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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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1. Uniformitarianism in Geology. The term “uni-
formitarianism” was introduced by William Whewell
in 1840 to label a certain scientific theory, contrasted
with catastrophism. The issue as discussed by Whewell
and his contemporaries primarily presented itself in
geology. Charles (later Sir Charles) Lyell (1830) was
the most prominent advocate of uniformitarianism.

In geology, the issue arose for two main reasons. (1)
It appeared from the geological record that there were
changes, in both the inorganic and the organic realms,
too great or too sudden to be accounted for by causes
now known to be in operation. (2) Even more impor-
tant, anything like a literal interpretation of the Bible
seemed to call for a catastrophic view. It was not
generally supposed that the Creation, or Work of the
Six Days, took six twenty-four hour periods to com-
plete, but it was generally supposed that, instead of
setting the universe up by a “single decree” (as Leibniz
called it, Causa Dei, §42, and Fifth Letter to Clarke,
§66), after which only “secondary causes” were at
work, the Creator divided his total act of creation into
several separate acts, of which all but the first
supervened upon and altered a world already in opera-
tion. In addition to the Creation, another episode from
Genesis—the Flood—had obvious bearing on geology.
And one who applies the uniformitarian idea not, as
Lyell did, only in geology, but in all natural science
would exclude all miracles, whether alleged in the Old
Testament or the New: the burning bush, Aaron's rod
turning into a serpent, the rolling back of the waters
of the Red Sea, Christ walking on water, etc. And it


happened that in Genesis there is a linguistic episode
that poses scientific problems rather like those of the
Creation and the Flood.

Lyell's uniformitarianism is commonly treated only
as a precursor of Darwin's evolutionism. It is clear—see
especially Eiseley (1958), who in effect (pp. 108, 113,
115) defends the way in which Huxley (1869) distin-
guishes evolutionism from uniformitarianism—that
Darwin went beyond Lyell not merely in dealing with
the biological realm, including man, but also in his
positive theory of natural selection. Uniformitarianism
(extended to organic evolution) said there was a law;
Darwin said what the law was. And we may distinguish
between uniformitarianism and evolutionism as fol-
lows. Uniformitarianism as such says nothing about the
limits of change over time, but says only that the
“laws” or “causes” of change are uniform over time,
i.e., are the same at all times. We may call “qualified
uniformitarianism” the doctrine that admits one ex-
ception to this, or at most two exceptions, namely a
first moment of the universe and perhaps also a last
moment, in which, respectively, creation was started
and annihilation was completed. It was thought to be
a corollary of uniformitarianism that only those laws,
or those causes, which are at work now—adapting a
phrase of Newton's, these were called verae causae
were ever at work.

Uniformitarianism so defined says nothing as to
whether life evolved from inorganic matter, or man
from brute, or some other species of living thing from
another species. How it differs from evolutionism may
be brought out by an example: the causal relation of
life to inorganic matter. According to uniformitarian-
ism, either (1) there was never a time when there were
not living things on the earth, or (2) there was such
a time, and a later time when there were living things,
but the transition from the earlier to the later state
could be exhaustively explained in terms of laws that
held good at both states and indeed at all states. Of
the two possibilities compatible with uniformitarian-
ism, only the second is evolutionary. What uniformi-
tarianism rules out is the supposed possibility that the
transition from an earlier stage with no life to a later
stage with life was accomplished not by the prevailing
laws of nature but by a miracle or other extraordinary
direct intervention of the Creator.

