Lineage and the constructive imagination

The birth of historical linguistics

Authored by: Roger Lass

The Routledge Handbook of Historical Linguistics

Print publication date:  June  2014
Online publication date:  March  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415527897
eBook ISBN: 9781315794013
Adobe ISBN: 9781317743248


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My topic is too complex for the allotted word limit. So rather than aiming at exhaustiveness, 1 I confine myself to two major intersecting themes: the notion of genealogy, and the possibility of reconstruction, with emphasis on the latter. I will therefore neglect at least two important topics: (a) the relation of linguistics to the life sciences; this includes the debate, especially prominent in the 1860s, over whether language is an ‘organism’ and should be treated as a biological object rather than human action in society; 2 and (b) the ‘romantic’ elements of the subject. 3 This will rather be ‘great moments in early historical linguistics’, with the emphasis on those conceptual innovations that approach, or are ancestral to, what is now considered ‘mainstream’. This is not ‘Whig history’, evaluating past works according to how closely they approach the ‘goal’ of being modern; rather an attempt at describing and contextualising the early days of our craft, and incidentally revaluing some early work and showing how much older some of our fundamental ideas are than we habitually think.

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