William Dwight Whitney and the science of language

William Dwight Whitney and the science of language. By Stephen G. Alter. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. Pp. 339. ISBN 0801880203. $50 (Hb).

Reviewed by Gert Guthenberg, University of Georgia

Stephen G. Alter’s book on William Dwight Whitney (1827–1894) is the first complete biography of this important nineteenth-century American linguist and orientalist. Its main accomplishment is that it succeeds in unveiling Whitney’s sometimes downplayed yet pivotal contributions to the development of the study of general linguistics during the past century.

A very convincingly shows the influence Whitney had on the neogrammarian, Bloomfieldian, and structuralist schools, as well as on all forms of modern sociolinguistically oriented research. Whitney introduced the uniformitarian principle to the field of linguistics, rejecting the ‘organic’ view of language history that prevailed in his day. This allowed him to count grammatical analogy as an important factor in language change, a view that was not possible as long as language change was conceptualized in terms of degradation of an original systematic and structured stage. In allowing greater emphasis on ongoing processes of language change as well as on synchronic language states, the uniformitarian principle cleared the path for modern approaches to the study of language. In opposition to his contemporary adherents of the organic view, Whitney treated language as a social institution. This approach was at odds with the neogrammarian ‘mechanical’ rules of change, as well as the structuralist and, eventually, Chomskyan focus on an ideal language state that lead them to generalize from the speech of the individual to that of a group.

A demonstrates the multiple aspects of Whitney’s influence. Many of his ideas, ground-breaking and controversial when they first appeared, quickly became part of common wisdom among linguists. Since Whitney’s theories both cleared the path for many later schools of linguistic research and at the same time anticipated the critique that these schools eventually would have to face, no Whitney school of linguistic thought has ever developed. Although he never rejected the proposal that sound change acts without exceptions, he pointed out inconsistencies and variation in the speech of individuals and the linguistic community as a whole. He therefore did not pass for a mainstream neogrammarian. Although Whitney saw the material and formal aspects of language in a reciprocal relationship on a strictly synchronic plane, his theory could not be considered structuralism since he added that meaning is not only generated by word oppositions but also imposed by social convention.

A shows the importance Whitney’s theory had for the development of sociolinguistics and lexical diffusionism in the late 1960s. Whitney’s recognition of the present moment of exchange between speakers as a source of knowledge about any and every aspect of language change laid the groundwork for sociolinguists’ investigation of ongoing language change. In both his Sanskrit grammar (1879) and Proportional elements of English utterance (1874), Whitney showed a great interest in the relative frequencies of speech sounds in these two languages. In this research Whitney anticipates not only phonemic analysis in general, as pointed out by Leonard Bloomfield, but also the focus on frequency of use as determining mental representation in later usage-based approaches to the study of language.