What was the argument for uniformitarianism? In
retrospect we are inclined to see the issue as at bottom
one of scientific autonomy. Was natural science to be
guided—constrained, as those who deplored the
guidance would say—by premisses allegedly furnished
by Revelation, or was natural reason to be its own sole
lawgiver? Lyell and his contemporaries did not, how-
ever, see the issue in this way. Both sides, whether
partisans or critics, put the issue in terms of “proba-
bility,” this being determined by what was most con-
formable to the Creator's intention (Lyell [1830-33],
1, 164, quoted by Gillispie [1951], p. 121; Huxley, in
Darwin [1888], 1, 541). Lyell's formulation was
muddied by the self-imposed limitation, justified no
doubt but trouble-making, that he only undertook to
defend uniformitarianism in application to strictly
geological phenomena, not carrying it back “beyond
the veil of stratified rock” (Huxley [1869], p. 313) to
the earliest stages of our terrestrial globe, nor forward
to living organisms. In other words, he virtually situ-
ated geology in between physics (and chemistry and
astronomy) and biology, and for the most part refrained
from treating its border-sciences, either uniformitari-
anly or in any other manner. There is only a termi-
nological difference between saying, with Huxley (ibid.,
pp. 315, 319) that this limitation of scope imposed by
Lyell is inherent in uniformitarianism, and saying that
Lyell himself was not an out-and-out uniformitarian.
Lyell's views on organic evolution are very compli-
cated (Eiseley, Ch. 4).

2. Uniformitarianism and Linguistics. Uniformi-
tarianism did not have any detectable direct influence
upon linguistics until more than thirty years after Lyell
set it forth in geology. We first describe the circum-
stances of this detectable impact, and then go back
to look at the situation in linguistics before then.

The impact was due, in part, to Lyell himself. Chap-
ter 23 of his work, Geologic Evidences of the Antiquity
of Man
(1863), is entitled “Origin and development
of languages and species compared.” The leading
thoughts are that (1) there are various analogies be-
tween languages and biological species as regards mu-
tation, splitting of one species (or language) into two,
arrested development, competition among different
species (or languages), and so forth, and (2) sometimes
we can see more clearly what happens to species,
sometimes to languages. Lyell was looking for light
on what happened to species, and he thought that some
light might come from what happened to languages.

Lyell's concern with language was distinct from, and
independent of, a concern with language as a power
of man. The latter concern—seen for instance in
Darwin's Descent of Man (1871) and Expression of the
Emotions in Man and Animals
(1872), includes such
questions as how far language resembles and how far
it differs from such other things as gestures, brute cries,
etc., and whether it can be regarded as having evolved
from any of them.

Lyell's Chapter 23 began with a quotation from
F. Max Müller, and the next year Müller returned the
compliment by quoting Lyell (Müller [1864], Ch. 5,
pp. 232, 239ff.). Müller might have done so from mere


courtesy or timeliness. But beyond this obvious ac-
knowledgment, Müller in the same work took account
of Lyell's ideas in a much profounder way. For in an
earlier chapter (Ch. 2) he virtually incorporated
uniformitarianism into linguistics, by formulating two
“principles on which the science of language rests,
namely, that what is real in modern formations must
be admitted as possible in more ancient formations,
and that what has been found to be true on a small
scale may be true on a large scale.” The eminent
American linguist W. D. Whitney, in his review of this
book (1865, p. 567), commented disdainfully, “We
should have called these, not fundamental principles,
but obvious considerations, which hardly required any
illustrations.” But this disparagement was unfair if, as
seems to be the case, Müller was the first in linguistics
to formulate them. It should be noted, moreover, that
Whitney did not question the truth of Müller's princi-
ples. Again, in 1885, Whitney admitted their truth and
questioned the importance of stating them. That he
was himself uniformitarian was stressed, shortly after
his death, by the great Indo-Europeanist Karl Brug-
mann ([1897]; cf. W. P. Lehmann, Language, 34 [1958],
179-80, n. 2).

Through the German linguist Friedrich Techmer we
gain further information on the channel of influence.
He cites (1880, 1, 119) a passing allusion by Geiger
(1869, p. 65) which suggests that the uniformitarian-
catastrophist issue was familiar; in Techmer himself,
familiarity with the issue is simply one instance of a
general familiarity and sympathy with British logic and
scientific method. The same familiarity and sympathy
are manifest in Kruszewski (1884-90, 1, 295; 3, 167)
a few years later.

