, among others – manifested a similar attitude. Firth hints at their appraisals and, in doing so, legitimates his own claims to a Sweetian legacy.

Collins and Mees (1999:42) claim that Jones (1881–1967) and Sweet (1845–1912) knew each other and emphasise the role Sweet played as one of Jones’ main inspirations. Jones himself confirms the major role Sweet played not only for him but also at a national level and beyond, widening the scope of his influence (Jones 1935:44-51).

Jones’ appraisal of Sweet was largely echoed throughout the London School. In 1956b, Firth delivered his presidential address to the Philological Society. In his talk, he chose to adopt a historical perspective and discussed the former speeches. Among them, he put particular weight on Wrenn’s address (‘Henry Sweet’, 1946), which commemorated both the centenary of Sweet’s birthday and of the creation of the Philological Society:

As Professor Wrenn reminded us, Henry Sweet was one of our greatest pioneer leaders and also perhaps the greatest philologist that our country has so far produced.

(Firth, 1956b: 53–54)

Even though they held a common opinion of Sweet, Wrenn cited a few other names, such as W. Skeat, J. Murray, F. J. Furnivall, A. J. Ellis. Firth left all these aside in order to concentrate exclusively on the importance of Sweet.

It is also interesting to read Henderson (1914–1989) on the question, since she stood at the crossroads between Sweet and Firth. She worked in the Department of Phonetics and Linguistics at the SOAS, headed by Firth from 1942 on, and she published the most valuable Indispensable Foundation: a selection from the writings of Henry Sweet (1971), a work that gathered Sweet’s most important writings. He we can read:

He was a brilliant phonetician, a highly distinguished comparative and historical linguist, a perspicacious grammarian, an eminent Anglicist, the inventor of an excellent system of shorthand, and a passionate advocate of spelling reform; and his work in any one of these fields was enriched through his knowledge of the others.

(Henderson, 1971: ix)

In this quotation, Henderson adopts Firth’s feeling concerning Sweet’s superior knowledge and his idiosyncratic role in the study of language in Great Britain (Firth 1949, 1950, 1956b).

2. Firth’s appraisal of Sweet

2.1 Some obvious affinities

One of the most recurring characteristics Firth and Sweet share, if we confront the sources, is the propensity to challenge an established order personally or to encourage people around them to do so. This is what Sweet announced in his presidential address to the Philological Society (Sweet 1879:1). When Palmer describes Firth’s main achievement in the introduction of the Selected Papers of J. R. Firth, 1952-1959, it definitely echoes Sweet’s own words:

[Firth’s] greatest achievement was perhaps that of making people think again and refuse merely to accept the traditional approaches to language, by, for instance, questioning the value of normative grammar and the validity for language study of the dualism of mind and body.

(Palmer in Firth 1968: 1)

Nevertheless, Firth’s strength of character is not always for the better, as Palmer’s description points out when he portrays Firth as ‘brusque, often to the point of rudeness, and autocratic’ (Palmer in Brown & Law 2002:232).

This is but another common point with Sweet, according to different studies and testimonies (Collins & Mees 1999: 47–48). Howatt and Widdowson (1984: 200) claim that Sweet’s ‘mixture of presumption and shyness […] made him a difficult man to like’ and see a link with his having been turned down from several academic positions. However, these shared characteristics did not prevent Firth from being awarded the first chair of General Linguistics in 1944 at the SOAS, a distinction Sweet hardly achieved.

2.2 Sweet’s direct and indirect contribution

When Firth describes Sweet’s contribution to language studies, the first and major one he points out is ‘the phoneme idea’ as being ‘implicit in Sweet’s Broad Romic’ (Handbook of Phonetics, 1877).

In a genealogy Firth drafts of the London School (1946), Firth adds the roles played by Sir William Jones in the effective creation of the London School and by Henry Sweet in the federating role he played in gathering British language scientists in a single School.

According to Firth, this gives legitimacy to Sweet being named the founder of the London School for having promoted intellectual autonomy and credibility both at a national and an international level, leading to the official acknowledgement of the School.

