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LINGUIST List 25.2349

Thu May 29 2014

Review: Historical Linguistics; History of Linguistics: Metcalf (author), van Hal & van Rooy (eds.) (2013)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <rajivlinguistlist.org>

Date: 01-Apr-2014
From: Monica Vasileanu <monica.vasileanugmail.com>
Subject: On Language Diversity and Relationship from Bibliander to Adelung
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/24/24-4075.html

AUTHOR: George J. Metcalf
EDITOR: Toon Van Hal
EDITOR: Raf Van Rooy
TITLE: On Language Diversity and Relationship from Bibliander to Adelung
SERIES TITLE: Studies in the History of the Language Sciences 120
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: Monica Vasileanu, Romanian Academy, Institute of Linguistics


The present volume gathers 11 articles of the late Professor George J. Metcalf (1908-1994), whose works concern mainly the historiography of diachronic and comparative linguistics. The collection of Prof. Metcalf’s scholarly contributions was possible due to the efforts of the editors, Toon van Hal and Raf van Rooy. The volume comprises a foreword, in which acknowledgements are presented, an introduction (pp. 1-10) written by the editors, a list of bibliographical references (pp. 11-16), and a bibliography of George J. Metcalf (pp. 17-18), followed by the 11 chapters of the book, that is, the 11 articles of Prof. Metcalf (pp. 19-168). A master list of references (pp. 169-173) and the Indices (pp. 175-181) complete the volume.

The “Editors’ introduction” contains a survey of Metcalf’s life and works: his biography is briefly presented and his academic positions enumerated. Although Metcalf studied Latin and Germanic philology and published several works in the field of German linguistics, only his works dealing with “Early Modern views on language change, linguistic kinship and language diversity” (p. 2) are taken into account. The field of ‘the prehistory of comparative linguistics’ was not new and the editors emphasize the increasing interest in this field. Metcalf’s merits lie, in the editors’ opinion, in his good knowledge of source texts, in his good choice of metalanguage, in his just understanding of contextual factors, and in his moderation in correlating present day theories with Early Modern authors’ views on language change and relationships (pp. 3-4). In the end, the editors make a short editorial note in order to state their interventions in the author’s texts.

Metcalf’s works proper are disposed in the chronological order of their coverage, not by their publication date. The first two chapters present general surveys of views on genetic relations between languages from the 16th to the 18th century, while the other nine chapters are specific case studies.

The first chapter, “Between methodology and ideology: how facts and theories intertwine in earlier views on diachronic linguistics” (pp. 19-31), shows how the idea of linguistic change was discussed by several Early Modern scholars in Northern Europe: Theodor Bibliander, Abraham Mylius, Meric Casaubon, Goropius Becanus, and others. The biblical story of the Babel was the source of diachronic linguistics, since it offered the view of an original language out of which others sprung. Whereas most scholars believed Hebrew to be the original language, some others ascribed this status to vernaculars such as Belgian, Dutch, or exotic languages, such as Chinese. The interpretation of linguistic data was correct only when dealing with obvious facts, since most vernaculars were grouped in their correct families, but the etymologies provided were most of the time incorrect, as extralinguistic theories were still twisting linguistic evidence.

In the second chapter, “The Indo-European hypothesis in the 16th and 17th centuries” (pp. 33-56), Metcalf studies the ‘prehistory of the science … of comparative linguistics’ (p. 55) in order to find traces of the Indo-European hypothesis. It is true that the Indo-European theory was stated only after Sanskrit was discovered, but scholars such as Andreas Jäger, with his Scythian hypothesis, had already issued the idea of a parent-language that was no longer spoken, but that produced most European and Asian idioms. The creation of new languages from dialects was also a topos. Metcalf summarizes the etymologizing procedures of Gorpius Becanus, Abraham Mylus, Schottelius, Johannes de Laet, Stiernhielm, and Olaf Rudbeckius. Their merits are heterogenous; however, they paved the way for Indo-European reconstruction by finding ‘sound patterns’ and by trying to set some standards of etymologizing practices.