Besides the major influence of uniformitarianism,
linguistics shows influence from geology in two minor
ways, namely, in its metaphors “substratum” and
“linguistic paleontology.” On substratum, see Y.
Malkiel, Language, 43 (1967), 231ff. On linguistic
paleontology, see Pictet (1859-63); Techmer (1880), 1,
60-61; Saussure (1922), §5.4.3; Nehring (1931). The
history of the latter metaphor deserves further investi-
gation. It doubtless involves some connection between
A. Pictet (1799-1875) and F.-J. Pictet (1809-72). Both
Pictets were professors at the University of Geneva.
F.-J. Pictet was an eminent paleontologist; both
Darwin and Huxley speak respectfully of his review
of The Origin of Species.

3. Geology, Biology, and Linguistics. The metaphor
“linguistic paleontology” exploits a certain obvious
analogy between “dead” languages and fossils. (It
should be borne in mind that paleontology, the study
of fossils, belongs both to geology and to biology; this
fact leads us, when considering influences of geology
upon linguistics, to consider at the same time certain
influences of biology upon linguistics.) For one thing,
linguistics was concerned with normative questions to
a far higher degree than was biology. There was, for
example, a counterpart in linguistics but not in biology
to the literary “quarrel of the ancients and the mod-
erns.” This dispute—ably described in Chapter 14 of
Highet (1949) and in Wimsatt and Brooks (1966), pp.
214, 262, 437n., 523-24—concerned the relative value
of ancient languages and literatures as compared with
modern languages and literatures. Whereas there was
never a time in biology when the study of fossils was
more highly esteemed than the study of living plants
and animals, it was only after centuries of debate that
the study of living languages and literatures (written
or oral) came to be considered not inferior to the study
of Latin and Greek. And the debate was, in effect,
ended sooner for literature than for language: the
“progressive” view prevailed, very broadly speaking,
for literature already in the Enlightenment, but for
language not until romanticism. The chronicle is well
told in the various writings of the ardently progres-
sivist, and yet remarkably objective linguist Otto Jes-
persen (e.g., 1922).

The maxim, therefore, that we ought to interpret
dead languages in the light of the living ones was more
controversial in linguistics than its counterpart was in
biology. It was countervailed by the argument that,
as the living languages have degenerated from the dead
classical languages, to use the former as a guide is to
interpret the perfected and optimal form in the “light”
of the corrupted and obscured form. In biology a like
argument was heard only in a very few special cases,
for instance, in the opinion about ancient man that
“There were giants in those days.” The superior
importance of the classical languages was bolstered by
a judgment about the superior importance of written
language over spoken language. According to this
judgment, if we have only written records of ancient
languages, this is, to be sure, a loss, but not an essential
loss. In biology, per contra, it was generally recognized
that if, e.g., one classified fossil molluscs exclusively
according to properties of their shells, this basis of
classification, used for lack of anything better, was
forced upon us by the circumstance that only their hard
shells, and not their soft inner vital parts, got preserved.
The view attained in the nineteenth century, that we
lacked information about such “vital parts” of the
classical languages as their system of intonation, the
details of their pronunciation, and the full extent of
differences of dialect, social class, and style within
them, and that in drawing inferences about them we
should take as our models the living languages that
we could more fully observe—this view was in effect


uniformitarian, though there was no demonstrable
influence from geology.

Having seen that uniformitarianism involved taking
a position on the interpretation of those episodes of
the Bible that concerned geology, we may inquire what
positions linguistics took on the corresponding
linguistically relevant episode. Linguistics had no
Lyell, and the problem arises, Why not?

Several ingredients of an explanation present them-
selves. One of them—the normative aspect of linguis-
tics—has already been discussed. In the second place,
the hypothesis of uniform change had a very different
aspect in linguistics than in geology, and this for
several reasons. (1) Rate of linguistic change was less
easily quantified than, for example, rate of sedimen-
tation, glacial advance, or lava flow. The point is
not that it was less easily measured, but that the very
definition of what to measure was less easy. (2) If one
estimated the rate of language change impres-
sionistically, one might well have had the impression
that it was highly variable. In particular, it was
plausible to suppose an acceleration in times of social
upheaval, or of decline in level of education, etc. (3)
The mathematics of probability and statistics, which
could be put to good use in quantifying rate of linguis-
tic change, had not been sufficiently developed until
the early nineteenth century, and, when it was devel-
oped, it was not regarded by linguists as one of their
available tools.

