Max Mueller (Part 1 of 2)

Gregory {Greg} Downing downingg at
Thu May 22 01:11:54 UTC 1997

I'll split G. Thompson's post into two shorter parts to answer it, as a lot
of important issues come up and I know that wading through one long post can
be annoying. Greg Downing/NYU

At 09:11 PM 5/21/97 BST, you (thompson at (George Thompson)) wrote:
>For Vedicists MM's work specifically on Vedic has been out of date for more
>than 100 yrs. [cf. for example, Bergaigne, vol 1, 187,8 or Oldenberg,
>"Ancient India" publ. in Eng. in 1896, Germ. orig. in 1886 - full citations
>on request].

Before I get started, let me thank Jonathan Silk for the solar-religion
article reference in his post, of which I was not aware, and which looks
extremely useful and spot-on with regard to one issue I have to deal with in MM.

Thanks also to others for comments and advice given offlist in the last 48

As for MM's (shall we say) "retro" status, that I was definitely aware of!!!
both  later 19C and later 20C), it's pretty clear that even before the final
phase of his career (d. 1900) MM got blasted by English, German, and US
scholars not only in the Vedic and mythological/religious areas but also in
the area of language-theory, etc. I'm not trying to resurrect MM as a
serious voice in these areas, but to look at some of the similarities that
show up between Joyce's work (he attended university in 1898-1902) and the
ideas in MM's more speculative (and thus, in fact, less solidly grounded)
work on language and myth/religion. MM's first major publication on
language-theory (his prior efforts were quite narrow/specialized) is
_Lectures on the Science of Lang_ (1863), where to understand what MM is
doing (for better or for worse) one has to take account of the work of
Richard Chenevix Trench.

MM is following up on the great success Trench had with the series of
pop-philology books, from _The Study of Words_ (1851) through _Words
Formerly Used in Senses Different From Their Present_ (1859). Trench's books
(esp. _SW_ and _English Past and Present_) were more successful than any
previous language-lore books, and brought Trench not only great income but
great authority as a language-expert. But since was a poet and cleric,
Trench did not go beyond discussing the history of English words, and
similar developments in other well-known Euro. langs., as well as the
background of the modern Euro langs in Latin and Greek.

Trench by the way is the grandfather of the life-model for the character
Haines in Chap 1 of Joyce's _Ulysses_. Joyce, Gogarty ( = Mulligan in
_Ulysses_), and Samuel Chenevix Trench spent some time living in a Tower
together in 1904, and the opening of Joyce's _Ulysses_ is set there.
Trench's pop-philology books were still taught in college-English classes in
JJ's days as an undergrad, and quite a number of words discussed in Trench's
books show up in Ul. Chap. 14, which runs through various stages in the
development of English prose style. (Small world. -- But this
Joyce/Trenchian pop-philology connection has not been discussed before in
the literature on Joyce.)

It seems to me that MM in the early 1860s sees himself as extending the kind
of work Trench had done to include comparative philology, even if his
language-studies work is somewhat behind the times from a really technical
angle, as well as rather popularizing, reductive, and speculative. (Trench
published no new pop-philology books after 1859, but continued living off
the income.)

And there are quite a few linguistic and mythological ideas in MM that seem
to find considerable echo in JJ. But I can see this is already a long post
and I don't want to make it too long. The details can certainly be discussed
further, on or off list.

>MM's nature mythology, discussed in the article cited by Jonathan Silk, is
>based, of course, on his extensive readings of Vedic. But MM labored under
>the typical 19th cent. misconception that he was dealing with the "dawn of
>civilization" or something like that, re the Rgveda.  We now know better.

Exactly -- an odd thing about MM's work on proto-IE roots (if I may approach
the same point from a comparative-philology angle) is that he appears at
some times to think that the roots represent the origin of human language,
and other times he thinks of PIE as possibly related to other langauges or
macro-families (which implies a common ancestry and makes PIE something
other than an autochthonous language so to speak). Many passages can be
cited in connection with either position:

(1) In many places MM argues that PIE roots are explicable as the result of
primitive human vocalizations (a "clamor concomitans") that accompanied a
particular movement or gesture which it therefore came to "mean" through a
process of association and thus symbol-creation. Thus, people would make a
certain sound that felt right when they made a pulling action, and that
sound therefore came to be the PIE root for "pull," just as modern sailors
make certain sounds when pulling a line etc. Thus, for MM, all PIE roots are
verbal; compare the 121 roots he boils Sanskrit down to at the beginning of
Vol II of _The Science of Thought_, 1887, Chap VII, esp. the 121-item list
on pp. 399-401. ("Panini," as MM transliterates the name, might have been
jealous!) When MM argues in this way, PIE roots are linguistically
originary, not evolved from earlier language.

(2) MM takes the opposite side more rarely, since the amount of even
remotely possible-looking theorization about language macro-families was
pretty slim in the later 19C (and remains pretty controversial still today,
long after the formulation of Nostratic theory in the 1920s or the more
recent work of people like Ruhlen). But nonetheless, see MM's _On the
Stratification of Language_ (1868), p. 39: "...before we lay it down as an
axiom, that there can be no kind of relationship between Sanskrit and
Hebrew..., that they represent, in fact, two independent species of human
speech, it is but right that we should pause, and not turn away
contemptuously from the tentative researches of scholars like Ewald, Raumer,
and Ascoli." P. 40: "Attempts have lately been made to point out a number of
roots which Chinese shares in common with Sanskrit." Etc.

I know all too well that both positions, as stated, are historical relics
from the angle of 1997. But even taken as such, they don't fit with each
other that well. If there's any chance that there might be macro-families
beyond PIE that are related to PIE, his theory about the origin of language
would (even on its own terms...) have to be pushed back to a common ancestor.

Rest of discussion in a second post shortly following this one.

Greg Downing/NYU
greg.downing at
downingg at

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