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Darwin's "I think" tree (1837)
In my previous post, I wrote about coming to terms with the metaphorical nature of Proto-Indo-European (PIE), which may or may not ever have existed as an actual language spoken by actual people at an actual moment in time but that is posited to be the common ancestor of most of the languages of Europe and many in western and central Asia.

To recap, the gist of that post is that the Indo-European hypothesis is large and contains multitudes and that the options seem to be to accept the astonishing inexactness of the metaphors or submit to the paralyzing mind-blowingness of what we use them to try to explain. I suggested that the latter option could be inconvenient if you're trying to discuss historical linguistics and language relatedness in a class that meets for an hour and fifty minutes twice a week for 15 weeks.

Anyway, continuing on the topic of the metaphors that we use to try to create some kind of manageable order out of the chaos that is the story of human language and how it got this way, we turn now to a fellow name of August Schleicher (1821-1868), a German linguist by training and profession who specialized in classical and Slavic languages. Schleicher, who may have had some of the same concerns that I have about how we can possibly even try to conceptualize an unattested 5,000 to 7,000-year-old super-ancestor Ur-language that might not even have actually existed, decided that it was time someone got around to the task of trying to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European.

That meant recreating (creating?) more or less an entire language -- vocabulary, phonology, grammar -- by working backwards from existing linguistic data found in the oldest surviving texts in languages believed to be descended from PIE.

Despite the seeming complete and utter impossibility of such a task, Schleicher actually did it. I can't believe no one tried to talk him out of it ("Gus, dude, that is völlig bekloppt!"), or if anyone did try, that he resisted and did it anyway. He actually reconstructed Proto-Indo-European, a language that left no direct evidence, if it had ever even really existed, and if it had existed, it had been dead for something to the tune of 5,000 years. Let that sink in for a minute.

And if you're not blown away at the thought of the kind of brain Herr Doktor Schleicher must have had to pull this off, go back and read my previous post, especially the parts about using the comparative method for reconstructing languages with no living speakers and no direct textual evidence. It's important to me that everyone understand that this was a feat of extraordinary intellectual bad-assery. (That it was also a feat of extraordinary nuttiness is not necessarily beside the point.)

Anyway, in 1861, Schleicher published his reconstruction of PIE in a book called Compendium der Vergleichenden Grammatik der Indogermanischen Sprachen, known in English (and available in translation here) as A Compendium of the Comparative Grammar of the Indo-European Languages. Revisions and reissues appeared well into the 1870s, although Schleicher himself died in 1868 at age 47.

"What does all this have to do with metaphors?" you might be thinking. Everything. It has everything to do with metaphors. For one thing, even as Schleicher published his reconstruction of a 5- to 7,000-year-old dead language that might not have existed in the first place, he also made it clear that he knew all along that he was dealing in metaphors, and particularly in a big PIE-shaped metaphor, one that made it possible for him to reconstruct what was quite possibly a mythical language. As he wrote in the Compendium in 1861 (although of course he actually wrote it in German):

"A form traced back to the sound-grade of the Indo-European original language, we call a fundamental form. When we bring forward these fundamental forms, we do not assert that they really were once in existence." (Emphasis added.)
I mean, duh.

But that's not all. As if the actual reconstruction of a possibly metaphorical language is not enough to guarantee Schleicher's place in history, or at least his place in historical linguistics, or at least in the history of metaphors to explain historical linguistics, there is also this: August Schleicher generated some of the most influential and enduring metaphors to which we have recourse today for making sense of the development of human language over time, including the single most influential and enduring metaphor of all: the phylogenetic tree for mapping language descent and relatedness.

That his tree metaphor has been criticized and challenged from practically day one, including by Schleicher protege (and total ingrate) Johannes Schmidt [1], and continues to be qualified to within inches of its life even today, ought to take nothing away from the fact that it is actually still used today. Schleicher devised his family tree theory to explain relationships among languages and thereby to classify them, although he actually called it Stammbaumtheorie, which is German for 'family tree theory' (sort of), because he was, you know, German.