In the third place, there are significant differences
between the linguistic aspects of the Confusion of
Tongues at Babel and the geological aspects of the
Creation and the Flood. The Babel story, taken
literally, says that by extraordinary, supernatural inter-
vention God replaced a linguistic unity by a linguistic
diversity that was sufficient to frustrate universal com-
munication, but this left room for great latitude of
opinion about the nature of the replacement. One
extreme possibility was that God maximized the
diversity; the consequence of this for scientific linguis-
tics would be that we could not by any set of regulari-
ties account for the relation between the lingua
(whether this was Hebrew or some other
language) and all the now existing languages. The other
extreme possibility was that God minimized the
diversity; the post-Babelian languages, each of them
describable as gotten by a set of regularities from the
lingua adamica, differed from one another just barely
enough to frustrate universal communication, yet not
so much as to frustrate scientific understanding of their
relationships. This seems to have been Leibniz' view,
in keeping with his principles that God works every-
where by rules and that he achieves maximal results
with the minimum means. Thus both the so-called
“polygenist” view and the “monogenist” view can
claim compatibility with the Babel story. But neither
in Leibniz' time nor in Müller's nor in ours has any
great success been achieved in working out the
monogenist view in any detail.

As for the hypothesis that the pre-Babelian language
was Hebrew, linguistic science was not in a position
to refute this hypothesis definitely until about the
1860's, i.e., until the Comparative Method reached the
stage to which Schleicher brought it.

In the fourth place, linguistics was subject to more
constraints than geology. Even if relieved of heter-
onomy from Revelation, linguistics was still subject to
constraints external to it, from physics, from geology,
and from biology. Archbishop Ussher's chronology,
fixing the Babel episode at 2347 B.C., gave the linguist
only several thousand years to work within, as noted
by Sapir in his discussion of Herder ([1907], p. 117;
cf. Jespersen [1922], p. 28), but the natural sciences
did not allow him much more. Given the obvious fact
that man is of relatively recent origin, and given the
opinions prevailing in the nineteenth century about the
age of the earth and the durations of the several
geological periods, there were still only a few thousand
years available to the linguist for the origin and
diversification of language. Geology and evolutionary
biology were themselves oppressively constrained in
their available time span by current physics (Eiseley
[1958], Ch. 9); for instance, in 1893 Lord Kelvin
accepted an estimate of the earth's total age as 24
million years. Contrast this with the fact that by 1907
B. B. Boltwood, using the half-life principle of radioac-
tive decay, had arrived at an estimate 100 times that
of the earlier one (personal communication from Matt
Walton, 1963; not in Eiseley). Present-day estimates
agree more or less with Boltwood's value rather than
Lord Kelvin's, and the antiquity of Homo sapiens has
likewise greatly expanded.

In the fifth place, linguistics was preoccupied with
another task. Whitney (1867, p. 3), sketching the his-
tory of linguistics, spoke for the prevailing view when
he called the recognition of an Indo-European family
“the turning point in this history, the true beginning
of linguistic science.” The challenge of following up
this recognition led to devising the Comparative
Method (Bloomfield [1933], Ch. 18), and to refinements
of methods in historical linguistics. The grand project
of working out, by the historical and the comparative
methods, the detailed history of the Indo-European
family and also of various other families (Semitic,
Dravidian, etc.) occupied nearly all the energy put into
linguistics in the nineteenth century. But the historical
and comparative methods did not—except perhaps for
their indications that Hebrew was not the same as


Proto-Semitic—yield any result that challenged re-
ceived interpretations of the Bible. Besides the reason
already given—great uncertainty about the rate of
linguistic change—there was another, that needs to be
set forth rather fully. This other reason was that the
comparative method cannot settle the question
whether all human languages are descended, by
uniformitarianly acceptable processes, from a single
ancestor. The diversity of known languages is such, and
the imperfections of the method are such, that the
method breaks down before it reaches the end of our
quest, which is the beginning in time of language. This
limitation became clear to linguists in the second half
of the nineteenth century.

