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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXV. Scholars

§ 26. William Dwight Whitney

The greatest English-speaking student of general linguistics and of the science of language, William Dwight Whitney (1827–1894), was born at Northampton, to a fine local and family tradition of manners, character, and scholarship. Having graduated in 1845 at Williams College, he later became an assistant to his brother Josiah, who in 1849 was conducting the United States survey of the Lake Superior region; and he wrote for the report of the expedition the chapter on botany. Meanwhile he had become interested in Sanskrit; he studied it in his leisure time during the survey, and immediately afterward went to Yale for graduate study in the Department of Philosophy and the Arts, which Professor Salisbury had been active in organizing (1846–48), and which was the first graduate school of genuine university rank in the United States.

From 1850 to 1853 Whitney studied in Berlin under Weber, Bopp, and Lepsius, and at Tübingen under Roth. Returning to the United States in 1853, he was next year appointed Salisbury’s successor in the chair of Sanskrit, his duties including instruction in the modern languages. He was not released from undergraduate teaching until 1869, when Salisbury increased the endowment of Whitney’s Yale professorship, and Whitney became “the only ‘university professor’ … in the whole country.” He was now enabled to organize fully a graduate school of philology, which very soon attracted able students, among them Charles R. Lanman, Irving Manatt, Bernadotte Perrin, A. H. Edgren, and William Rainey Harper, who well represent the variety of interests arising from the studies which Whitney directed. From 1850 Whitney had been a member of the American Oriental Society, and he became successively its corresponding secretary, its librarian, and its president. From 1857 to 1885 more than half of the Society’s Journal came from his busy pen. He was also one of the founders and was the first president of the American Philological Association.

Whitney produced a large volume of work, and left his mark upon many different departments of scholarship. His important achievements in his particular field of Indology can be truly evaluated only by Indologists. His first large work in Indian scholarship was his edition, with Roth, of the Atharva-Veda-Sanhit (1855–56), and his very last was the translation of the same Veda, edited after his death by Charles R. Lanman (1905). Whitney edited in 1862 the Atharva-Veda-Prtiçkhya with a translation and notes, and in 1871 the Taittirya Prtiçkhya. “The Prtiçkhyas are the phonetico-grammatical treatises upon the texts of the Vedas, and are of prime importance for the establishment of the text. Their distinguishing feature is minutiæ of marvellous exactness, but presented in such a form that no one with aught less than a tropical Oriental contempt for the value of time can make anything out of them as they stand. Whitney not only out-Hindus the Hindu for minutiæ, but also, such is his command of form, actually recasts the whole so that it becomes a book of easy reference.” These intensive studies of the Hindu grammarians and of the Sanskrit texts gave Whitney the material for his great Sanskrit Grammar (1879), with its supplement, The Roots, Verb-forms, and Primary Derivatives of the Sanskrit Language (1885), which together form “the crowning achievement” of his work as a Sanskrit scholar. Whitney’s book goes behind the Hindu grammarians and rests upon direct induction from the texts. Beginning thus with the phenomena, Whitney might not be too severely condemned if, like Ticknor in the Spanish Literature, he had failed to rise much above their merely factual level. But his induction is complete; there are none of those confused categories or obscure arrangements that betoken failure to reach illuminating concepts. Whitney has thus left for the use of students in Indo-European linguistics an organon that is not likely to be soon discarded.

Whitney’s works upon the general science of language—Language and the Study of Language (1867), The Life and Growth of Language (1875), etc., might perhaps never have been written if he “had not been driven to it by … the necessity of counteracting as far as possible the influence” of Max Müller’s views. Against the idealism, transcendentalism, and logical fallacies of Müller, Whitney takes a distinctly common-sense and almost pragmatic view. Language is for him a human institution, an instrument made by man to meet human needs, and at no time beyond human control. It has to be acquired afresh by every speaker, for it is not a self-subsisting entity that can be transmitted through the body or the mind of race or individual. Whitney thus decisively ranges himself against all absolutist and determinist theories of the nature of language. Upon the origins of language, though he declined to commit himself, as feeling that the evidence warranted no positive assertion, he yet felt equally certain that the evidence did not warrant Müller’s assertion of a multiple origin—languages springing up here, there, and everywhere upon the surface of the earth. The trend of Whitney’s opinion, though he asserts nothing positively, is towards a single primal language.

As in Indology, so in general linguistics, Whitney left a school, represented in Germany by the so-called Jung-Grammatiker, who include Osthoff, Brugmann, Leskien, Fick, and Paul, and in the United States by Professor Hanns Oertel and other disciples. They emphasize the importance of analogy and of phonetic economy, as chief among the psychic factors that must be added to the physical in order to account fully for linguistic change. All Whitney’s modes of thinking tended away from those integrations which take the investigator back towards undifferentiated origins, and worked forward among the differentiations that account for linguistic progress towards the present and the future. Whitney is much more interested in the processes of linguistic change than in the evidences of linguistic unity.

The forward look is equally characteristic of his work in orthography and lexicography, which assumed that neither in meaning nor in form is language to be dominated by its past. He consistently and lucidly favoured a reformed spelling, but here too his common sense and regard for present actualities controlled his doctrine, and he never made among the lay public any propaganda looking to the adoption of a phonetic system. In the same way, when he came to the making of The Century Dictionary, he conceived it as bound to offer, not a standard of “correctness” derived from classical periods in the past, but a compendium of the actual use and movement of the word throughout its history. Together with this kinetic conception both of the vocabulary and of the semantics of his Dictionary, Whitney gave the most minute attention to his etymologies and definitions. Among the editors of Webster’s Dictionary in 1864, Whitney and Daniel Coit Gilman had had special charge of the revision of the definitions; for the Century Whitney obtained the assistance of his brother Josiah in defining the technological words, and the assistance of other experts in their special fields. The result was an extensive vocabulary intensively defined. The etymologies are brought up to the state of knowledge in 1891. The quotations (undated) illustrate rather than fully set forth the semantic history of the word; the Century in this respect is surpassed by the Oxford Dictionary, to which alone among English dictionaries it is in any respect second.

Whitney’s own writing is a model of lucid exposition. It neither has nor needs adventitious ornament; it does not even need the play of humour to make his most technical essays readable. There are to be sure, flashes of a polemic wit, but what keeps the text alive and at work is the reader’s sense that he is in powerful hands that bear him surely along. Whitney seems to divine that particular analysis of his material which will carry the reader cleanly through it. The ultimate impression left by his writings is that of a powerful intellect controlling enormous masses of fact and moving among them as their master. To be interesting, such power needs no play other than its own.