Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Another early tree in linguistics

The air is getting thin for those who thought that tree-thinking in linguistics was just a cheap copy from Darwin's family tree schema (1859). David clarified this in many earlier blog posts, and especially in one post about an early language tree (with reticulations) from the 19th century by Felix Gallet (1800; compare with Auroux 1990), and a later post on an early network from the 17th century by Georg Stiernhielm (1671; compare with Sutrop 2012).

More by chance than by actively searching for it, I stumbled upon another hint regarding an even earlier language phylogeny than the one we thought was the earliest so far. This phylogeny (or whatever it is) is mentioned in a recent article by Zeige (2015), which was published in a special issue of the Zoologischer Anzeiger (A Journal of Comparative Zoology) in which the topic of morphology across different sciences was discussed. Note that "morphology" in linguistics refers to the way words are composed from other words, or words are modified by means of inflection or derivation. So, although the term originally stems from biology, it has started to live a life of its own in linguistics.

The phylogeny that Zeige mentions in the article is about the Germanic languages in a broad sense, and was proposed by Justus Georg Schottel (1612-1676) in his lengthy treatment of the German HaupbtSprache (Schottel 1663). In the first volume of the book, Schottel gives 10 laudations on the German language, and in the tenth laudation, we find the following schema (the whole book is available in digital form from the Bayerische StaatsBibliothek digital):

Schottel's classification of the Germanic languages

Since the book is written in both Latin and German, it also contains the same schema in a Latin version:

Schottel's classification in Latin

Schottel has classified the Germanic languages and dialects. That we have a branching scheme here is obvious — that is, a nested set of groups, which could be represented as a dichotomous tree. His schema does not coincide with our modern phylogenetic classification of the Germanic languages, but it comes surprisingly close to it. The key question, however, as David pointed out in an email to me, is whether the classification was intended to represent the development of the languages.

Here, we have a general problem in linguistics, namely that linguists often did not and still do not distinguish between a classification that is intended to represent some observed similarities (which we would call a "synchronic classification" in linguistics), and a genealogical classification that is intended to represent the historical dynamics (which we would call "diachronic classification"). This is also mentioned in Zeige's (2015) article in the context of Schottel's classification; and in an an earlier blog post on the Wave theory of linguistic development, we saw how linguists tried to establish an alternative to the family tree but replaced the historical tree by a static, synchronic schema that was no longer genealogical. Schottel published his book in 1663, more than 150 years before Rasmus Rask (1818), Jacob Grimm (1822), and Franz Bopp (1816) began to systematize language comparisons, and when reading Schottel's book one can easily see that he lacks the systematic understanding of language change as a regular process, which layed the foundation for historical linguistics as a scientific discipline in the 19th century. For this reason, it is difficult to tell exactly what Schottel wanted to show with his schema of the Germanic languages and dialects.

Yet, it is obvious in his book that Schottel had some idea of language diversification as a historical process, and (in my opinion) also in his classification schema. He writes, for example, that Germanic languages like Norwegian, Danish, and Gothic are only remotely "Teutsch" (Germanic), due to the blurred pronunciations ("unkentlich Machung") and introduction of foreign words ("Einmengung der frömden Wörter), thus pointing to processes by which the languages diverged from the Germanic "ideal". Similarily, he mentions that the old German pronunciation is more easily perceivable in the Lower German and Lower Saxon languages ("darin die alte Teutsche Ausrede mehr zu spüren"). Moreover, on page 152 in the laudation, Schottel mentions explicitly a split of the former Germanic language into a High German and a German branch ("Teutsche und the-ho-uetsche (Hochteutsche) Sprache"), and even mentions the sound change from [t] to [z] (compare German zwei vs. English two) that reflects this split.

So, even if the schema reflects the typical uncertainty between static classification and dynamic genealogy, Schottel's work clearly shows tendencies of historical thinking. And for this reason, I would say that the current score for early phylogenies is 2 for linguistics versus 0 for biology, at least as far as the 17th century is concerned. But I am convinced that the last word on this "battle" for priority between biology and humanities has not yet been spoken!

  • Auroux, S. (1990) Representation and the place of linguistic change before comparative grammar. In: Mauro, T., L. Formigari, R. Petrilli, and A. Thornton (eds.): Leibniz, Humboldt, and the origins of comparativism 49. Benjamins: Amsterdam. pp. 213-238.
  • Bopp, F. (1816) Über das Conjugationssystem der Sanskritsprache in Vergleichung mit jenem der griechischen, lateinischen, persischen und germanischen Sprache. Nebst Episoden des Ramajan und Mahabharas in genauen metrischen Uebersetzungen aus dem Originaltexte und einigen Aabschnitten aus den Veda’s. Andreäische Buchhandlung: Frankfurt am Main.
  • Darwin, C. (1859) On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or, the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. John Murray: London.
  • Gallet, F. (1800) Arbre Généalogique des langues mortes et vivantes [The Genealogical Tree of Living and Dead Languages]. Illustration.
  • Grimm, J. (1822) Deutsche Grammatik. Dieterichsche Buchhandlung: Göttingen.
  • Rask, R. (1818) Undersögelse om det gamle Nordiske eller Islandske sprogs oprindelse [Investigation of the origin of the Old Norse or Icelandic language]. Gyldendalske Boghandlings Forlag: Copenhagen.
  • Schottel, J. (1663) Ausführliche Arbeit von der Teutschen HaubtSprache [Detailed work on the German main language]. Christoff Friederich Zilligern: Braunschweig.
  • Stiernhielm, G. (1671) De linguarum origine Præfatio. In: Stiernhielm, G. (ed.): D. N. Jesu Christi SS. Evangelia ab Ulfi la Gothorum in Moesia Episcopo circa annum à nato Christo CCCLX. Ex Græco Gothicé translata, nunc cum parallelis versionibus, sveo-gothicâ, norraenâ, seu islandicâ, & vulgatâ latinâ edita. Typis Nicolai Wankif: Stockholm.
  • Sutrop, U. (2012) Estonian traces in the Tree of Life concept and in the language family tree theory. Journal of Estonian and Finno-Ugric Lingusitics 3: 297-326.
  • Zeige, L. (2015) Word forms, classification and family trees of languages. Why morphology is crucial for linguistics. Zoologischer Anzeiger - A Journal of Comparative Zoology 256: 42-53.

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