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August Schleicher

August Schleicher (February 19, 1821 – December 6, 1868) was a German linguist. His great work was A Compendium of the Comparative Grammar of the Indo-European Languages, in which he attempted to reconstruct the Proto-Indo-European language. To show how Indo-European might have looked he created a short tale, Schleicher's fable, to exemplify the reconstructed vocabulary and aspects of Indo-European society inferred from it.



August Schleicher was born in Meiningen (Duchy Saxe-Meiningen, southwest of Weimar in the Thuringian Forest). He died from tuberculosis at the age of 47 in Jena (Duchy Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, Thuringia).


August Schleicher began his career studying theology and Indo-European, especially Slavic languages. Influenced by Hegel, he formed the theory that a language is an organism, with periods of development, maturity, and decline. In 1850 Schleicher completed a monograph systematically describing the languages of Europe, Die Sprachen Europas in systematischer Übersicht (The languages of Europe in systematic perspective). He explicitly represented languages as perfectly natural organisms that could most conveniently be described using terms drawn from biology e.g., genus, species, and variety.

Schleicher claimed that he himself had been convinced of the natural descent and competition of languages before he had read Darwin’s Origin of Species. He invented a system of language classification that resembled a botanical taxonomy, tracing groups of related languages and arranging them in a genealogical tree. His model, the Stammbaumtheorie (family-tree theory), was a major development in the study of Indo-European languages. He first introduced a graphic representation of a Stammbaum in articles published in 1853. By the time of the publication of his Deutsche Sprache (German language) (1860) he had begun to use trees to illustrate language descent. Schleicher is commonly recognized as the first linguist to portray language development using the figure of a tree. Largely in reaction to this, Johannes Schmidt later proposed his 'Wave Theory' as an alternative model.

For the most part, however, Darwin’s ideas simply overlaid the fundamental features of Schleicher’s prior evolutionary project, which derived from the work of those individuals immersed in German romanticism and idealism especially Humboldt and Hegel.

Schleicher believed that languages pass through a life cycle, similar to that of living beings. To begin with, they were simpler than they would become. This state of primitive simplicity was followed by a period of growth, which eventually slowed, and then gave way to a period of decay (1874:4):

As man has developed, so also has his language (...): even the simplest language is the product of a gradual growth: all higher forms of language have come out of simpler ones.... Language declines both in sound and in form.... The transition from the first to the second period is one of slower progress.

Schleicher was an advocate of the polygenesis of languages. He reasoned as follows (1876:2):

To assume one original universal language is impossible; there are rather many original languages: this is a certain result obtained by the comparative treatment of the languages of the world which have lived till now. Since languages are continually dying out, whilst no new ones practically arise, there must have been originally many more languages than at present. The number of original languages was therefore certainly far larger than has been supposed from the still-existing languages.

Schleicher's ideas on polygenesis had long-lasting influence, both directly and via their adoption by the biologist Ernst Haeckel.

Works by August Schleicher

  • Sprachvergleichende Untersuchungen. / Zur vergleichenden Sprachgeschichte. (2 vols.) Bonn, H. B. Koenig (1848)
  • Linguistische Untersuchungen. Part 2: Die Sprachen Europas in systematischer Uebersicht. Bonn, H. B. Koenig (1850); new ed. by Konrad Koerner, Amsterdam, John Benjamins (1982)
  • Formenlehre der kirchenslavischen Sprache. (1852)
  • Die ersten Spaltungen des indogermanischen Urvolkes. Allgemeine Zeitung fuer Wissenschaft und Literatur (August 1853)
  • Handbuch der litauischen Sprache. (1st scientific compendium of Lithuanian language) (2 vols.) Weimar, H. Boehlau (1856/57)
  • Litauische Maerchen, Sprichworte, Raetsel und Lieder. Weimar, H. Boehlau (1857)
  • Volkstuemliches aus Sonneberg im Meininger Oberlande - Lautlehre der Sonneberger Mundart. Weimar, H. Boehlau (1858)
  • Kurzer Abriss der Geschichte der italienischen Sprachen. Rheinisches Museum fuer Philologie 14.329-46. (1859)
  • Die Deutsche Sprache. Stuttgart, J. G. Cotta (1860); new ed. by Johannes Schmidt, Stuttgart, J. G. Cotta (1888)
  • Compendium der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen. (Kurzer Abriss der indogermanischen Ursprache, des Altindischen, Altiranischen, Altgriechischen, Altitalischen, Altkeltischen, Altslawischen, Litauischen und Altdeutschen.) (2 vols.) Weimar, H. Boehlau (1861/62); reprinted by Minerva GmbH, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, ISBN 3-8102-1071-4
  • Die Darwinsche Theorie und die Sprachwissenschaft - offenes Sendschreiben an Herrn Dr. Ernst Haeckel. Weimar, H. Boehlau (1863)
  • Die Bedeutung der Sprache für die Naturgeschichte des Menschen. Weimar, H. Boehlau (1865)
  • Darwinism Tested by the Science of Language. (Transl. by Alexander V. W. Bikkers) London, J. C. Hotten (1869)
  • A Compendium of the Comparative Grammar of the Indo-European, Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin Languages, translated from the third German edition by Herbert Bendall. London: Trübner and Co (1874) (Actually an abridgement of the German original.)
  • Laut- und Formenlehre der polabischen Sprache. reprinted by Saendig Reprint Verlag H. R. Wohlwend, ISBN 3-253-01908-X
  • Sprachvergleichende Untersuchungen. reprinted by Minerva GmbH, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, ISBN 3-8102-1072-2
  • Die Formenlehre der kirchenslavischen Sprache erklaerend und vergleichend dargestellt. Reprint by H. Buske Verlag, Hamburg (1998), ISBN 3-87118-540-X