Anyway, according to Richards (2002: 34), Schleicher "suggested (but did not yet graphically illustrate) that the developmental history of the European languages could best be portrayed in a Stammbaum, a stem-tree or developmental tree” as early as 1850. Richards notes that his first “graphic representation of a Stammbaum" appeared in two publications in 1853.

Unfortunately, neither of the two 1853 articles in which Schleicher's proto-tree proto-drawings (see what I did there?) first appeared is readily available, so I had no choice but to copy it, as in reproduce it by trying to draw it myself. While the image is conveniently reprinted in Richards's article, the article itself is actually Printed in a Book that is Protected by Copyright. Even though Schleicher's original work is of course in the public domain, reprinting it in a book in 2002 might give a publisher a sense that they are entitled to righteous indignation as well as possible legal recourse were someone to, say, scan the image and put it on the internet. Hence my original interpretation:

My attempt to reproduce 1853 Schleicher proto-tree
(Disclaimer: I am fairly certain that Schleicher's original drawings were not done with a red Sharpie, so please forgive this gauche anachronism, not to mention the obvious lack of aesthetic value. I think it does kind of look like Schleicher's earliest trees, though, or enough so you get the idea.)

By 1860, Schleicher “had begun to use Stämmbaume rather frequently to illustrate language descent,” according to Richards (34). And his designs get more sophisticated as well in the 1860s, meaning that he seems to have used a ruler this time. You can see that in the illustrations below, which were included in the original German edition and the 1874 English translation, respectively, of the extremely compendious Compendium, which is long out of copyright and from which I can therefore freely reproduce the illustrations here. First, here it is in the original German version (1861):

Now, here's the English translation (1874), by Herbert Bendall:
Schleicher's family-tree theory includes two key hypotheses, both of which are pretty Neogrammarian (as in kind of obsessed with the idea that language change, particularly sound change, is regular, systematic, and predictable, as I previously discussed here). He is not technically identified with that movement, although there is no question but that his work heavily influenced its proponents, including Schmidt.

First is the regularity hypothesis, which posits that speech sounds change over time in systematic (that is regular, predictable) ways, as the Danish linguist and astonishing brainiac Rasmus Rask (1787-1832) had earlier theorized. (There's more about Rask in my previous post.)

The second hypothesis is the relatedness hypothesis: Because of this (assumed) systematicity of change, sound similarities among particular languages are therefore likely to be the products (and evidence) of family relationships (sometimes called genetic relationships, to use another biological metaphor), among those languages. 

All of this was pretty innovative thinking, and the best part is that had Schleicher not had an actual life outside his work at the university, he might never have come up with any of it.

In addition to his completely understandable passion for linguistics, Schleicher was also an enthusiastic gardener and avid reader of scientific literature on the topic. In an 1863 essay, “Darwinian Theory and the Science of Language" (which is essentially an open letter to his close friend and colleague at the University of Jena, the zoologist Ernst Haeckel), Schleicher outlines his thoughts in response to Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859), which Haeckel had encouraged him to read when it was translated into German in 1860. Schleicher notes in the essay that Haeckel had recommended Darwin's book to him because he thought it would appeal to his linguist friend's love of gardening (which is translated adorably in the English translation of the essay as “botanizing"), but he writes that upon reading it, the British naturalist's “views and theory struck me in a much higher degree, when I applied them to the science of language."

As Schleicher explains in the "Darwinian Theory" essay, by the point he had reached in his career at the time of its writing, he had come to conceptualize languages in the context of the natural sciences, about which he read avidly and which developments he had followed with great interest for most of his life. In the essay, he maintains that human languages are essentially living organisms that are born, grow into maturity, and eventually die. This is a reasonable enough metaphor, even a pretty good one, but interestingly, and despite the apparent predisposition for metaphor that his reconstruction of PIE and invention of the Stammbaumtheorie might suggest, Schleicher does not appear to treat the language-as-organism metaphor as, you know, metaphorical.

