In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section William Dwight Whitney

  • Introduction
  • Whitney’s General Linguistics
  • Language Prescriptivism in 19th-Century America
  • Eighteenth-Century Sources of Whitney’s Thought
  • The Whitney-Müller Controversy
  • Whitney and the Neogrammarians
  • Whitney and Ferdinand de Saussure
  • Lexical Diffusion and Sociolinguistics

Linguistics William Dwight Whitney
Stephen G. Alter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0271


The American Sanskritist and linguist William Dwight Whitney (b. 1827–d. 1894) was his country’s most important professional language scholar and linguistic theorist of the 19th century. Whitney grew up in Northampton, Massachusetts, attended Williams College in that state, and for nearly three years did advanced study of “Oriental” languages in Germany at the universities of Berlin and Tübingen. In 1854 he began a long career at Yale College in Connecticut, teaching Sanskrit Language and Literature as well as modern languages, chiefly French and German. Whitney was a pillar of the American Oriental Society (established 1842), and a founder and the first president of the American Philological Association (established 1869). His research specialty was Indology: he was an expert in Sanskrit grammar. The focus of the present article, however, will be Whitney’s general linguistic thought, beginning with an overview of his ideas about language as a whole and about language prescriptivism. Then follows a description of the 18th-century sources of Whitney’s views, as well as of Whitney’s long debate with Friedrich Max Müller, who embodied all of the worst tendencies (as Whitney regarded them) of romanticist language theory. Responding to such tendencies made up a large portion of Whitney’s own theoretical output. Our discussion then considers Whitney’s legacy in three areas: (1) his influence on and critique of Neogrammarian doctrine, (2) the inspiration (both positive and negative) Whitney gave to Ferdinand de Saussure, and (3) the impetus he gave to aspects of 20th–21st-century sociolinguistic investigation, particularly by calling attention to the phenomenon of lexical diffusion. Whitney’s career as a language theorist began in 1864, with a lecture series on “The Principles of Linguistic Science” presented at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and, in an expanded version, at Boston’s Lowell Institute. These lectures became the basis of his book Language and the Study of Language (1867), a number of short pieces gathered and republished in Volume 1 of his Oriental and Linguistic Studies (1873), and his book The Life and Growth of Language (1875). All of these writings expressed Whitney’s quintessentially Anglo-American Common-Sense realist language philosophy. His 1867 and 1875 books were translated into the major European languages, the latter work being more successful in terms of the international attention it received and its impact, particularly on the German Neogrammarians, but also due to its long use as a linguistics textbook at institutions in the United States.

Whitney’s General Linguistics

The best source for learning about Whitney’s general linguistic thought is Whitney 1875, an abridged version of his extensive lectures on that subject published eight years earlier. Further primary material, highlighting polemics, can be found in three essays published in Whitney 1873: on Friedrich Max Müller’s lectures on language, first series (see Max Müller 1862, cited under Whitney-Müller Controversy), on August Schleicher’s organicist theory of language, and on Heyman Steinthal’s “psychological” perspective on language. Most important are the critiques of Max Müller and Schleicher, since these figures both denied the role of human agency in generating linguistic innovation; on this basis they argued that the field of linguistics constituted a branch of natural science. Countering these teachings did much to motivate Whitney’s own linguistic thought. Alter 2001 gives a concise summary of Whitney’s views and legacy in linguistics. A major (albeit unpublished) examination of Whitney’s ideas in this area is Siegel 1980. Alter 2005 is the only book-length treatment of Whitney’s life and scholarship, giving particular attention to his general linguistics. Nerlich 1992 explicates Whitney’s views in relation to European semantic theory in his time. Koerner 2004 shows that Whitney was deeply influenced by the scientific “uniformitarianism” popularized via the Scotsman Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830–1832), the assumption that the forces of change acting in the past must have been essentially the same as those observed at present. This principle of continuity across time is more precisely labeled actualism; a disaggregation of these terms for the purpose of clarifying the history of 19th-century geology appears in Rudwick 1971.

