William Dwight Whitney, a commanding figure in nineteenth-century philology, may be considered the most important and wide-ranging precursor of modern linguistic theory. The selections in this book (covering the years 1861-1892) represent his pioneer work in linguistics and are relevant in the most urgent sense to the debate on the nature of language and linguistics shaping up once again between students of rationalist grammar and students of culture. Whitney was one of the first to stress the “cultural” nature of language in modern terms, and Mr. Silverstein remarks, “what impresses us most about this material is its fundamental sanity.”
Long essays by the editor and by Roman Jakobson, distinguished scholar in linguistics at MIT and in Slavic languages at Harvard University, as well as an autobiographical sketch from the Williams College Record of the class of 1845 precede Whitney's own studies. Mr. Silverstein has made no attempt to analyze selections but has chosen representative essays that show the range of Whitney's linguistic interests and accomplishments and that present the linguistic thought of his time. All of the essays appear in their original form except for the first and longest extract, which has been condensed from Language and the Study of Language. Purely descriptive studies of Sanskrit or of Hindu literature and astronomy have been excluded, although Whitney's narrowest professional interest is represented by the beautiful studies of accent in Sanskrit and the statistical treatment of imperfect and perfect tense formations.
The twelve essays are arranged by area of interest. The first group takes up general topics such as the “institutional” nature of language, psychology and the origin of language, and the difficult question of linguistic mixture. It is followed by an enigmatic piece of syntactic analysis of grammatical categories, several phonetics studies, the unified theory of vowel and consonant, the universal transcriptional system and articulatory phonetics, and the notion of phonetic economy. The book concludes with the Sanskrit studies and a treatment criticism of the grammarians or the period.