The reason for the incapacity is that the comparative
method does not admit of unlimitedly recursive appli-
cation. Taking historical, documented languages as our
input, we get as output Proto-Indo-European. And
taking other sets of documented languages as inputs,
we get Proto-Semitic, Proto-Finno-Ugric, Proto-
Algonquian, and so on. The idea occurs to us that we
could treat these reconstructed proto-languages as
inputs in their turn, and thus get further back in time
to the beginning of language. But no one has succeeded
in doing this in a generally accepted way, nor is there
any prospect of it.

The incapacity may be stated in terms of time. The
several outputs of the comparative method take us
back perhaps 6,000 years. (This is the rough time-depth
that Pedersen [1931, p. 319] proposes for Proto-
Indo-European; the estimates reported in Cardona,
Hoenigswald, and Senn [1970] do not go back so far.)
According to any dating that places the origin of lan-
guage appreciably earlier than that, there is an appre-
ciable temporal gap between the origin(s) and the
earliest states that we can reconstruct by the compara-
tive method. According to Ussher's chronology, there
would be a gap of about 1,700 years (since he gave
2347 B.C. as the date of the Babel episode); according
to timetables furnished by the physics and the geology
of the late nineteenth century, there could be at most
a gap of a few thousand years; according to present-day
timetables, the gap might be as great as some hundreds
of thousands of years. (Haas, 1966, discusses repeated
applications of the comparative method; she finds it
possible to repeat the method as much as three times,
but the time depth thereby reached is still only about
five thousand years, i.e., to about 3,000 B.C. See p. 140,
Table 12 and n. 66.)

The fifth point of difference between linguistics and
geology may be summarized as follows. Uniformitarian
geology began with a proposed straightforward method
and a proposed limitation upon its scope. Comparative
linguistics began (at about the same time as Lyell's
geology) with a roughly defined task, and required
about thirty years to work its way through to a more
precise conception of its task and to the formulation
of a method—the comparative method—for achieving
it. The culminating figure was August Schleicher (es-
pecially his work of 1861-62), to whom we next turn.
The founders were Rasmus Rask, Jakob Grimm, Franz
Bopp, and August Pott, whose manner of discovery
has been aptly compared by Antoine Meillet (see
Jespersen [1922], p. 55) with that of Columbus. By the
1860's, as the inherent limitation of the comparative
method became clear, linguists became aware of a veil
like the “veil of stratified rock” which Lyell (according
to Huxley) acknowledged from the outset.

So much for the differences between geology and
paleontology on the one hand, and linguistics on the
other. Let us close this section by noting an important
resemblance. Whitney, quoted above, called the rec-
ognition of the Indo-European family a turning point
in linguistics. The reason why it was a turning point
is revealed by a phrase in the famous remarks (1786)
of Sir William Jones which are generally given credit
for starting the new turn. Greek, Latin, and the newly
discovered Sanskrit, Jones says, show an “affinity...
so strong that no philologer could examine all the three
without believing them to have sprung from some
common source which, perhaps, no longer exists...”
(Jones [1788], pp. 421-22). This prospect was exciting
for two reasons. First, for the thought—not new, as
Hoenigswald (1963, p. 3) notes, but newly interesting—
that a major language should have entirely dis-
appeared. The comparable interest in extinct plants
and animals is well described by J. C. Greene (1959).
In each case, apart from the supposed bearing upon
the revelations of the Bible, there was food for
uniformitarian thought: the proposition that the laws
of nature do not change over time did not mean that
the states of nature do not change; the uniformitarian
did not have to maintain that at all times the species
of plants and animals, and the languages, were just
what they are now. The second reason for excitement
was the hope, and the prospect, that the lost source
language could be recovered. The analogy between the
hoped-for method of recovering the lost language and
the method of recovering extinct plants and animals—
between the comparative method of linguistics and
paleontology—is a rather remote one, but we know
from remarks by Hegel, W. von Humboldt, and others,
that Cuvier's comparative anatomy inspired the foun-
ders of comparative linguistics.