  • Alter, Stephen G. 2001. The linguistic legacy of William Dwight Whitney. In History of the language sciences: An international handbook on the evolution of the study of language from the beginnings to the present. Vol. 2. Edited by Sylvin Aurous, E. F. K. Koerner, Hans-Josef Niederehe, and Kees Versteegh, 1923–1931. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter.

    An overview of Whitney’s career, linguistic thought, and influence in relation to subsequent language theory. Concludes with an overemphasis on those areas of 20th-century linguistics having perspectives different from Whitney’s, hence undervaluing the important influence Whitney exerted and the legacies he did have. This perspective is corrected in Alter 2005.

  • Alter, Stephen G. 2005. William Dwight Whitney and the science of language. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    Intellectual biography of Whitney, emphasizing his role in challenging Continental European linguistic theories of the first half of the 19th century, paving the way intellectually for the German Neogrammarians and helping lay foundations for late-20th-century American sociolinguistics. Makes use of Whitney’s personal correspondence to illuminate his career and ideas.

  • Koerner, E. F. K. 2004. The place of geology in W. D. Whitney’s linguistic argument. In Essays in the history of linguistics. Edited by John E. Joseph, 145–158. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

    Useful examination of Whitney’s views concerning the conceptual relationship between geological science and linguistic study. Highlights an important distinction Whitney made: although acknowledging that geology offered stimulating analogies with the investigative procedure used in historical linguistics, Whitney regarded these as analogies only. He stressed that language was not a natural organism and that linguistics was not a natural science; rather, linguistics was one of the human or “moral” sciences.

  • Nerlich, Brigitte. 1992. Semantic theories in Europe, 1830–1930: From etymology to contextuality. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

    Discusses Whitney’s analysis of the link between verbal form and meaning, relating this to the 19th-century European context. Shows that Whitney ignored German contributions to semasiology, including the work of Humboldt and Steinthal, since he regarded this tradition as overly psychologistic. Also shows how European thinkers in the generation following Whitney agreed with his view that an unawareness of etymological histories is essential to language-use and to the process of semantic change.

  • Rudwick, Martin J. S. 1971. Uniformity and progression: Reflections on the structure of geological theory in the age of Lyell. In Perspectives in the history of science and technology. Edited by Duane H. D. Roller, 209–227. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.

    Foundational historical clarification of terminology. Distinguishes between the popular and the specialized definitions of scientific “uniformitarianism” in the 19th century and since, showing how Charles Lyell merged these definitions for polemical purposes. The popular sense of that concept (more accurately termed methodological actualism) was the assumption that the causes of change in natural phenomena stay essentially stable over time. The specialized sense was Lyell’s argument for a steady-state view of the earth’s history.

  • Siegel, Joel Herbert. 1980. W. D. Whitney’s views on the nature of language and language study. PhD diss, Indiana University at Bloomington.

    A major examination of Whitney’s general linguistic thought. Strong on explanation of the intellectual context as far as 19th-century comparative-historical linguistics from Bopp and Grimm through the Neogrammarians. An internalist history of ideas based on published sources alone; hence lacks detail on Whitney’s biography as well as the social and institutional context of his thinking.

  • Whitney, William Dwight. 1873. Oriental and linguistic studies. Vol. 1. New York: Scribner, Armstrong, and Co.

    The significance of this volume lies in its inclusion of Whitney’s article-length polemics against F. Max Müller, August Schleicher, and Heyman Steinthal, the writers whose views Whitney was most intent on combatting. His arguments were largely an effort to promote the autonomy of linguistics within the “moral sciences,” by keeping that field from being placed under the conceptual auspices of the natural sciences generally, or of mental philosophy in particular.

  • Whitney, William Dwight. 1875. The life and growth of language: An outline of linguistic science. New York: D. Appleton & Co.

    This work is notable for its lucid and relatively compact exposition. It was commissioned for the prestigious International Scientific Series and was published not just in New York but in cities throughout Europe. Covers virtually all important aspects of Whitney’s linguistic views except for that found in Whitney 1894.

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