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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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5. The Neogrammarians. Since the uniformitarian
attempts to get at the origin of language by the com-
parative method showed no prospect of success, we
are not surprised to encounter, in the decades following
Schleicher, explicit recommendations to abandon
“glottogonic” inquiries (Jespersen [1922], pp. 96 and
412 quotes the Société de Linguistique de Paris in 1868
and Whitney in 1871).

About fifteen years after Schleicher's floruit, the
German movement called “Neogrammarianism”
appeared on the linguistic scene. Neogrammarians'
platform had many components, two of which are
relevant here: (1) their conception of sound-laws, and
(2) their view of sound-change as gradual and largely

The thesis that “Sound-laws have no exceptions” is
the best known Neogrammarian thesis. Cassirer
incisively noted (1953, §1.7, esp. p. 169) the resem-
blance between this thesis and the doctrine of the
physiologist Emil Du Bois-Reymond in his celebrated
lecture of 1872 (only a few years before the launching
of their program), proclaiming laws of nature that were
exceptionless, over all time and all space. Apparently
Cassirer meant to suggest the hypothesis that the
Neogrammarians were deliberately intending to apply
or adapt Du Bois-Reymond's doctrine to linguistics, and
this hypothesis may well be true. But if that was their
intention, their application was faulty in two notable
ways. (1) The sound-laws did not hold for all time and
all space; each law was expressly limited to a certain
language over a certain limited period, and was only
claimed to be a “law” in the respects that it (a) applied
to all instances, within the stated language during the
stated period, that fell within its scope, and (b) was
not subject to voluntary control. (2) It is one thing
to claim that sound-change is subject to exceptionless
laws, and another to claim that those laws are the
extremely simple ones that linguists are able to pick
out, such as Grimm's Law. The first point is less of
a fault than the second, because in spite of Du Bois-
Reymond's thesis it was not established usage to make
timelessness (invariance over all time) essential to the
concept of “law of nature.”

Effectively, Neogrammarianism separated language-
changes into those that fell under (exceptionless) laws
and those that did not; changes of the former sort were
held to be unconscious, those of the latter sort con-
scious and moreover voluntary (purposeful, deliber-
ate). It was hypothesized that sound-changes were of
the former sort. It was furthermore supposed that for
the most part sound-change is not merely unconscious
but gradual. The supposition was expressed by using
the slogan that was always on Darwin's lips, Natura
non facit saltus
(“Nature does not make leaps”). Lin-
guists' use of this slogan may look like an influence
from Darwin, and thus eventually from uniformitari-
anism, but in fact this influence is superficial and the
real source of the doctrine is to be found elsewhere,
in psychology, as the following paragraphs will show.

First let us consider the slogan as used by Darwin
himself. Darwin emphasized the Non saltus maxim
even to the point where Huxley thought he overworked
it. But Darwin's reason was that he saw that uniformi-


tarianism admits of degrees, and in his effort to show
that an impeccably uniformitarian explanation of or-
ganic evolution could be given, he chose as a matter
of policy to be excessively rather than insufficiently
uniformitarian whenever threatened with the prospect
of erring either on the one side or the other. But when
the slogan gained currency beyond the circle of
geologists and biologists, it was construed not as a
maxim of method but as an alleged fact about nature.

Taken as a maxim of method, Non saltus is perhaps
compatible with uniformitarianism but surely not es-
sential to it. One might even claim that a certain
amount of discontinuity is an obvious fact of experi-
ence, and so a vera causa, just as the Hindu philosopher
Shankara (also Řaṃkara) argued that “A person main-
taining that the people of ancient times were no more
able to converse with the gods than people are at
present would thereby deny the (incontestable) variety
of the world” (Sacred Books of the East, 34, 222-23;
cited by Deussen [1912], p. 38), and as Charles Peirce,
arguing against causal determinism, urged that chance
presents itself as a vera causa.

Those who imported Non saltus into the description
of language-change disregarded such considerations, it
seems, and had only a rather loose analogy in mind.
We can see easily enough what the analogy was. We
know that languages change, but we know this by
inference, not by direct observation, somewhat as we
know that waterways wear away stone (the Colorado
River system has excavated the Grand Canyon), or that
the hour hand of a watch moves one twelfth as fast
as the minute hand, and the minute hand one sixtieth
as fast as the second hand. The Non saltus maxim is
a rather clumsy attempt to harmonize the Vera causa
maxim with uniformitarianism, simply brushing aside
the necessary truth that unless a change is truly contin-
uous in a strictly mathematical sense, it is a succession
of discrete steps, and whether this succession is per-
ceived as discrete or as continuous depends upon the
discriminatory power of the perceiving agent. To put
the point more bluntly, Darwin naively took man as
the measure in deciding whether a change was big
enough to count as a leap (saltus) or not.

It so happened that those who took the slogan over
into linguistics, though naive as regards the deeper
methodological issues involved, were not naive in
taking man as the measure. It is true that they took
man as the measure, but not true that they did it
naively. For they were concerned not with change in
general, but with man's perception of change; and in
dealing with man's perception of change it was not
naive, but rather was inherent in the nature of the
project, to take man as the measure. In other words,
for their project it was entirely suitable, relative to
a perceiving individual A, to divide language-changes
into changes of which A is aware and changes of which
he is unaware. (It was a feature of the psychology of
their day to contrast consciousness or awareness, called
apperception, with perception.) And in dealing with
the perception, and the awareness, of language-
changes, the Neogrammarians made use of the fairly
recent psychological discovery called “the phenom-
enon of the just noticeable difference.” This phenom-
enon was of interest to psychologists because of (1)
Fechner's attempt to quantify it and (2) the prospect
that such a quantitative treatment would make a
scientific treatment of the mind-body relation possible.
But it was of interest to linguists not for either of these
reasons but for a third reason, a “qualitative” rather
than a quantitative aspect, which we might call “the
nontransitivity of indistinguishability.” There is an
important difference between identity and indistin-
guishability. Identity is a transitive relation, i.e., if A
is identical with B and B is identical with C, then A
is identical with C. But if A is indistinguishable from
B and B is indistinguishable from C, then no conclusion
can be drawn; it neither follows that A is indistinguish-
able from C nor that A is distinguishable from C. To
use the technical labels, indistinguishability is neither
a transitive nor an intransitive relation, but something
in between, which is called “nontransitive.”

That language-change may be so gradual as to escape
notice—that it may be “insensible,” to use the eight-
eenth-century term—was observed already in ancient
times; but the hypothesis (1) that the presently
observed language diversity could result from an origi-
nal unity by changes that were in large part gradual,
and (2) that the principal locus of language change
lay in the imperfect imitation by children of the speech
of their elders, had to wait until the nineteenth century
to receive serious consideration. Neither hypothesis
would be accepted without qualification at the present
time; but what is relevant is that the hypotheses them-
selves are uniformitarian in character, and the question
is whether the linguists who put them forward were
actually influenced by Lyell. It appears probable that
there was little direct influence, that there was a fair
amount of indirect influence via Darwin (insofar as
Darwinian ideas had become common property of the
“average educated man”), but that in large part the
influence came from psychology, and in particular from
its recent heightened appreciation of the just-
noticeable difference and the “threshold,” and its
accompanying recognition that indistinguishability (of
sounds, etc.) is nontransitive.