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Review of  Hermann Paul's 'Principles of Language History' Revisited

Reviewer: David Elton Gay
Book Title: Hermann Paul's 'Principles of Language History' Revisited
Book Author: Peter Auer Robert W. Murray
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
History of Linguistics
Issue Number: 27.1199

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Hermann Paul’s ‘Principles of Language History’ Revisited: Translations and Reflections is an anthology of newly-translated sections from various chapters of the 5th edition of Hermann Paul’s Prinzipien der Sprachgeschichte (1920), along with interpretive and explanatory essays on Paul’s work. Paul’s great work has only been available to the English-language reader in Herbert A. Strong’s 1891 translation of the second edition, Principles of the History of Language. Strong’s translation has long been known to be inadequate; for example, as the appendix to this book notes, Strong at times mixes together concepts, such as Lautwandel and Lautveränderung, which “leads to an awkwardness and, in turn, an implied vagueness of thinking that is not present in Paul’s text.” (p. 289)

The authors of this book want to show that Paul’s ideas remain relevant to linguistics, and not only to historical linguistics. As Auer and Murray write in their introduction, “the authors of this volume decided that the time was ripe to shine the spotlight once more on aspects of Hermann Paul’s Principles, especially those we thought might be of most interest to readers.” The authors also hope to “revise some of the stereotypical portrayals of the neogrammarian movement as they can be found here and there in the literature….” (p. 9)


The book opens with an introduction by the editors, Peter Auer and Robert W. Murray, that gives a brief biography of Paul and his scholarly work, a description of the ‘Principles’, and a description of the contents of this book.

Next is the original table of contents for Paul’s book. The chapter descriptions offered here are detailed enough that they act as a summary of Paul’s book.

After this the book is divided into two parts.

Part 1: Translations.

The authors have not translated full chapters from the Principles; rather, they have selected portions of chapters that best illustrate central aspects of Paul’s thinking about language and “that are essential to [their] contributions” to Part 2. The translations “were done in such a way as to adjust Paul’s text to a moderately modern academic writing style without distorting its meaning.” But, Auer and Murray write further, “[w]e have not replaced Paul’s terminology with a modern one.” (p. 10)

Peter Auer offers two translations here. The first is of sections 1-10 of the introduction to the ‘Principles’; and the second is sections 11-21 of Paul’s chapter 1, “On the General Nature of Language Development.”

Robert W. Murray then translates sections 32-50 from the third chapter of the ‘Principles’, “Phonetic changes.”

David Fertig then translates sections 7-84 from the fifth chapter of the Principles, “Analogy.”

Paul J. Hopper closes out the translation section with his translation of sections 85-102 from Chapter six of the Principles, “Basic Syntactic Relations,” and sections 196-213 from Chapter 16, “Syntactic Rebracketing.”

Part 2: Reflections.

In these essays each of the translators explains the background and significance of Paul’s ideas about language and language change in the chapter sections they translated.

Peter Auer opens this section with his essay “Reflections on Hermann Paul as a Usage-Based Grammarian.” Contrary to the image that linguists often have of Paul as a Neogrammarian, Paul’s ideas about language are not grounded in abstract rules and structures, but rather in usage, along with other cognitive-psychological parameters. As Auer writes, “Hermann Paul is surprisingly modern today. His views are easily compatible with those of modern cognitive grammar, particularly with usage-based approaches to grammar and its representations in the mind.” (p. 204)

David Fertig then examines the centrality of analogy to Paul’s thinking about language and language change in his essay “Two Conceptions of Analogical Innovation/Change.” As Fertig writes, “Paul is more unequivocal than any other linguist before or since in his insistence on a lexical-replacive and his rejection of any assimilatory understanding of analogy.” Fertig’s goal is to “explore the reasons for and implications of Paul’s uncompromising stance on this issue.” (p. 209)

Paul J. Hopper then writes about “Hermann Paul’s Emergent Grammar.” As Hopper shows, Paul’s vision of linguistics as a historical science was determined by the fact that “Paul was a historical thinker who viewed all linguistic (and in fact all cultural) phenomena as sub specie temporalitatis.” Contrary to what is often claimed, Paul “does not claim…that historical-comparative philology is the only valid form that the study of language should take.” Rather, “Paul assumes that even descriptive linguistics is historical.” (p. 237) Hopper in fact sees a particular connection between Paul’s conception of linguistics and the kind of emergent grammar that he and others have proposed.

Robert W. Murray’s “In the Beginning was the Sound Image: Paul’s Theory of Sound Change” closes Part 2. Murray’s essay both explains Paul’s ideas about sound change and examines his influence on later linguists. As Murray shows, Paul’s thinking about sound change influenced Leonard Bloomfield’s 1933 Language and, perhaps more surprisingly, Charles Hockett’s 1958 A Course in Modern Linguistics. Indeed, as Murray notes, “we find in Hockett (1958) a rather unexpected intellectual bridge between Paul and recent exemplar-theoretic approaches to phonetics and phonology….” (p. 267)


Hermann Paul is not an easy writer to read in German or English; and the inadequacy of the only available English translation meant that Paul’s ideas were not readily apparent to readers of the translation. Paul’s terminology is also often difficult, and this, combined with the difficulties of style, makes it easy to misunderstand just what Paul is getting at in any given passage. For these reasons alone Hermann Paul’s ‘Principles of Language History’ Revisited would be a welcome book.

But, in addition, the contributors to this volume show that Paul’s ideas remain a fruitful source of ideas and inspiration for linguists. Hermann Paul was not a stereotypical Neogrammarian, and the translations and essays in this volume are an excellent guide into the intricacies of Paul’s thinking concerning the nature of language.
My primary language interests are the Indo-European languages (currently mostly in Germanic, Baltic, Latin, and Romance); the Finno-Ugrian languages (especially Finnish and Estonian); and the Semitic languages. My linguistic interests are in historical linguistics, dialectology, the role of editing in historical linguistics, and folklore.