The third chapter is dedicated to “Theodor Bibliander (1505-1564) and the languages of Japhet’s progeny” (pp. 57-64). Bibliander’s lectures at the “Münsterschule” in Zürich consisted of reading and interpreting texts from the Old Testament, and among those texts, the story of Babel held an important place. Bibliander tried to prove the unity of European languages, considered as ‘Japhet’s progeny’, by comparing Latin, Greek, Germanic, Slavic words; he not only noted sound patterns, but also paid special attention to affixes, which were being ignored by scholars at the time. Bibliander’s metalanguage contains many kinship terms, thus proving that he conceived linguistic relations as genetic ones. Although he took the myth of the Babel literally, Bibliander noted the difference between the linguistic spreading of languages after Babel and the contemporary one, thus showing that he was not willing to interpret linguistic data under the pressure of a myth.

The fourth chapter, “Konrad Gessner’s (1516-1565) general views on language” (pp. 65-75), is an analysis of Gessner’s “Mithridates” (1555). This ambitious treatise aimed at including as much linguistic information as possible, illustrating this information with 22 versions of the Lord’s Prayer: the languages included in the treatise are not only listed and illustrated, but also ordered according to groups. Gessner’s sobriety and modesty, two rare virtues at the time, make it sometimes difficult to grasp his own point of view: he mentioned all the opinions issued on a subject, but sometimes did not mention which of the conflicting views he supported. He was aware of linguistic change, labeled as ‘corruption’, and moreover, he was aware of the impact of social factors on linguistic facts.

The fifth chapter continues the analysis of Gessner’s work and is entitled “Gessner’s views on the Germanic languages” (pp. 77-84). Metcalf warns the reader not to be too enthusiastic about Gessner’s ideas on Germanic languages: one should not modernize Gessner’s views and get a clearer picture than Gessner himself had. Although he admitted the descent from a common ancestor, the Swiss scholar did not conceive a coherent pattern of language evolution. Gessner analysed the structure of the Germanic group; he was aware that the current situation differed from the past one. Within the Germanic group, he correctly distinguished between the living languages, but failed to make the distinction between their ancestors: for Gessner, ‘old Celtic’ and ‘old Germanic’ are two names attributed to the same language. This is Gessner’s only striking error, as the rest of his observations are valid even today.

The sixth chapter, “Abraham Mylus (1563-1637) on historical linguistics” (pp. 85-107), deals with the achievements and shortcomings of Mylus’s works. His theoretical framework sets up criteria for etymologizing in order to limit the enthusiasm of deriving similar words. He emphasized the main role that borrowing had in producing linguistic change and required that sound patterns be checked in a number of word pairs before being accepted as etymologizing rules. However, in practice, Mylus displayed less rigor. He considered Teutonic the only pure and unchanged language older than Latin and Greek.

The seventh chapter, “Philippus Cluverius (1580-1623) and his ‘Lingua Celtica’” (pp. 105-122), presents the views of a pioneer in historical geography. Cluverius, in his “Germania antiqua” (1616), aimed at showing the historical and geographical extent of ‘Germania’ and his linguistic theories and facts were mere arguments that supported his ethno-historical conclusions.
Cluverius equated ‘Germania’ with the land of the Celts. He tried to identify the reason behind phonetic changes and, unlike his contemporaries, paid special attention to particles which appeared in names and, occasionally, as independent words.

The eighth chapter, “A linguistic clash in the 17th century” (pp. 123-131), discusses the academic quarrel between Johannes de Laet (1581-1649) and Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) about the origin of the American Indians and, of course, of their language. Grotius had argued in favor of a Norwegian origin for the Indians of North America, an Ethiopian origin for the inhabitants of the Yucatan and a Chinese origin for Southern Americans. De Laet, who had travelled to the New World, showed that Amerindian languages were different, and insisted on establishing several criteria for assessing linguistic kinship. A number of related words are not enough to validate a genetic relation between two idioms: one needs to observe the system of pronunciation, the ‘nature of the structure’ (grammar) and basic vocabulary such as numbers, parts of the body, close kinship terms and geographical terms. These criteria are still valid nowadays.

