In this quote (Demolin), it is said the neogrammarians opposed the dominant views of their time.

"The neogrammarians (Junggrammatiker) A group of young 19th-century scholars - Karl Brugmann, Berthold Delbrück, August Leskien, Hermann Osthoff, Hermann Paul, ... - who opposed the dominant views of their time."

To whom did the neogrammarians react? In my knowledge, the linguistics of the time was already positivist, historical and comparative, features which also characterize the neo-grammarians.

  • whilst I don't think this question is necessarily off-topic here, it's possible that this question may be better suited to the history of science and mathematics stack exchange site (I'm not certain their position on social sciences like linguistics though)
    – Tristan
    Commented Jun 18 at 8:49

1 Answer 1


In many ways the development and adoption of the Neogrammarian paradigm presages the Darwinian revolution in biology (not just in the fact that the family tree model actually originates in pre-Neogrammarian historical linguistics and then adopted by Darwin, with explicit reference to the linguistic model, rather than vice versa, although the Neogrammarians then in turn cite Darwin rather than its earlier linguistic use).

Prior to the Neogrammarians, the dominant view was glottogonic. There was a view that the classical languages, being closer to creation, were more perfect and that subsequent developments were due to a process of decay without particular systematicity. Likewise, prior to Darwin, it was already well known that species can and did change over time, but it was generally believed to be a slow corruption of their original perfect forms.

This glottogonic view is summed up well by the opening of Sir William Jones' famous 1786 address announcing his discovery of the Indo-European language family (emphasis mine):

The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of the verbs and in the forms of the grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists; there is a similar reason ... for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic ... had the same origin with the Sanskrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family.

Whilst historical linguistics was comparative at the time, without the power of the Neogrammarian hypothesis it was largely limited to appeals to antiquity or the perceived perfection and refinement of the language in question and focused on shared retentions of the earlier language.

The Neogrammarians actually gave us two keen insights, one methodological (the famous Neogrammarian hypothesis, that sound change is regular), and one philosophical (that language is not in a state of decay, and instead the languages of today, considered as a whole, are broadly similar to those of millennia past).

In many ways it is actually the latter that is more fundamental, as it leads to the focus on shared innovations, with the former only giving us additional tools to tell what those are.

Likewise, since Darwin, we have realised that (with some exceptions, especially early on in the evolution of life on Earth, or immediately following sudden shifts in conditions) that all species, considered as a whole, generally fit their native habit similarly well and similarly well to how they did many many millennia ago, and so it doesn't make sense to talk about a progression from lower to higher order species.

It's also worth noting that, contemporary with the Neogrammarians, there was another reaction against the earlier glottogonic philologists, the dialectologists. The glottogonists generally only considered literary "civilised" languages to have value and, whilst the Neogrammarians were more open to evidence from non-literary languages (or those with only short literary histories), they still held a perception that dialects constituted debased forms of the prestige variety.

The dialectologists on the other hand viewed dialects as having crucial importance and, whilst in many ways extending the Neogrammarians' philosophical insights (to include not just the relationship between languages and their parent languages, but also that between dialects and their prestige variety), on the basis of their data they vehemently rejected the Neogrammarian hypothesis, instead saying that "every word has its own history".

It is only really since the middle of the 20th century with the rise of variational linguistics and insights from sociolinguistics that we have been able to synthesise these two models. In biology too we see developments with the study of horizontal gene transfer.

  • The neogrammarians were influenced by evolutionism, or departed from it? I can read contradictory statements on this issue...
    – Starckman
    Commented Jun 18 at 9:11
  • 1
    there was significant mutual influence, but the the family tree model in particular originated in (pre-Neogrammarian, I was incorrect there and am correcting my answer) historical philology
    – Tristan
    Commented Jun 18 at 9:19
  • "the dominant view was glottogonic." with which linguists for instance? I read previous to the neo-grammarians was the romantic comparative linguists, like Grimm, Schlegel, Bopp
    – Starckman
    Commented Jun 18 at 11:32
  • sure, there was comparative work before then, and some sound laws had indeed been discovered (such as Grimm's law), but they were largely motivated by a belief that earlier languages were more refined or in some sense "better" (as seen in Jones' comments) and, because they had no belief in the regularity of sound change had no reason to investigate exceptions to the laws they discovered (which is why Verner's law was not discovered until the Neogrammarians, people had previously noted the apparent exceptions but not investigated them)
    – Tristan
    Commented Jun 18 at 13:00
  • 1
    "Johann Christoph Adelung (1806[1806–17]) proposed a typological classification of languages in what came to be known as a “glottogonic” interpretation, which saw modern languages as mere “decayed” versions of the more “perfect” classical languages. (...) The glottogonic interpretation, later associated with Bopp and especially with Schleicher – and vigorously attacked by the Neogrammarians" (Campbell & Poser 2008, Language Classification: History and Method) This passage dates later the glottogonic interpretation, and associates it with two names (Bopp and Schleicher)
    – Starckman
    Commented Jul 9 at 14:04

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