In 1786, Sir William Jones published The Sanskrit Language in which he remarked on similarities between Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek and suggested that all three developed from a common extinct language now called "Proto-Indo-European." Jones's observations were an important landmark in the study of language. One century later, the field of philology was in its golden age. William Dwight Whitney was among the leading philologist of the era. He was professor of Sanskrit and editor of The Century Dictionary, an English language dictionary surpassed only by the Oxford English Dictionary.
Whitney published a general treatment of language and the principles of comparative philology in 1875 entitled The Life and Growth of Language: An Outline of Linguistic Science, which covered much of the same ground that appeared in his 1867 work, Language and the Study of Language. Life and the Growth of Language is an excellent exposition of the state of the art in philology during its heyday. It combines a clear explanation of basic linguistic concepts with hypotheses about how languages change over time. This is illustrated with analyses of specific word forms as they are transformed by the tendencies among speakers that alter language.
The great bulk of his book examines various Indo-European languages which he claims belong to the most well-developed language family. His examples show the genetic links between modern languages by examining three basic linguistic forms: inflective, agglutinative, and word order languages. All languages make use of each of these forms, though normally one is dominant. In Latin which is mainly inflective, case endings express the role that the word plays in the sentence; suffixes tell us, for example, whether the noun is the subject of the sentence or the object. In English, this information normally is revealed by the order of the words in the sentence. Agglutinative languages employ specific words to express cases and link them together in complex, compound words. Whitney's prime examples of agglutinative languages are Scythian and Chinese, in which words tend to be single syllables. These syllables are brought together to express numerous semantic relations, e.g., cases common in English, as well as passive, reflexive, causative, negative, and impossible action.
These linguistic properties are explained in the course of showing how language changes, sometimes to the extent of altering the dominant structure the language. For example, Modern English, a word order language, developed out of Old English, a inflected language; however, contrary to this trend, some Modern English inflections were formed from older agglutinative or word order features. Whitney's example of this is the past tense suffix "-ed." According to Whitney, it is the worn away expression of "did." "Did" is still used to indicate the past tense as in expressions like "he did love." The origin of the -ed ending came from a slightly different word order, "he love did." The existence of both "he did love" and "he loved" in Modern English indicates that early English was probably agglutinative where "did" served to indicate the past tense.
The Life and Growth of Language drives home the plasticity of language. Suffixes and prefixes are formed out of words worn away by lazy speakers. Conversely, word orders are standardize or specific words are employed to express what was expressed previously by now neglected inflections. Whitney describes other changes to the language related to the invention of new words and word borrowings. Both often take place as a result of significant cultural changes due to new technologies or modes of life or due to exposure to foreign cultures through trade, migration, or conquest. According to Whitney, many words originated in onomatopoeias.
In the later chapters, Whitney describes features of other language families, highlighting the amazing diversity of linguistic forms. For example, outside Indo-European languages, the distinction between verb and other parts of speech is not so stark. Single words are made to do the work of numerous parts of speech and are distinguished only by their inflections. Whitney observes that intonation is critical to distinguishing Chinese words, Native American languages make an important distinction between animate and inanimate objects rather like some languages distinguish genders, and Scythian employs fifteen to twenty separated cases.
Philologists of Whitney's time believed that the relationship between languages could be recognized by the similarity between certain core words, e.g., mother, father, brother, and others that were not likely to be replaced by new or borrowed words. Famously, Jones recognized the similarity of the Latin and Greek "pater" and "mater" and the Sanskrit "piter" and "matar," along with other similar words. Similarities between the grammatical structure of two languages provided an even stronger argument for their common ancestry. Such arguments, however, are not always convincing since accidental commonalities clearly appear between languages.
The difficulty of establishing strong connections between languages raises an important question about the "science" of philology. Whitney examines this in his last chapter. His sensitivity to the difficulties of drawing sound conclusions is, however, limited by the progress of the philosophy of science of the 19th century. While not yet widely and clearly articulated, verificationism and induction was the state of the art in the philosophy of science in Whitney's day. Falsificationism and the hypothetico-deductive method was still 50 to 75 years away from its seminal articulation in Karl Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery.
Since philology was concerned chiefly with reconstructing dead language that had no written record, there was little to no possibility of testing an hypothesis. All that could be done was to formulate elegant, but untestable theories that linked existing languages. This short-coming may well have been the main reason that philology did not last far into the 20th century as a science. However, with recent advances in archaeology and genetics, a larger body of evidence has become available to support philological claims. Furthermore, more recent philosophers of science and epistemologists, e.g., W.V.O. Quine and Nelson Goodman have enhanced the significance of theory construction in the progress of science, potentially establishing greater respect for future philological activity.
Whitney's work is surprisingly advanced when compared to 20th century linguistics. It is evidence that the advances in 20th century linguistics were not radical departures from the ideas of the 19th century, but merely clearer expressions of nascent older ideas. Similarly, Whitney views Indo-European languages as somehow more developed than those of other families. This reflects his time, but he also exhibits a budding awareness that all human languages are essentially equally sophisticated and are a product of a common natural human capacity. There are many passages that make Whitney sound like a typical 19th century ethnocentric imperialist and other that seem to recognize that non-Indo-European languages, even "primitive" languages, are no less sophisticated than Indo-European languages. In these passages, the difference for Whitney is mostly in the size of the languages' vocabularies, and he recognizes that this is merely a reflection of a more complex industrial society.
All in all, Whitney's The Life and Growth of Language is a fascinating romp through Indo-European philology. Happily, it requires no special knowledge to enjoy the excursion.