  • Salomon Lefmann: August Schleicher. Skizze. Leipzig (1870)
  • Joachim Dietze: August Schleicher als Slawist. Sein Leben und Werk in der Sicht der Indogermanistik. Berlin, Akademie Verlag (1966)
  • Konrad Körner: Linguistics and evolution theory (Three essays by August Schleicher, Ernst Haeckel and Wilhelm Bleek). Amsterdam-Philadelphia, John Benjamins Publishing Company (1983)
  • Liba Taub: Evolutionary Ideas and "Empirical" Methods: The Analogy Between Language and Species in the Works of Lyell and Schleicher. British Journal for the History of Science 26, S. 171-193 (1993)
  • Theodeor Syllaba: August Schleicher und Böhmen. Prague, Karolinum (1995). ISBN 807066942X

External links

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

AUGUST SCHLEICHER (1821-1868), German philologist, was born at Meiningen on the 19th of February 1821, the son of a medical practitioner. He attended (1835-1840) the gymnasium at Coburg. In the autumn of 1840 he entered the university of Leipzig as a student of theology, but exchanged Leipzig in the spring of 1841 for Tubingen. Here he remained two years, and under the influence of the famous orientalist Ewald, relinquished the study of theology for that of languages. Proceeding to the university of Bonn in 1843, he took his doctor's degree in 1846 and established himself as Privatdozent for comparative philology. In 1850 he was appointed extraordinary professor of classical philology at the university of Prague, and in 1853 was advanced as ordinary' professor to the chair of German and comparative philology and Sanskrit. While at Prague he commenced the study of Slavonic languages, and with the assistance of the Vienna academy of sciences undertook in 1852 a journey of scientific research into Prussian Lithuania, the fruits of which were the first scientific examination and description of the character of the Lithuanian language. In 1857 he became professor of philology at Jena, where he lived and worked until his death on the 6th of December 1868. Next to Franz Bopp, the founder on the science of language, no German savant left a more enduring stamp of his personality upon this science than did Schleicher.

His first scientific work, Zur vergleichenden Sprachgeschichte (1848), was followed by Die Sprachen Europas (1850); but the book by which he is best known is Kompendium der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen (2 pts., 1861, 1864; 4th ed., 1876), and a supplementary volume, Indogermanische Chrestomathie (1869). Among his minor writings are "Zur Morphologie der Sprache" (in the Memoires de l'academie de St. Petersbourg, 1859); Die Darwinsche Theorie and die Sprachwissenschaft (1863, new ed. 1873), Uber die Bedeutung der Sprache fiir die Naturgeschichte des Menschen (1865); while in the department of Slavonic and Lithuanian languages the following may be mentioned: Formenlehre der kirchenslavischen Sprache (1852); Handbuch der litauischen Sprache (with grammar, reader and glossary, 1856-1857). Besides Lithuanian legends he published an edition of Christian Donaleitis' Litauische Dichtungen (1865).

See S. Lefmann, August Schleicher (1870) and Zeitschrift fur vergleichende Sprachforschung, vol. xviii.

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