Wittgenstein coined the term "family resemblance" for collections with multiple overlapping similarities as opposed to universally shared traits. Wikipedia mentions that "It has been suggested that Wittgenstein picked up the idea and the term from Nietzsche, who had been using it, as did many nineteenth century philologists, when discoursing about language families".

I couldn't find specific references to philologists using the term. Can somebody point them out? Is the concept still useful in modern philology and linguistics? It seems that languages have few universals, but many similarities are shared by large selections of them.

  • 1
    The entire field of comparative historical linguistics uses the Family frame extensively -- daughter languages, genetic features, family resemblances and all. Wittgenstein did not invent the concept of family resemblance, nor the use or metaphor, both of which predate agriculture. He was referring to what George Lakoff (among others) calls "Radial Categories"; see Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things.
    – jlawler
    Jun 5 '15 at 1:07
  • @jlawler Do they use it literally, for historical relationships among languages, or abstractly, for any significant overlaps, whether or not they come from how languages evolved? How did 19th century philologists use it? Lakoff is already following Wittgenstein according to the article. Does the book discuss how his explanation of overlaps in terms of idealized cognitive models apply to languages rather than categories? I am having hard time transferring it to such a context (not an expert).
    – Conifold
    Jun 6 '15 at 0:29
  • Never literally; always metaphorically. And only for languages that could be either documented or reconstructed along hundreds of convergent lines. Rather like paleontology without fossils, just a lot of museum specimens labelled in various languages from various places over the last 5000 years. From such a study, one might be able to reconstruct some of the history of a species, but never the whole of evolutionary history. It would miss all the dinosaurs.
    – jlawler
    Jun 6 '15 at 1:46

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