North American Scholar

WHITNEY, William Dwight

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  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1827-02-09
  • Born City: Northampton
  • Born State/Country: MA
  • Parents: Josiah Dwight, a banker, & Sarah Williston W.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1894-06-07
  • Death City: New Haven
  • Death State/Country: CT
  • Married: Elizabeth Wooster Baldwin, 28 Aug. 1856.
  • Education:

    B.A. Williams College, 1845; study at Yale, 1849-50; study at Berlin & Tubingen, 1849-50; Ph.D. (hon.) Breslau, 1865; LL.D. Williams, 1868; William & Mary, 1869; Harvard, 1876; Edinburgh, 1889; J.U.D. St. Andrews, 1874; L.H.D. Columbia, 1887; Bopp Prize Berlin Academy of Sciences, 1870.

  • Professional Experience:

    Prof. Sansk. Yale, 1854-69; prof. Sansk. & comp. philol., 1869-94; ed.-in-chief An Encyclopedic Lexicon of the English Language 6 vols. (1889-91); pres. AOS, 1884-90; pres. APA, 1869-70.

  • Publications:

    Atharva-Veda Sanhitâ, with R. Roth (Berlin, 1856); Atharva-Veda Prâtiçâkhya (New Haven, 1862); Language and the Study of Language, 5th ed. (New York, 1867); A Compendious German Grammar (New York, 1869); Tâittirîya-Prâtiçâkhya (New Haven, 1871); The Life and Growth of Language (New York, 1875; Germ, trans. Leben und Wachsthum der Sprache, trans. A. Leskien [Leipzig, 1876]; Dutch trans. De taal in haar ieven en ontwikkeling geschetst, trans. G. Velderman [Arnhem, 1879]); Essentials of English Grammar (Boston, 1877); J.C. von Schiller, Wilhelm Tell (ed.) (Boston, 1877); A Sanskrit Grammar (Leipzig, London, Boston, 1879; 3d ed. 1896, Germ, trans. Indische grammatik, trans. H. Zimmer [Leipzig, 1879]); A Compendious German and English Dictionary, assisted by A. H. Edgren (London, 1879); J. W. von Goethe, Iphigenie auf Tauris (ed.) (New York, 1879); Elementary Lessons in English for Home and School Use (Boston, 1880); A Brief German Grammar (New York, 1885); The Roots, Verb Forms, and Primary Derivatives of the Sanskrit Language (Leipzig, 1885); A Practical French Grammar (New York, 1886); The Century Dictionary (ed.-in-chief), 6 vols. (New York, 1889-91); A Brief French Grammar (New York & Boston, 1891); An English Grammar for the Higher Grades in Grammar Schools (Boston, 1892); Max Miiller and the Science of Language (New York, 1892). Kleine Schriften: Oriental and Linguistic Studies, 2 vols. (New York, 1873-4); Whitney on Language: Selected Writings of William Dwight Whitney, ed. M. Silverstein (Cambridge, 1971).Bibliography: Whitney Memorial Meeting: A Report [December 28, 1895] ed. C.R. Lanman (Boston, 1897).

  • Notes:

