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William Dwight Whitney

William Dwight Whitney

William Dwight Whitney (; 1827–1894) was an American linguist, philologist, and lexicographer who edited The Century Dictionary.


  • Life 1
  • Career 2
  • Works 3
    • Modern collections 3.1
  • References 4
  • External links 5


William Dwight Whitney was born in Northampton, Massachusetts on February 9, 1827. His father was Josiah Dwight Whitney (1786–1869) of the New England Dwight family. His mother was Sarah Williston (1800–1833).

He entered Williams College at fifteen, graduating in 1845. He continued studying and worked at a bank in Northampton for several years, then assisted his older brother Josiah Whitney on a geological survey of the Lake Superior region in 1849. On this expedition, he began the study of Sanskrit in his leisure hours. In 1850 he went to Germany, and for three years studied Sanskrit. He spent his winters at Berlin under Albrecht Weber and Franz Bopp, the summers being devoted to work under Rudolf von Roth at Tübingen.

He gained wide reputation for his scholarship in the field. At Yale, he became professor of Sanskrit in 1854, adding comparative philology in 1869. He also taught modern languages at the Sheffield Scientific School. He served as secretary to the American Oriental Society from 1857 until he became its president in 1884.

He died at his home, on Whitney Avenue, on June 7, 1894.


Whitney revised definitions for the 1864 edition of Webster's American Dictionary, and in 1869 became a founder and first president of the American Philological Association. He wrote metrical translations of the Vedas, and numerous papers on the Vedas and linguistics, many of which were collected in the Oriental and Linguistic Studies series (1872–74). He wrote several books on language, and grammar textbooks of English, French, German, and Sanskrit.

His Sanskrit Grammar (1879) is notable in part for the criticism it contains of the Ashtadhyayi, the Sanskrit grammar attributed to Panini. Whitney describes the Ashtadhyayi as "containing the facts of the language cast into the highly artful and difficult form of about four thousand algebraic-like rules (in the statement and arrangement of which brevity alone is had in view at the cost of distinctness and unambiguousness)."

In his Course in General Linguistics in the chapter on the 'Immutability and Mutability of the Sign', Ferdinand de Saussure credits Whitney with insisting on the arbitrary nature of the linguistic signs.

The linguist Roman Jakobson (Jakobson 1965, 23-4) remarks that Witney exerted a deep influence on European linguistic thought by promoting the thesis of language as a social institution. In his fundamental books of the 1860's and 70's, language was defined as a system of arbitrary and conventional signs. This doctrine was borrowed and expanded by Ferdinand de Saussure, and it entered into the posthumous edition of his ‘Course’, adjusted by his disciples C. Bally and Albert Sechehaye (1916). The teacher declares: "On the essential point it seems to us that the American linguist is right: language is a convention, and the nature of the sign that is agreed upon remains indifferent." Jakobson writes, Arbitrariness is posited as the first of two basic principles for defining the nature of the verbal sign: "The bond uniting the signifier with the signified is arbitrary." The commentary points out that no one has controverted this principle "but it is often easier to discover a truth than to assign to it the appropriate place." [1]

Although he suffered from a heart ailment in his later years, he was editor-in-chief of the first edition of the respected Century Dictionary, which appeared from 1889 to 1891. On August 28, 1856 he married Elizabeth Wooster Baldwin. She was the daughter of Roger Sherman Baldwin, US Senator and Governor of the State of Connecticut. They had six children:

  1. Edward Baldwin Whitney was born August 16, 1857, became Assistant US Attorney General, and had son mathematician Hassler Whitney.
  2. Williston Clapp Whitney was born April 2, 1859 but died March 11, 1861.
  3. Marian Parker Whitney was born February 6, 1861.
  4. Roger Sherman Baldwin Whitney was born January 6, 1863, but died January 17, 1874.
  5. Emily Henrietta Whitney was born August 29, 1864.
  6. Margaret Dwight Whitney was born November 19, 1866.


  • Atharva Veda, editor with Rudolf von Roth (1856–1857)
  • Language and the Study of Language: Twelve Lectures on the Principles of Linguistic Science (1867)
  • Taittiriya Pratisakhya, editor and translator (1868)
  • On Material and Form in Language (1872)
  • Oriental and Linguistic Studies — First Series: The Veda, The Avesta, The Science of Language (1872)
  • Oriental and Linguistic Studies — Second Series: The East and West, Religion and Mythology, Hindu Astronomy (1874)
  • Darwinism and Language (1874)
  • The Life and Growth of Language: An Outline of Linguistic Science (1875)
  • Essentials of English Grammar for the Use of Schools (1877)*
  • Sanskrit Grammar: Including Both the Classical Language, and the Older Dialects, of Veda and Brahmana (1879, 2d edn. 1889)
  • Language and its Study: with Special Reference to the Indo-European (lectures) (1880)*
  • Logical Consistency in Views of Language (1880)
  • Mixture in Language (1881)
  • The Roots, Verb-forms and Primary Derivatives of the Sanskrit Language (supplement to Sanskrit Grammar) (1885)
  • Practical French Grammar (1887)*
  • A Compendious German and English Dictionary (1887)*
  • The Century Dictionary (editor) (1889–1891)
  • Introductory French Reader (1891)*
  • Max Müller and the Science of Language: A Criticism (1892)
  • Atharva Veda Samhita 3 volumes (translator)
  • The History of Sanskrit Grammar (Indian reprint edition of Sanskrit Grammar)
  • Manuscript Diary (photo reprint)

NB: Dates marked * may not be first publication.

Modern collections

  • Oriental and Linguistic Essays
  • On the Vedas
  • Whitney on Language: Selected Writings of William Dwight Whitney


  1. ^ Jakobson, R. (1965) ‘Quest for the Essence of Language’, Diogenes, 13(21): pp. 21-37


  • John Earl Joseph (1 January 2002). "'The American Whitney' and his European Heritages and Legacies". From Whitney to Chomsky: Essays in the History of American Linguistics. John Benjamins Publishing. pp. 19–47.  

External links

  • William Dwight Whitney
  • The Descendants of John Whitney, pages 486 - 490
  • Full bibliography of William Dwight Whitney (JSTOR)
  • The Century Dictionary gratis online and they are "planning a CD version".
  • Judith Ann Schiff, "Advice for the language-lorn," Yale Alumni Magazine, March/April 2010 (description of life and career).
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