The Principal Theses of Neogrammarianism

The Principal Theses of Neogrammarianism

In the field of the internal language history or as it is also called historical grammar Neogrammarianism is still playing a dominant role, predetermining the selection and systematization of factual material. High school lectures of language history even nowadays may be guided only by text-books and manuals, compiled by neogrammarians and scholars holding the same views.

Their main principles are the following:

1. Historical linguistics must be explanatory. It should not simply note and describe changes; it should also find their causes.
2. This explanation must be of the positivist type. Those vast philosophical explanations that appeared to Schleicher are to be mistrusted. The only verifiable causes are to be sought in the activity of speaking subjects, who transport the language while utilizing it.
3. In order to carry out this search for causes, it is preferable to study those changes that extend over a limited period of time. Instead of comparing very distant language states. Linguistics will take as their object the passage from one state to the state that follows.
4. A first type of cause is of the articulatory order. The so-called phonetic laws lend themselves in fact to a physiological explanation. Thus, their action is absolutely mechanical (“blind”): when a change takes place within a language state. No words – whatever their own semantic or grammatical situation might be – can escape it, and the exceptions (which Schleicher simply noted) arc, for a ncogrammarian, the indication of a law as yet unknown.
5. A second type of causes is psychological: the tendency to analogy, based on the association of ideas. Speakers tend:

a) to group words and sentences in classes whose elements resemble each other in sound and in meaning;
b) to create new words or sentences capable of enriching these classes. Hence, for example, the creation of “modernize” and “actualize” on the model of “realize”, or of “I feel badly” by analogy with “I feel well”.

6. Not only must the history of languages be explanatory, but there is no means of linguistic explanation other than the historical. Thus, to speak of the fundamental meaning underlying the different senses of a word has explanatory value only if this meaning happens to be primary in chronological terms. Similarly, one has the right to speak of a derivation (to say that one word is drawn from another – for example, that booklet comes from book) only if one can show that the source word (book existed prior to the derived word (booklet).