4. August Schleicher (1821-68). Schleicher's un-
usually complex views cannot be accurately described
in brief compass. Here we are concerned only with
his relation to uniformitarianism (cf. Hoenigswald


[1963]; [1966], pp. 1-2 and n. 13; Jespersen [1922],
pp. 71-83; Maher [1966]; Oertel [1902], pp. 39-42,
53-54, 58-59; Pedersen [1931], Ch. 10 and pp. 311-13;
Robins [1967], pp. 178-82; Schmidt [1890]).

Schleicher's work (1863) on Darwinism and linguis-
tics is interestingly like Lyell's work of the same year
in its comparison of languages with biological species.
Schleicher says that whether or not Darwin's natural-
selection hypothesis is true of species, it is certainly
true of languages. This is far from entitling us to call
Schleicher a Darwinian, but at least there is a measure
of agreement.

On the other hand, Schleicher was no uniformitarian.
Employing a certain interpretation of Hegel's contrast
between Spirit (which expresses itself in History) and
Nature, he eclectically combined it with the pre-
Hegelian, eighteenth-century opinion that the his-
torically attested language changes are deteriorations,
or forms of decay; he posited an earlier stage of lan-
guage in which languages were perfected, and a later
stage during which they deteriorated; because only the
earlier stage involves Spirit, he assigned it to History
(in the Hegelian sense), with the result—confusing to
us today—that his stage of History is prehistoric and
his stage of Nature includes all the historically docu-
mented changes. Now obviously any such contrast
between a stage of History and a stage of Nature in
language is intensely un-uniformitarian. It is one thing
to simply say nothing about prehistoric languages, i.e.,
to limit the scope of one's consideration to the histori-
cally documented languages, and another thing to
make a positive claim, as Schleicher did, about prehis-
torical “History.” We shall now see the reaction in the
1860's and '70's to this claim. In leaving Schleicher,
let us remark as a last point that one of his major
contributions—the family-tree model of relationships
within a language-family—had an un-uniformitarian
tinge, insofar as it committed itself to treating the split
of one language into two as a sudden, cleancut separa-
tion, contrary to what we observe today as the ordi-
nary, hardly observable process of language-change
(Bloomfield [1933], pp. 347, 364, 394, 481). A few years
after Schleicher, a more realistic model was proposed
by his pupil Johannes Schmidt (Pedersen [1931], pp.
314-15; Bloomfield [1933], pp. 317-18, 340).

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.

6. Uniformitarianism in Recent Linguistics. In
1950 Morris Swadesh launched a method, glotto-
chronology, that deserves mention here because it


proposed a uniformitarian refinement of the compara-
tive method. It had two main postulates: (1) The
vocabulary of any language can be divided into two
parts, the basic vocabulary and the rest; languages may
differ in their nonbasic vocabularies, but all languages
agree in the meanings expressed in their basic vocabu-
laries. (2) Change in a language's basic vocabulary
(which consists in the replacement of one item by
another item with the same meaning) proceeds at a
more or less constant rate for all languages at all times.

It is postulate (2), uniform rate of change for re-
placements in basic vocabularies, that makes the
method uniformitarian. To determine this constant
rate, it was assumed that replacement, which is dis-
crete, could be represented without serious distortion as
a continuous process amenable to the differential and
integral calculus. Under that assumption, there resulted
as a corollary to postulate (2) a half-life principle just
as in the mathematical model for radioactive decay.
And actually it was the application to radioactive
decay, and especially its recent application in arche-
ology to radiocarbon dating, that inspired Swadesh's
method and aroused hopes for it (Swadesh, 1952).

After about a decade of discussion both postulates
came to be judged unrealistic (Hymes [1964], pp.
567-663, including pp. 622-23, a bibliography). How-
ever, the basic ideas of the method have not been
shown to be wrong in principle.


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[See also Classification of the Sciences; Language; Linguis-
Structuralism; Uniformitarianism and Catastrophism.]