    William Dwight Whitney was, in the words of a colleague, "for forty years the leader of oriental and linguistic studies in America and the personal master of a majority of the American scholars in his department" (Seymour, 425). He graduated first in his class at Williams at the age of 18, with a love of ornithology and the outdoors that at first directed him toward a career in the sciences. He began studying medicine in 1845, but, interrupted in that year by an illness, he went to work for three years as a teller in his father's bank. He shot and mounted a collection of New England "birds that resides in the Peabody Museum at Yale. In 1849 he joined his brother, the Harvard geologist Josiah D. Whitney, on the United States Survey of Lake Superior. His love of natural science never left him (he also joined the Hayden expedition to Colorado in 1873 and he published his diary in the New York Tribune), and the habits of independent observation and exact recording of detail he employed on these trips are evident in his scholarly work.Meanwhile, in 1848, the dean of the Yale Divinity School, Rev. George E. Day, persuaded Whitney to take up Sanskrit. In the same year, while doing geological research in Germany, Josiah had attended lectures on Sanskrit and brought home a number of books including Bopp's Sanskrit grammar, which he then took on the Lake Superior expedition. William pored over Bopp on the expedition, listened with enthusiasm to his brother (and the naturalist Eduard Desor) and heeded Day's imprecation; he thus diverted himself from the pursuit of the natural sciences to Sanskrit and linguistics. After the expedition he spent 1849-50 at Yale studying under one of America's few Sanskritists, Edward Elbridge Salisbury, in a class of two; his classmate was the Hellenist James Hadley, who was being won away from the pursuit of mathematics. From 1850 to 1853 Whitney studied under Bopp, Albrecht Weber, and Karl Lepsius in Berlin and Rudolph Roth in Tübingen, after which he spent three months in Paris, Oxford, and London collating Sanskrit manuscripts. His student Charles Lanman divided Whitney's publishing career into three aspects: "the elaboration of strictly technical works, the preparation of educational treatises, and the popular exposition of scientific questions." As a Sanskritist, he was a pathfinder in his field. In the words of his colleague Thomas Day Seymour: "he was among the very first to call attention to analogy as a force in the growth of language, and the first (after Latham in 1851) to doubt the then generally accepted view that Asia was the original home of the Indo-Europeans." With Roth he completed the editio princeps of the Atharva-Veda Sanhitâ, while still under the age of 30. He began his Sanskrit grammar in 1875 and took his family to Germany in 1878 for over a year to prepare the volume for the press. His historical analysis is drawn from investigation of the literature itself by Whitney rather than by assimilation of material in other grammars, in which he follows an American impulse, freed of the European schools, shared by his fellow grammarians (and Berlin classmates) Gildersleeve and Goodwin. He followed with editions of the Hindu works Atharva-Veda Prâtiçâkhya and the Tâittirîya-Prâtiçâkhya with the Tribhâshyaratna, phonetic and grammatical commentaries on the Vedas. The works are mines of minute information and Whitney's edition became something of an encyclopedia. He later wrote of the links between Hindu and Sanskrit in early numbers of AJP. He applied his scientific method and knowledge to his translation of the Hindu astronomical work the Sûrya-Siddhdânta, on which he also wrote an extensive essay, using evidence of solar eclipses to fix its date of composition. Remarkably for one so immersed in the minutiae of an abstract field, Whitney reached a wider audience with his great service to the teaching of language in general. His 1864 Smithsonian Lectures on "Principles of Language" led ultimately to his Life and Growth of Language: An Outline of Linguistic Science, ultimately translated into five languages. Through his Essentials of English Grammar and Elementary Lessons in English for Home and School Use, widely used in American schools, he greatly influenced the way English was taught in the schools, while his grammars of French and German, along with editions of works by Goethe and Schiller, which came about after he began the Modern Language Department at the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale. His great achievement was his careful editorship of the Century Dictionary, which Lanman called "by far the greatest lexicographical achievement of America." He contributed popular articles to the Nation and articles on various subjects to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the New American Cyclopedia, and Johnson's Cyclopedia.He was nearly lured to Harvard in 1869, by the young President Charles W. Eliot, but money was found at Yale to increase his salary and, with a new title, he remained for the rest of his career. There he trained many of the best scholars of the succeeding generations, including Charles Rockwell Lanman, Irving Manatt, Bernadotte Perrin, Frank Bigelow Tar-bell, and William Rainey Harper.Elected to membership in the American Oriental Society in 1850, he succeeded his mentor Salisbury as corresponding secretary in 1857, serving 27 years in that post, 18 as librarian, and six as president. He edited JAOS, contributing approximately half the articles in volumes 6-12 and spending untold hours editing the work of others. He was also first president of the APA, having presided at the Poughkeepsie meeting in 1869 and he contributed 14 articles to vols. 1-16 of TAPA.Apart from his love of the outdoors, he also enjoyed choral singing, particularly old hymns, perhaps an inheritance from his Puritan forebears. He and his wife had three sons and three daughters, one of whom, Edward B. Whitney, became Assistant Attorney-General of the United States.

  • Sources:

    Harold H. Bender, DAB 20:166-9; Charles R. Lanman, Atlantic Monthly 75 (1895) 398-406 = "Memorial Address," Whitney Memorial Meeting, 7-27 = Portraits of Linguists, ed. T. Seebeok (Bloomington, IN, 1966) 2:426-39; T. R. Lounsbury, PAAAS 12 (1895); Hanns Oertel, Beitrage zur Kunde der indogermanischen Sprachen 20 (1894) 308-33; Sandys, 3:464-5; Thomas D. Seymour, AJP 15 (1894) 271-98 = Portraits of Linguists, 2:399-426.

  • Author: Ward W. Briggs, Jr.