Whitney’s Language and the Study of Language

The ‘first book on the general science of language, ever written in the United States’ (Edgerton 1943:32) was published one hundred and fifty years ago, in 1867.  The author was William Dwight Whitney (1827-1894), professor of Sanskrit at Yale and, according to his biographer, ‘America’s first fully professional linguist’ (Alter 2005:1).  Whitney noted in the Preface of the book that he had ‘made its substance the basis of my own instruction in the science of language, in Yale College, for some years past’ (1867:v), but it was a series of public lectures that he had given at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. in March 1864 and then again at the Lowell Institute in Boston in December 1864 and January 1865 that provided the form of the book, titled Language and the Study of Language: Twelve Lectures on the Principles of Linguistic Science.

The lectures were Whitney’s response to an invitation from the physicist Joseph Henry (1797-1878), first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, founded in 1848.  Henry had asked Whitney to give ‘a course on philology, exhibiting the history, the methods, and the results of the science’ (quoted in Alter 2005:68), and Whitney used the opportunity to write, not about philology, but about the new ‘science of language.’  That the study of language could now be scientific was the result of an earlier ‘collection and classification of phenomena, to serve as the basis of inductive reasoning, for the establishment of sound methods and the elaboration of true results’ (1867:2). To distinguish this new science from philology and from the study of particular languages, he later clarified: linguistic science makes the ‘laws and general principles of speech its main subject, and uses facts rather as illustrations’ (1875:315).

Title page from an 1868 printing

The general principles that Whitney sought to convey to his readers were concerned almost entirely with language change.  There were lectures on the ‘Nature of the force which produces the changes of language,’ ‘Phonetic change,’ ‘Varying rate and kind of linguistic growth, and causes affecting it,’ the establishment of ‘Families of languages’ and ‘Classification of languages,’ and the ‘Origin of language’ (1867:ix-xi).  The book also provided Whitney with an opportunity to challenge ideas about language that he believed were mistaken, including the ‘doctrine that language and thought are identical,’ which he called a ‘pernicious error’ (405), and attempts to treat linguistics as ‘a physical science’ rather than, in Whitney’s view, the more sound approach that saw ‘the character of the study of language as a historical or moral science’ (47-48).

 The book was widely read, and there were dozens of reprintings and at least seven editions published in the United States (and in England) between 1867 and 1910.  More than sixty-five years after its publication, Leonard Bloomfield (1887-1949) characterized Whitney’s Lectures ‘as an excellent introduction to language study’ (1933:16).  Today, facsimile reproductions and digitally printed volumes are readily available.  

1867 Copyright

-- Julia S. Falk, La Jolla, CA

Primary Sources

Alter, Stephen G.  2005.  William Dwight Whitney and the Science of Language.  Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Whitney, William Dwight.  1867.  Language and the Study of Language: Twelve Lectures on the Principles of Linguistic Science.  New York: Charles Scribner.

Other Works

Bloomfield, Leonard.  1933.  Language.  New York: Henry Holt.

Edgerton, Franklin.  1943.  Notes on Early American Work in Linguistics.  Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 87:1.25-34.

Whitney, William Dwight.  1875.  The Life and Growth of Language: An Outline of Linguistic Science.  New York: D. Appleton.


Editor's Note: In observance of this important anniversary, the LSA is pleased to publish this brief essay about the many scholarly contributions of William Dwight Whitney. This is the third such feature in our new series, “This (time) in Linguistics History,” to be published on a periodic basis via the LSA website. We invite LSA members to submit their ideas and contributions for future history features. The new feature will be coordinated by LSA Archivist Brian Joseph, in consultation with the LSA Secretariat. The trigger event for this periodic feature could be an important day, week, month or year in the history of the LSA and/or the field of Linguistics. We are happy to publish as many features as often as LSA members are willing to contribute. Please submit your ideas via e-mail to Brian Joseph or Alyson Reed.