August Schleicher (19 February 1821 – 6 December 1868) was a German linguist. His great work was A Compendium of the Comparative Grammar of the Indo-European Languages, in which he attempted to reconstruct the Proto-Indo-European language. To show how Indo-European might have looked, he created a short tale, Schleicher's fable, to exemplify the reconstructed vocabulary and aspects of Indo-European society inferred from it.
Schleicher was born in Meiningen, in the Duchy of Saxe-Meiningen, southwest of Weimar in the Thuringian Forest.
He died from tuberculosis at the age of 47 in Jena, in the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, in present-day Thuringia.
Work and career
Schleicher was educated at the University of Bonn and taught at the Charles University in Prague and the University of Jena.
He began his career studying theology and Oriental languages, especially Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit and Persian. Influenced by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, he formed the theory that a language is an organism, with periods of development, maturity and decline. In 1850, Schleicher completed a monograph systematically describing European languages, Die Sprachen Europas in systematischer Übersicht (The languages of Europe in systematic perspective). He explicitly represented languages as perfectly natural organisms that could most conveniently be described using terms drawn from biology: genus, species, and variety.
Schleicher claimed that he himself had been convinced of the natural descent and competition of languages before he had read Darwin’s Origin of Species. He invented a system of language classification that resembled a botanical taxonomy, tracing groups of related languages and arranging them in a genealogical tree. His model, the Stammbaumtheorie (family-tree theory), was a major development in the study of Indo-European languages. He first introduced a graphic representation of a Stammbaum in an article published in 1853 entitled Die ersten Spaltungen des indogermanischen Urvolkes. By the time of the publication of his Deutsche Sprache (German language) (1860) he had begun to use trees to illustrate language descent. Schleicher is commonly recognized as the first linguist to portray language development using the figure of a tree. Largely in reaction to this, Johannes Schmidt later proposed his 'Wave Theory' as an alternative model.
For the most part, however, Darwin’s ideas simply overlaid the fundamental features of Schleicher’s prior evolutionary project, which derived from the work of those individuals immersed in German romanticism and idealism especially Wilhelm von Humboldt and Hegel.
Schleicher believed that languages pass through a life cycle, similar to that of living beings. They start simpler than they will become. This state of primitive simplicity was followed by a period of growth, which eventually slowed, and then gave way to a period of decay (1874:4):
- As man has developed, so also has his language (...): even the simplest language is the product of a gradual growth: all higher forms of language have come out of simpler ones.... Language declines both in sound and in form.... The transition from the first to the second period is one of slower progress.
Schleicher was an advocate of the polygenesis of languages. He reasoned as follows (1876:2):
- To assume one original universal language is impossible; there are rather many original languages: this is a certain result obtained by the comparative treatment of the languages of the world which have lived till now. Since languages are continually dying out, whilst no new ones practically arise, there must have been originally many more languages than at present. The number of original languages was therefore certainly far larger than has been supposed from the still-existing languages.
Schleicher's ideas on polygenesis had long-lasting influence, both directly and via their adoption by the biologist Ernst Haeckel.
In 1866, August Leskien, a pioneer of research into sound laws, began studying comparative linguistics under August Schleicher at the University of Jena.
- Sprachvergleichende Untersuchungen. / Zur vergleichenden Sprachgeschichte. (2 vols.) Bonn, H. B. Koenig (1848)
- Linguistische Untersuchungen. Part 2: Die Sprachen Europas in systematischer Uebersicht. Bonn, H. B. Koenig (1850); new ed. by Konrad Koerner, Amsterdam, John Benjamins (1982)
- Formenlehre der kirchenslavischen Sprache. (1852)
- Die ersten Spaltungen des indogermanischen Urvolkes. Allgemeine Zeitung fuer Wissenschaft und Literatur (August 1853)
- Handbuch der litauischen Sprache. (1st scientific compendium of Lithuanian language) (2 vols.) Weimar, H. Boehlau (1856/57)
- Litauische Maerchen, Sprichworte, Raetsel und Lieder. Weimar, H. Boehlau (1857)
- Volkstuemliches aus Sonneberg im Meininger Oberlande – Lautlehre der Sonneberger Mundart. Weimar, H. Boehlau (1858)
- Kurzer Abriss der Geschichte der italienischen Sprachen. Rheinisches Museum fuer Philologie 14.329-46. (1859)
- Die Deutsche Sprache. Stuttgart, J. G. Cotta (1860); new ed. by Johannes Schmidt, Stuttgart, J. G. Cotta (1888)
- Compendium der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen. (Kurzer Abriss der indogermanischen Ursprache, des Altindischen, Altiranischen, Altgriechischen, Altitalischen, Altkeltischen, Altslawischen, Litauischen und Altdeutschen.) (2 vols.) Weimar, H. Boehlau (1861/62); reprinted by Minerva GmbH, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, ISBN 3-8102-1071-4
- Die Darwinsche Theorie und die Sprachwissenschaft – offenes Sendschreiben an Herrn Dr. Ernst Haeckel. Weimar, H. Boehlau (1863)
- Die Bedeutung der Sprache für die Naturgeschichte des Menschen. Weimar, H. Boehlau (1865)
- Christian Donalitius Litauische Dichtungen (The Lithuanian Poetry of Christian Donelaitis), published by the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg (1865)
- Darwinism Tested by the Science of Language. (Transl. by Alexander V. W. Bikkers) London, J. C. Hotten (1869)
- A Compendium of the Comparative Grammar of the Indo-European, Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin Languages, translated from the third German edition by Herbert Bendall. London: Trübner and Co (1874) (Actually an abridgement of the German original.)
- Laut- und Formenlehre der polabischen Sprache. reprinted by Saendig Reprint Verlag H. R. Wohlwend, ISBN 3-253-01908-X
- Sprachvergleichende Untersuchungen. reprinted by Minerva GmbH, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, ISBN 3-8102-1072-2
- Die Formenlehre der kirchenslavischen Sprache erklaerend und vergleichend dargestellt. Reprint by H. Buske Verlag, Hamburg (1998), ISBN 3-87118-540-X