The ninth chapter, “Justus Georg Schottelius (1612-1676) on historical linguistics” (pp. 133-146), focuses on a very influential German scholar of the 17th century. Schottelius’ book, “Ausfürliche Arbeit von der Teutschen Haubstsprache” (1643) contains many remarkable ideas, despite its patriotic bias. Scottelius sought out a permanent element in language, that would not undergo change, and this was, in his opinion, the structure of the word. Every language had a definite structural system; the particular structure varied from one language to another, but it was constant in language over time. The system of compounding was also part of this permanent element. Linguistic change was determined by borrowing: when foreign words entered a language, they did not reflect the word structure of the target language. Phonetic change within the same language, on the other hand, preserved its original structure and served to distinguish dialects of equivalent rank.

The tenth chapter, “Andreas Jäger’s (c. 1660-1730) ‘De lingua vetustissima Europae’ (1686)” (pp. 147-152), is considered by the editors as outdated. The academic dissertation discussed in this article has recently been proven as not belonging to Jäger; the (main) author should be considered Jäger’s supervisor, Georg Kaspar Kirchmaier (p. 9). Although later reprints and reviews of the dissertation do not mention Jäger’s name, Metcalf considers him the author, arguing that it was a practice of the 17th and 18th century to mention the name of the dissertation’s supervisor on title pages or in reviews rather than the author’s name.

The eleventh chapter, “Johann Cristoph Adelung (1732-1806) discovers the languages of Asia” (pp. 153-168), presents the views of a scholar at the beginning at the 19th century. Adelung assumed that words sprung up from onomatopoeic roots that became more complex over time. He analysed the languages of Asia and concluded that, except for Sanskrit, they had not reached the complexity of Western European idioms and, thus, were closer to their original language.


Metcalf did not invent the domain called ‘the prehistory of comparative linguistics’, but he surely made a great contribution to its development. The eleven articles gathered in this volume are not mere presentations of linguists whose works have fallen into oblivion. The author performs a deep analysis of the source-texts, correlating them with extralinguistic theories that might have influenced them. Metcalf maintains a good balance between enthusiasm about finding remarkable ideas at an early date, and disappointment regarding the shortcomings of the works analysed, namely caused by patriotic or religious bias. His knowledge of the times allowed Metcalf to correctly judge the merits of each scholar. While many might be tempted to dismiss those Early Modern scholars’ works as outdated, Metcalf finds remarkable insights that predict modern approaches to historical linguistics. At the same time, he warns the reader not to identify these insights with modern concepts, for these interesting Early Modern views were fragmentary and did not form a coherent system.

The two editors surpassed what they state in their editorial note on pp. 9-10. Not only did they give unity to the volume by using the same orthographical norms for the Latin texts and translating all the Latin passages that had remained untranslated (it would have proven beneficial for the reader to translate the German fragments too), but the disposal of the material in chronological order of the authors discussed gives a new meaning to the volume. As such, the reader notices a certain evolution in dealing with the question of linguistic change and better grasps how the Indo-European hypothesis became ripe.

“On Language Diversity and Relationship from Bibliander to Adelung” is aimed primarily at linguists, especially those interested in historical linguistics, comparative linguistics and in the history of linguistics. Scholars dealing with language variation and linguistic typology will find interesting insights that might prove profitable for their work. Finally, since Metcalf always connects linguistic concepts to extralinguistic theories, the volume can also be relevant for those in the fields of cultural history and the history of ideas.


Monica Vasileanu is a scientific researcher at the 'Iorgu Iordan - Al. Rosetti' Institute of Linguistics in Bucharest, Romania, where she is currently working in projects such as 'Dicţionarul limbii române' (the comprehensive dictionary of Romanian) and 'Dicţionarul etimologic al limbii române' (the etymological dictionary of Romanian). She defendend her PhD dissertation in 2012. Her main interests are in the fields of historical linguistics and of critical text editing. She also teaches Romanian language to non-native speakers at the University of Bucharest.

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