Historical phonology and morphology in the nineteenth century: abstractness vs. empiricism

  • András Cser


In the first half of the nineteenth century comparative and historical linguistics focused mainly on morphological structure. Although important phonological discoveries were made, phonology played a subsidiary role to morphology. What could be called the models of language were all theories of morphology. These speculations were targets the Neogrammarians attacked vigorously, mainly in the spirit of uniformitarianism. Phonology was different in terms of abstractness. Sounds were treated in a superficially abstract manner, but this was based on the phonetically imprecise littera-tradition, the emphasis on correspondences, the focus on dead languages, and the impact of the Indian tradition. The Neogrammarians, by contrast, strove to make phonology more phonetic and more rigorous and, paradoxically, earned the contempt of their opponents for introducing a different kind of abstractness by reconstructing a segment not attested in unchanged form in any of the Indo-European languages. In turn, while the Neogrammarians admitted that de Saussure’s analysis in the Mémoire is highly logical, they dismissed it as lacking sufficient empirical motivation. It appears that the argument reminded them of the analyses of the previous generation, and de Saussure’s formulation, which they found unduly abstract, was superficially just the kind they wanted to purge linguistics of at last.