He had once suggested as much, in a book he published in 1853, Die Sprachen Europas in systematischer Uebersicht (The Languages of Europe in Systematic Perspective -- no online English translation of this book available, unfortunately), but by 1863, he was no longer saying merely that languages are like living organisms but rather suggesting that languages actually are living organisms that share biological characteristics with plants and animals, at least in the evolutionary sense.

Lest readers misunderstand what he is saying here, he assures them that he does not mean to limit his claim for the biological, evolutionary nature of language to what was then becoming a fairly uncontroversial application of language development in the context of human physiological evolution (i.e., the role that evolution plays in the development of the physical apparatus that human beings use to produce speech). He takes a much more radical position than that, one that classifies language itself as living organism and proposes classifying all of human life according to its linguistic systems:

"I do not here exclusively refer to a physiological investigation of the various sounds of speech, a study which has made considerable progress of late, but also to the observation and application of linguistic varieties in their significance for the natural history of man. What if those linguistic varieties were to form the basis of a natural system concerning the unique genus homo? Is not the history of the formation and progress of speech the main aspect of that of the development of mankind? This much is certain, that a knowledge of linguistic relationship is absolutely requisite for anybody who wishes to obtain sound notions about the nature and being of man."

Darwinian Theory, p. 15.

A few pages later, he takes the claim of language-as-organism even further:
"Languages are organisms of nature; they have never been directed by the will of man; they rose, and developed themselves according to definite laws; they grew old, and died out. They, too, are subject to that series of phenomena which we embrace under the name of “life.” The science of language is consequently a natural science; its method is generally altogether the same as that of any other natural science."

Darwinian Theory, pp. 20-21.

Richards (2002: 47) maintains that Schleicher and Darwin, who corresponded, were mutually influential and that Schleicher's tree designs impressed the naturalist, who cited Schleicher in The Descent of Man (1871: 56) as a source for his exposition on the "origin of articulate language." 

However, it turns out that Schleicher's position, that "The rules now, which Darwin lays down with regard to the species of animals and plants, are equally applicable to the organisms of languages" (Schleicher 1863: 30), which he seems to have meant literally, did not prove to be very persuasive to other historical linguists, although it has enjoyed some considerable success as -- you guessed it -- a metaphor.

So here we still are, still talking about the Indo-European hypothesis, and still using Schleicher's models of language relatedness and descendancy, still applying the language-as-organism metaphor and the family-tree model as ways of conceptualizing the otherwise unimaginable. Like Indo-European languages themselves, Schleicher's metaphors, the ones he intended as metaphors as well as the ones that just turned out to work better that way, have ended up having pretty serious staying power. And despite its limitations (it is not well suited to account for internal variation, gradual change over time, or contact between the branches that represent families or sub-families, for example), his central metaphorical symbol -- the tree -- has thrived beyond what the dedicated botanizer-linguist might ever have hoped or imagined. For evidence of that success, click here to see a selection of the practically infinite visual representations of the Indo-European language family, all of which are in the debt of one August Schleicher.

August Schleicher in 1868

[1] Schmidt explains language relatedness according to a wave model (wellentheorie), which posits that linguistic innovations occur first at a single point and then diffuse outward over time in gradually weakening concentric circles. I like this model very much for thinking about language variation and change over time, but it has not displaced Schleicher's tree model for relatedness, which it really does not conceptualize very well.

Originally posted to alevei on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 02:20 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  bad link (5+ / 0-)

    check your first August Schleicher link

    Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. --Elie Wiesel

    by a gilas girl on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 03:43:34 AM PDT

  •  Again, thanks for the diaries (8+ / 0-)

    About 10-15 years ago I remember reading a cover story in The Atlantic about some linguists who were hypothesizing a proto-World: a language that all human languages, from Acèh to Žemaitėška, are descended from a single language. Has any further research been done in this area to your knowledge?

    Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað

    by milkbone on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 01:21:26 PM PDT

    •  I haven't read anything on that lately, but (8+ / 0-)

      I'd be surprised if the work was not ongoing. And I can see the appeal of the theory, although I have no opinion, informed or otherwise, as to whether it might actually have gone down that way or if language developed independently in multiple locations. If you come upon a link to that Atlantic article, I'd definitely be interested in checking it out.


      from Acèh to Žemaitėška
      That made my day. :-)
    •  I think the number of phonemes in a language (5+ / 0-)

      tends to decrease as you follow the trail of our species from our origins in Africa to the 'ends of the earth'.  A phoneme seems to be "The smallest contrastive linguistic unit which may bring about a change of meaning."  I'd simpilfy that to "The smallest distinct sound that can convey a change in meaning," equivalent to a 'linguistic bit'.  Languages in Africa tend to use a lot of phonemes, including some that involve tongue clicks, that aren't used anywhere else.  The language of the !Kung people in Africa may use the most, 141 phonemes.  (The ! is pronounced as a tongue click, and the word !Kung is pronounced roughly as a tongue click, followed by a ch sound and a u vowel.)  
      One 'end of the migratory road' may well be Polynesia, and indeed, Hawaiian has only 16 phonemes -- and a lot of very long words.  As Wikipedia says, "The total phonemic inventory in languages varies from as few as 11 in Rotokas and Pirahã to as many as 141 in !Xũ."  That !Xu is another way to try to spell !Kung.  Rotokas is an East Papuan language spoken by some 4,000 people in Bougainville, an island to the east of New Guinea.  
      The Pirahã people (pronounced [piɾaˈhã]) are an indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe of Amazon natives. As of 2010, they number 420 individuals.  

      It makes sense to me that as small groups migrated far from the beaten path they could have lost diversity in both their gene pool and their store of phonemes.  
      That suggests to me that if linguists want to find the 'original mother tongue' even older than Proto-Indo-European, they need to look for a lot of its remnants in Africa.

      We're all pretty strange one way or another; some of us just hide it better. "Normal" is a dryer setting.

      by david78209 on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 07:32:36 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Sounds familiar (6+ / 0-)

    Milkbone could be referring to the theory proposed by Merritt Ruhlen and outlined in his book "The Origin of Language."  It is, of course, a reconstruction, and a controversial one at that, since he relies heavily of methods pioneered by Greenberg in his analyses of African and New World languages into four and three major families respectively.  Greenberg's African analysis is largely accepted, but the breakdown of all the languages in North and South America into Amerind, Na-Dene and Inuit families still has his critics.

    Ruhlen's work carried this idea a whole dimension further.  His reasoning is sound, but the implications give some folks pause.

    Canem Praeteri, Cave Modo Hominem. (Never mind the dog, just watch out for the human)

    by T C Gibian on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 02:33:08 PM PDT

  •  Very interesting. Thanks. (4+ / 0-)
  •  I'm glad that both parts of this opus were rescued (5+ / 0-)

    as they were very enjoyable and interesting reading.

    Your students are lucky to have a professor who cares so much and writes colorfully. I hope your students have the same qualities.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 08:57:04 PM PDT

  •  I remember attending a lecture as an undergrad (5+ / 0-)

    by a linguist on the so-called "Nostratic" family of languages, proposed by a Russian linguist who thought that Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, and a few other Siberian language families grew out a single language group.  The lecturer was very skeptical on this hypothesis, however.

    One weakness of the 'tree' metaphor is that it leaves out external influence on the development of language.  Spanish not only grew out of Latin--it incorporated elements of Iberian Celtic, Hebrew, Berber, several Germanic dialects, and Basque.  Latin, in turn, incorporated elements Etruscan and Attic Greek.  And we all know the story of modern English, which of course is not one singular language, but several dialects.  I'm not sure what model would fit, but things get messy fast.

    •  you're right, CS (0+ / 0-)

      The tree does not account for contact or really anything but more or less linear and sudden changes.

      I'm not sure what model would fit, but things get messy fast.
      That is a great point and pretty much the problem in a nutshell: coming up with something that works better. In my class in the history of the English language, we look at a lot of different visual representations of relatedness (like the ones at the final link in the diary), and the students work collaboratively to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the various models, make a case for the one(s) they think work best, and propose new ideas for what they think might work better.