3. Firth distancing himself from Sweet

Firth’s admiration for Sweet, however, is not completely blind since a few major irreconcilable differences characterise their theoretical systems. They are the reflection of fundamental divergences and clearly jeopardize any notion of legacy from Sweet to Firth.

3.1 The academical considerations

The first stumbling block concerns Sweet’s stance on the lack of systematic education of British linguists. It seems quite consistent with the historical context and refers to the hegemonic status of the German philologists of the 19th century. One must keep in mind that most of the English linguists of the time had been trained there, such as Sweet in Heidelberg (1864) and Jones in Marburg (1900–1901). Firth’s struggle for intellectual autonomy and the promotion of British scientists stands in direct opposition with these examples and this recurrent statement of Sweet’s (1877:226; 1884:55).

Another argument concerns the genealogy of the London School. Firth puts great emphasis on Sir William Jones and Sweet’s contribution. However, he regrets that Sweet’s proximity to Ellis and Bell developed at the expense of a due recognition for the ‘epoch-making importance of Sir William Jones’ (Firth 1956a: 110). Through Sir William Jones, Firth also claims the fundamental importance of the oriental part of his own theory, best embodied by the location of his chair of General Linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

3.2 The definition of language

On a more conceptual level, there is a discrepancy in the conception of the very nature of language between Firth and Sweet. Sweet considers language as the mirror of thought (Sweet 1900:1), whereas Firth considers the association of thought and speech as erroneous though fitting in with 19th century scientific understanding (Firth 1930: 150). It raises the question of whether Firth really stands in a direct line with the phonetician he admires so much.

This conception of Sweet’s also relies on a dualist logic (thought/language). As Henderson (1987:62) and Palmer (1968:5) point out, Firth refused all forms of dualism in linguistic interpretation. He himself insisted on his monistic approach several times, from 1935 on.

Besides, Sweet’s treatment of ‘language as a mirror of thought’ implies an emphasis on the individual as the source of language. This stance conflicts with Firth’s view of personality as a mix of nature and nurture (Firth 1957c:141-2; 1930:173). In Firth’s approach, language is eminently social, since it relies on people interacting so that both language and speech transcend the purely individual sphere pointed out by Sweet.

Firth establishes a dichotomy between language and personality on the one hand and the individual on the other hand, and he finally reduces the ‘language/personality’ pair to a ‘nature/nurture’ one (Firth 1948b:142). Following this logic, he denounces the fallacy of the individual/social dichotomy concerning language and offers an explanation two years later:

The greatest English philologist of the nineteenth century was, I think, the Oxford phonetician, Sweet. He was never weary of asserting that language existed only in the individual. Others would say that all the essentials of linguistics can be studied in language operating between two persons. I am not subscribing to any theories of “existence”, and one must abandon the individual and look to the development and continuity of personality born of nature and developed in nurture. Language is part of the nurture, and part of the personality.

(Firth 1950: 183)

The transcendence of the individual and importance of the context emerges here through nurture which encompasses language according to Firth.


Firth shows a boundless admiration towards Sweet, be it for his scientific contribution or his general academic work for the promotion of the discipline on a national and an international level. Sweets stands for an academic model to Firth. In that respect, it seems quite logical that Firth tried to walk in his steps but also that he had to make fundamental theoretical choices in relation to his would-be model, which forced him to assert himself independently. Those choices definitely characterise his academic stance as well as that of his London School.

In 1983, Long after both linguists had died, the Henry Sweet Society was created. This is a trace of that everlasting admiration Henry Sweet arouses. Interestingly enough, its first president was R. H. Robins. As Firth’s former student and colleague, he clearly stands in Firth’s lineage and claimed that Firth was at the origin, among other things, of the historical awareness he (Robins) developed in linguistics studies (Robins 1997:220). In that respect, be it in terms of model or not, Firth appears to be a major link between Henry Sweet and contemporary linguistic studies, particularly those concerned with the epistemology of the language sciences.


Brown, Keith, and Vivien Law. 2002. Linguistics in Britain: Personal Histories. Publications of the Philological Society n°36. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Collins, Beverley, and Inger Margrethe Mees. 1999. The Real Professor Higgins: The Life and Career of Daniel Jones. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Firth, John Rupert. 1948b. ‘The semantics of linguistic science’. In Papers in Linguistics : 1934-1951, 1969th ed., 139–47. London: Oxford University Press.

