Network Core Mechanisms of Exponence

Humboldt, Wilhelm von (1822)


One of the most sophisticated approaches to the origins of grammatical forms, and to our knowledge the first one to mention word-order together with what we know nowadays as grammaticalisation, was probably proposed by von Humboldt in his lecture in 1822 “Über das Entstehen der grammatischen Formen und ihren Einfluß auf die Ideenentwicklung” (On the genesis of grammatical forms and their influence on the evolution of ideas). He suggests that the grammatical structure of a language is preceded by a stage in which only concrete ideas can be expressed and that the grammatical categories of a language evolve through different stages out of the collocation of concrete ideas. Von Humboldt’s first stage sees grammatical categories as hidden within lexemes, expressed by idioms, phrases and sentences, i.e. in the “semanto-syntactic” configurations. Only things were denoted, concrete objects whose grammatical relation had to be inferred by the listener. In the second stage some of the word-orders in which the objects were presented became fixed, and some of the words started in this stage to oscillate between concrete and grammatical meanings. In the third stage these grammatical words became loosely affixed, i.e. agglutinated to the content words. In the last stage these agglutinative pairs (content words plus grammatical words) fused into synthetic single words; now they were stem and inflectional/derivational affixes. Von Humboldt also proposes that the four stages are connected with each other by the loss of meaning [semantic bleaching] and wearing down of the sounds [phonetic reduction] through constant usage).

authorHumboldt, Wilhelm von
titleÜber das Entstehen der grammatischen Formen und ihren Einfluß auf die Ideenentwicklung
journalAbhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin
noteReprint: Humboldt 1972: 31-63


    author = {Humboldt, Wilhelm von},
    year = {1822},
    title = {Über das Entstehen der grammatischen Formen und ihren Einfluß auf die Ideenentwicklung},
    journal = {Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin},
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