      So far the best we've been able to come up with are a three-dimensional tree-like model that allows for contact ("branches," including from neighboring trees, can grow together and later apart if they need to) and an animated version that allows the same and also illustrates differential rates of change over time. But we haven't actually built those models, just theorized about / imagined them.

  •  Language tends to evolve from earlier forms (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    alevei, ybruti

    and to incorporate them regardless of whether or not they are genetically part of the original tree through a process I'll call grafting. English for example contains bits of language brought home with it from every place it has ever been. PIE traveled through an area which was dominated by unclassified Sumerian and Semitic Akkadian somewhere around the second millenium BC


    Live Free or Die --- Investigate, Incarcerate

    by rktect on Wed May 01, 2013 at 12:20:11 AM PDT

    •  yes, definitely, rktect (0+ / 0-)

      I wrote my response to ConservatismSuxx before I saw your comment, but I think the ideas that my classes have come up with for conceptualizing relatedness and change over time, which I describe in my response to CS's comment, would work better for what you're describing here than the original tree models.

  •  Wow, fabulous diary. I will look (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    PrahaPartizan, alevei, HoundDog

    up some of the links later.

    I have had a long interest in linguistics and had heard about his theory and it made a lot of sense to me. Languages are organic and I;; bet Darwin was delighted to hear from Schleicher.

    Both are true geniuses.

    Thank you for your work on this. When the stupidity on dKos depresses me I come across something like your diary and rejoice — and stay longer.

    I'm asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about real change in Washington ... *I'm asking you to believe in yours.* Barack Obama

    by samddobermann on Wed May 01, 2013 at 01:54:35 AM PDT

  •  Gotta spend more time reading this later n/t (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Love = Awareness of mutually beneficial exchange across semi-permeable boundaries. Political and economic systems either amplify or inhibit Love.

    by Bob Guyer on Wed May 01, 2013 at 06:56:44 AM PDT

  •  Enjoyed both parts very much. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    alevei, ybruti

    Thank you for posting both. Question: It seems to me that metaphor is an inherent characteristic or device used in human language (I hesitate to say universally, but assume that to be the case) to communicate relationships (not just between phenomena but between speaker and hearer (writer/reader)) as in poetry. Their function as often as not does not result in one-to-one correspondence between speaker and object being referred to, but rather, they open up the possibility of multiple references or applications of the metaphor beyond the singular application of them in one context (which could make possible the easy transition to seeing relations between linguistic development and developments in human evolutionary biology). Does that make sense? If that is the case, then a metaphor's initial success or longevity can be a result not in its ability to create a single "picture" for one communication event between communicants but to create in a person or many people participating (in time and over time) extensions of meaning beyond the initial use of the metaphor. So later researchers still see the value of the metaphor as its applications lead to new "discoveries." Does that make sense? If so, have you come across any discussions of metaphor outside of poetic use that follow along those lines, that is, other uses in science?

    I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake. ― Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

    by dannyboy1 on Wed May 01, 2013 at 09:04:36 AM PDT

    •  That is a wonderful way of putting it! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      dannyboy1, I really like what you've said here. I don't have answers for your questions, but in what you're asking, you're actually answering some of the questions that I've had about these things. Thanks!

      There's an area of linguistics that deals with how and why people understand and use metaphors, but it is not one in which I have much expertise. If you're interested, you might want to look into cognitive linguistics and maybe start with George Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, which is a really good (and accessible) book about the human creation and understanding of categories that also explores how humans reason metaphorically. Actually, I should probably read it again myself since it's been 20 years and it probably gets at a lot of what I have been struggling to try to articulate.

      Thanks again for your awesome comment!

  •  Thank you for the very interesting series (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    which has evoked such enlightening comments. A Latin scholar in the fifties once explained to our class that the Latin vocabulary was based on only 35 roots. I found it a startling observation and I wonder how correct it was.

    The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right. -- Judge Learned Hand, May 21, 1944

    by ybruti on Wed May 01, 2013 at 01:33:42 PM PDT

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