———. 1949. ‘Atlantic Linguistics’. In Papers in Linguistics : 1934-1951, 1969th ed., 156–72. London: Oxford University Press.

———. 1950. ‘Personality and language in society’. In Papers in Linguistics : 1934-1951, 1969th ed., 177–89. London: Oxford University Press.

———. 1956a. ‘Descriptive Linguistics and the Study of English’. In Selected Papers of J. R. Firth, 1952-59, edited by Frank Robert Palmer, 1968th ed., 96–113. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

———. 1956b. ‘Philology in the Philological Society. Presidential Address Delivered to the Society on Friday, 4th May, 1956’. In Selected Papers of J. R. Firth, 1952-59, edited by Frank Robert Palmer, 1968th ed., 53–73. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

———. 1957c. ‘Ethnographic analysis and language. with reference to Malinowski’ s views’. In Papers in Linguistics : 1934-1951, 1969th ed., 137–67. London: Oxford University Press.

———. 1964. The tongues of men: and Speech. London: Oxford University Press, first edition respectively in 1937 & 1930.

Henderson, Eugenie J. A. 1987. ‘J. R. Firth in Retrospect, a View from the 80s’. In Language Topics: Essays in Honour of Michael Halliday, edited by Ross Steele and Terry Threadgold, 57–69.Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, p. 57–69.

Howatt, Anthony Philip Reid, and Henry George Widdowson. 1984. ‘The Work of Henry Sweet: An Applied Linguistic Approach’. In A History of ELT, Second Edition. London: Oxford University Press [2004].

Jones, Daniel. 1935. ‘(Notre Assemblée Générale :) Rapport Du Secrétaire. Report to the 50th Anniversary Meeting of the International Phonetic Association, University College, London, 27 July 1935’. Maitre Phonetique3 (13):  41–53.

Palmer, Frank Robert. 1968. ‘Introduction’. In Selected Papers of J. R. Firth, 1952-59. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Rebori, Victoria. 2002. ‘The Legacy of J. R. Firth: A Report on Recent Research’. Historiographia Linguistica29 (1–2):  165–90.

Robins, Robert Henry. 1997. ‘The Contribution of John Rupert Firth to Linguistics in the First Fifty Years of Lingua’. Lingua100 (1):  205–22.

Senis, Angela. 2016. ‘Le phonème et la théorie contextuelle du langage de J. R. Firth’. Modeles Linguistiques37 (2): 109–34. Toulon : Ed. Des Dauphins, Université de Toulon.

———. 2018. ‘La théorie contextuelle du langage de John Rupert Firth : un contexte à la croisée des chemins disciplinaires’. (Ed.) Candel, D. & J.-P. Narcy-Combes. Études de linguistique appliquée. (Complémentarité des disciplines en linguistique appliquée). Paris: Klincksieck.

———. 2019 (à paraître). ‘La théorie contextuelle du sens : perspectives syntaxiques, lexicologiques et phonologiques’. (Ed.) Gerda Haßler. ISTE Editions.

Sweet, Henry. 1877. A Handbook of Phonetics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

———. 1879. ‘Sixth Annual Address of the President, to the Philological Society, Delivered at the Anniversary Meeting, Friday, 18th May, 1877’. Transactions of the Philological Society 17 (1): 1–122. Oxford.

———. 1900a. The History of Language. London : Dent.

Sweet, Henry, and Eugénie J. A. Henderson. 1971. The Indispensable Foundation: A Selection from the Writings of Henry Sweet. Oxford University Press.

Sweet, Henry, and Henry Cecil Kennedy Wyld. 1884. ‘English and Germanic Philology’. In Collected Papers of Henry Sweet. Oxford: The Clarendon press [1913].

Wrenn, Leslie. 2017. ‘Henry Sweet Presidential Address Delivered to the Philological Society on Friday, 10th May 1946’. In Transactions of the Philological Society 1942-46, 45: 177–201. Oxford.

How to cite this post

Senis, Angela. 2019. Henry Sweet, a model for John Rupert Firth? History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2019/02/21/sweet-firth/

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

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