III. Historical perspectives on Indo-European linguistics

Intuition, exploration, and assertion of the Indo- European language relationship

  • 1. Introduction 8. Leibniz
  • 2. A historical-methodological perspective 9. Language-comparative studies in the course
  • 3. Synthetic overview of the 18th century
  • 4. Antiquity 10. The final decades of the 18th century
  • 5. The (Western) Middle Ages 11. Conclusion
  • 6. The Renaissance 12. References
  • 7. The path towards the “(Indo-)Scythic” hypothesis


The concept of “Indo-European comparative grammar” is a relatively recent one, going back to the 19 th century. However, relationships between languages of the Indo-European family were adumbrated, perceived, and explored long before; the history of the modern discipline was preceded by a long “prehistory” of language comparisons, reaching back to Antiquity.

“Pre-comparativist” endeavours are characterized by the strong impact of ideological preconceptions, linked with the weight of authoritative texts (such as the Bible, or the writings of the Church Fathers), and with ethnocentric presuppositions or “nationalistic” claims. Nevertheless, these endeavours were considered to be an instance of “(scientific) knowledge”, and although their results could be, and indeed were, criticized, the overall scope and status of these contributions to knowledge were not questioned within the respective historical periods.

The principal features of this “prehistory” of comparative linguistics, are the following, apart from the abovementioned reliance on authority arguments and the ideological underpinnings:

  • a) The adoption of a geographical model of language diversification, as well as of linguistic regrouping;
  • b) The failure to elaborate a concept of language-internal change (except on a very general plane, viz. the idea that “languages change over time”);
  • c) The mixture of linguistic aspects with historical, geographical, ethnological, theological, philosophical considerations, a fact which was the natural consequence of the distribution of linguistically relevant topics over a variety of disciplines (among which “linguistics” was institutionally represented by grammar and dictionary-making);
  • d) The fact that the genealogical relationships that were “recognized” or postulated did not include all the Indo-European languages then known, nor did they involve only


Indo-European languages (in logic this shortcoming is designated by the phrase nec omne nec solum).

This prehistory is formed by the input of individual scholars, by the (non-continuous) transmission of ideas and language materials, the “(re)discovery” of texts (e.g. the Gothic Bible text) and languages (e.g. classical Sanskrit), and by the changing views on the number of the world’s languages. To this we have to add, for the Early Modern Period, the increased interaction between scholars, first channelled through epistolary correspondence, later through scholarly exchange in journals and academy proceedings or memoirs. In sum, this prehistory was the playground of “necessity and chance” (cf. Monod 1970).

For comprehensive treatments of the issues dealt with in this chapter, see Zeller (1967), Droixhe (1978), various chapters in Schmitter (1987-2007: vols. 4, 5, and 6) and in Auroux, Koerner, Niederehe, and Versteegh (2000-2006), and Van Hal (2010); for an idiosyncratic but thought-provoking linguistic-philosophical reflection, see Verburg (1952). On the (far- reaching) ideological implications, see Olender (1989). On issues of terminology, see Lindner (2011-2015: fasc. 4, 258-269). For bio-bibliographical information on scholars, see Stammerjohann (2009) andNativel (1997-2006) [on Renaissance authors].

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >