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August Schleicher
August Schleicher, by Friedrich Kriehuber
Born(1821-02-19)19 February 1821
Died6 December 1868(1868-12-06) (aged 47)
Alma materUniversity of Tübingen, University of Bonn
Main interests
Indo-European studies

August Schleicher (German: [ˈaʊɡʊst ˈʃlaɪçɐ];[3][4] 19 February 1821 – 6 December 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.


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


Schleicher was educated at the University of Tübingen and Bonn and taught at the Charles University in Prague and the University of Jena. He began his career studying theology and Oriental languages, especially Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit and Persian. Combining influences from the seemingly opposed camps of scientific materialism and the idealist philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, he formed the theory that a language is an organism, with periods of development, maturity and decline.[5] Languages start out simpler than they will become. The state of primitive simplicity is followed by a period of growth, which eventually slows and gives 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.

In 1850, Schleicher completed a monograph systematically describing European languages, Die Sprachen Europas in systematischer Uebersicht (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 biologygenus, species, and variety – and arranged languages into a Stammbaum (family tree). He first introduced a graphic representation of a Stammbaum in an article published in 1853 entitled Die ersten Spaltungen des indogermanischen Urvolkes. 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 evolution using the figure of a tree. Largely in reaction, Johannes Schmidt later proposed his 'Wave Theory' as an alternative model.

Schleicher is the author of the first scientific Compendium of Lithuanian language, which was published in German in 1856/57.[6][7] Schleicher asserted that the Lithuanian language can compete with the Greek and Roman (Old Latin) languages in perfection of forms.[8]

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.[9] Ernst Haeckel was a German evolutionist and zoologist known for proposing the gastraea hypothesis.[10]

In 1866, August Leskien, a pioneer of research into sound laws, began studying comparative linguistics under August Schleicher at the University of Jena.

Linguistic theories

Tree model

Schleicher played a pivotal role in devising theories in the field of historical linguistics, and in the study of the Proto-Indo-European language. Schleicher had a key role in popularizing the tree model (also Stammbaum, genetic, or cladistic model) within the field of historical linguistics; this is a model of the evolution of languages analogous to the concept of a family tree, particularly a phylogenetic tree in the biological evolution of species. As with species, each language is assumed to have evolved from a single parent or "mother" language, with languages that share a common ancestor belonging to the same language family.[11][12] the tree model has always been a common method of describing genetic relationships between languages since the first attempts to do so.

It is central to the field of comparative linguistics, which involves using evidence from known languages and observed rules of language feature evolution to identify and describe the hypothetical proto-languages ancestral to each language family, such as Proto-Indo-European and the Indo-European languages. However, this is largely a theoretical, qualitative pursuit, and linguists have always emphasized the inherent limitations of the tree model due to the large role played by horizontal transmission in language evolution, ranging from loanwords to creole languages that have multiple mother languages.[11] The wave model was developed in 1872 by Schleicher's student Johannes Schmidt as an alternative to the tree model that incorporates horizontal transmission.[13]

The tree model also has the same limitations as biological taxonomy with respect to the species problem of quantizing a continuous phenomenon that includes exceptions like ring species in biology and dialect continua in language. The concept of a linkage was developed in response and refers to a group of languages that evolved from a dialect continuum rather than from linguistically isolated child languages of a single language.[12]

Comparative model

In linguistics, the comparative method is a technique for studying the development of languages by performing a feature-by-feature comparison of two or more languages with common descent from a shared ancestor and then extrapolating backwards to infer the properties of that ancestor. The comparative method may be contrasted with the method of internal reconstruction in which the internal development of a single language is inferred by the analysis of features within that language.[14] Ordinarily, both methods are used together to reconstruct prehistoric phases of languages; to fill in gaps in the historical record of a language; to discover the development of phonological, morphological and other linguistic systems and to confirm or to refute hypothesised relationships between languages. The comparative method was developed over the 19th century. Key contributions were made by the Danish scholars Rasmus Rask and Karl Verner and the German scholar Jacob Grimm.

The first linguist to offer reconstructed forms from a proto-language was Schleicher, in his Compendium der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen, originally published in 1861.[15] Here is Schleicher's explanation of why he offered reconstructed forms:[16]

In the present work an attempt is made to set forth the inferred Indo-European original language side by side with its really existent derived languages. Besides the advantages offered by such a plan, in setting immediately before the eyes of the student the final results of the investigation in a more concrete form, and thereby rendering easier his insight into the nature of particular Indo-European languages, there is, I think, another of no less importance gained by it, namely that it shows the baselessness of the assumption that the non-Indian Indo-European languages were derived from Old-Indian (Sanskrit).

Schleicher's fable

Schleicher's fable is a text composed in a reconstructed version of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language, published by Schleicher in 1868. Schleicher was the first scholar to compose a text in PIE. The fable is entitled Avis akvāsas ka ("The Sheep [Ewe] and the Horses [Eoh]"). At later dates, various scholars have published revised versions of Schleicher's fable, as the idea of what PIE should look like has changed over time. The fable may serve as an illustration of the significant changes that the reconstructed language has gone through during the last 150 years of scholarly efforts.



  1. ^ E. F. K. Koerner, Practicing Linguistic Historiography, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1989, p. 193: "Schleicher historicism ... was in effect radicalized by the Neogrammarians."
  2. ^ a b Hadumod Bussmann, Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics, Routledge, 1996, p. 85.
  3. ^ "August – Französisch-Übersetzung – Langenscheidt Deutsch-Französisch Wörterbuch" (in German and French). Langenscheidt. Retrieved 20 October 2018.
  4. ^ Wells, John C. (2008), Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd ed.), Longman, ISBN 9781405881180
  5. ^ McElvenny, James (1 January 2018). "August Schleicher and Materialism in 19th-Century Linguistics". Historiographia Linguistica. 45 (1–2): 133–152. doi:10.1075/hl.00018.mce. hdl:20.500.11820/362d4f1a-e3d8-417b-9dc1-2c50253e0e61. ISSN 0302-5160. S2CID 158516713.
  6. ^ "August Schleicher". Visuotinė lietuvių enciklopedija (in Lithuanian). Retrieved 15 January 2023.
  7. ^ Schleicher, August (1857). Handbuch der litauischen Sprache von August Schleicher: Litauisches Lesebuch und Glossar (in German). J. G. Calve. Retrieved 15 January 2023.
  8. ^ Arbačiauskas, Giedrius (28 March 2021). "Lietuva mūsų lūpose. Kodėl mokslininkas Schleicheris teigė, kad lietuvių kalba gali lenktyniauti su graikų ir romėnų kalbomis?". Lithuanian National Radio and Television (in Lithuanian). Retrieved 15 January 2023.
  9. ^ Richards, Robert J. (21 January 2022). "2. The Linguistic Creation of Man: Charles Darwin, August Schleicher, Ernst Haeckel, and the Missing Link in Nineteenth-Century Evolutionary Theory". Experimenting in Tongues. Stanford University Press. pp. 21–48. doi:10.1515/9781503619999-004. ISBN 978-1-5036-1999-9. S2CID 246263680.
  10. ^ "Ernst Haeckel | German embryologist". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 20 April 2017.
  11. ^ a b List, Johann-Mattis; Nelson-Sathi, Shijulal; Geisler, Hans; Martin, William (2014). "Networks of lexical borrowing and lateral gene transfer in language and genome evolution". BioEssays. 36 (2): 141–150. doi:10.1002/bies.201300096. ISSN 0265-9247. PMC 3910147. PMID 24375688.
  12. ^ a b François (2014).
  13. ^ See Bloomfield 1933, p. 311; Heggarty et al. (2010); François (2014).
  14. ^ Lehmann 1993, pp. 31 ff.
  15. ^ Lehmann 1993, p. 26.
  16. ^ Schleicher 1874, p. 8.