'On Light and Sound'. Johan Huizinga and nineteenth-century Linguistics
Not many of his admirers are aware of the fact that the great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1872-1945), whose works include The Waning of the Middle Ages, was originally a linguist. As a student, he wanted to follow a career in oriental studies and comparative linguistics. In 1896, he sought to write a doctoral dissertation on a linguistic theme. Johan Huizinga was born in Groningen, in the northern part of the Netherlands, where his father was a professor of physiology. He attended the Groningen Gymnasium. One of the younger pupils at that school then was Etsko Kruisinga (1875-1944), later to become a well-known Dutch Anglicist and one of Huizinga's dedicated opponents in the 1930's. Following grammar school, Huizinga studied Dutch at Groningen University, spent a term at Leipzig, and received a Groningen doctorate in 1897 with a dissertation on the jester in Sanskrit drama. In the years 1897-1905 he was a history teacher, but he did not feel himself to be a very succesful one. In 1903, he was admitted as a 'privaat-docent' (unsalaried lecturer) at the University of Amsterdam, and began lecturing on the Antiquity and Literature of India. Two years later, he was appointed to the chair of history at Groningen University. In 1915, he moved on to Leiden, remaining there until the University was closed in 1941 at the command of the German authorities. For some months Huizinga was held hostage. Later he was exiled to the eastern part of the country, where he died in 1945. Huizinga's 'historical turn' did not take place overnight. The literature on Huizinga (cf. the important study by Krul 1990) shows a continuity in this process, a continuity which has to do, among other things, with his reading the works of the renowned Oxford professor Max Müller. In his student days, Huizinga was something of a romantic type, an "incorrigible day dreamer", as he once put it himself. In the early 1890s he fell under the spell of the Dutch Movement of the Eighties, the literary school which put so much new life into Dutch literature, and dominated it for a number of decades. The poetry of this Movement in particular was characterized by strong Romantic traits. Having learned some Hebrew and Arabic at grammar school, Huizinga intended to study Arabic in Leiden, but his father did not approve of this idea for financial reasons. So, the young Huizinga enrolled as a student of Dutch at Groningen University in September 1891. In those days, the syllabus of Dutch also contained "the principles of Sanskrit", and six years later Huizinga received his doctorate with a dissertation on an Indological subject. Actually, however, Huizinga had intended to write a dissertation on a completely different subject, namely in the field of comparative linguistics. It had been with that end that he had left for Germany in October 1895, spending the full winter semester at Leipzig University. There it soon became clear to him that contemporary German Sprachwissenschaft as practised by the Junggrammatiker could not provide him with the answers to the questions that fascinated him, namely problems in the field of semantics. He did not feel satisfied with the primarily formal approach of the neogrammarians. For his doctoral dissertation he chose a theme which called for an entirely different approach, as can be seen from the draft he wrote when back at Groningen. The 38 pages "Introduction and Plan of a Study on Light and Sound", which is published here for the very first time, gives a good indication of his intention to demonstrate the meaning of the lyrical-associative factor in the development of language. He wanted to study the expression of the perceptions of light and sound in Indo-Germanic languages. As he put it himself: "The question which occupied me first and foremost, can be formulated as follows: On the basis of what fundamental reason do the various languages, in the process of naming sensory perceptions, leap over in a completely identical manner from one field of perception to another one ? Why can notions of feeling and weight such as heavy, light, sharp, blunt also be used to make a distinction between sounds and colours or the intensity of light ?". Huizinga's sources include authors such as Jacob Grimm (1785-1863), Friedrich Bechtel (1855-1924), and Max Müller (1823-1900). Having read Huizinga's draft his supervisor, Barend Sijmons (1853-1935), who himself had been trained at Leipzig, promptly rejected this plan: it was without any importance to linguistics, only of some interest perhaps for the psychologist. Later on, Huizinga admitted that his idea to write such a dissertation might have had more to do with his literary preoccupations than with his scholarly interests. At any rate, in 1896 Huizinga was forced to switch to a different subject. The original problem, however, kept him under its spell for the rest of his life; he even returned to it in his autobiography of 1943, a few years before his death, writing that he would like to try the same subject matter again. Note that two of Huizinga's 18 "stellingen", propositions which were added to his 1897 dissertation, are based upon the material of his original dissertation. What the young Dutchman still sought to do after finishing his doctoral dissertation, namely to point out very clearly what he deemed to be the essential flaw in the neogrammarian approach. To that end, Huizinga put forward a thorough discussion of both the propositions just mentioned. First, he submitted a paper to Indogermanische Forschungen in October 1898; it was entitled "Über die Vernachlässigung der Wortbedeutung in der vergleichenden Sprachwissenschaft". In his letter to the editor, the leading German linguist Karl Brugmann (1849-1919), professor at Leipzig and a prominent member of the so-called 'Junggrammatiker', Huizinga announced that his paper would be followed by "mehrere semasiologische Einzelstudien". "Hoffentlich wird der etwas revolutionäre Charakter meiner kleinen Schrift an sich kein Grund zur Abweisung sein", he added. What was "der etwas revolutionäre Charakter" of his rather essay-like article ? Like history, linguistics is in need of "ein von der logischen Argumentation unabhängiges Gefühl zur Erkenntnis der Wahrheit". Linguistics should again strive at a rapprochement with poetry, Huizinga argued in rather polemical tones, stressing the poetical, non-logical origin of language. For instance, roots are just impressions, not clear concepts of primitive man. The young Dutch scholar blamed contemporary linguistics for limiting itself merely to "archeology", focused as it was on the "Sammeln und Ordnen von Einzelwahrheiten". "Das Haus der heutigen Sprachwissenschaft ... ist nicht bewohnbar", a grand comprehensive theory is lacking. The present way of doing linguistics, neglecting "Probleme der Bedeutung und sprachlichen Begriffsbildung", doesnot bring us any nearer to solving the deeper problems of language. Thus, Huizinga argued, we should detach ourselves from current research into sound and form, and direct our attention towards "Untersuchungen über Bedeutung und Begriffsbildung ... unabhängig von der formellen Sprachvergleichung". Huizinga pleaded for "die Anwendung einer grundverschiedenen Methode". As can be concluded from his original dissertation scheme (1896), it was on behalf of the classification of his data that Huizinga sought to introduce notions which can hardly, if at all, be put into words: feelings, moods etc. He himself had to admit that the criteria of such a classification were rather instable. Small wonder that his Groningen supervisor considered his approach as non-linguistic. All in all, Huizinga found the etymological and formal approach useless for his purposes, and he reproached the leading linguists for not discussing problems "von hohem Interesse". Be this as it may, Karl Brugmann seemed not to have been impressed by the views of his former auditor, for in a letter dated the eleventh of October 1898 he curtly replied: "Sie müssen erst noch mehr lernen, bevor Sie zu lehren anfangen". That was not a very mildly phrased reply, Huizinga noted as late as 1943. The young Huizinga, however, did not give up that easily. In January 1899, he finished a second paper, in which he tried to corroborate his thesis with the help of data on reduplication. It was entitled "Lautwiderholende Wortbildung". Having thanked Brugmann for his comments on the earlier paper, he wrote: "Die Richtigkeit Ihrer Bemerkung, ich sollte mal erst etwas von meinem Programma ausführen, um klarer zu machen, was ich meine, hat mich veranlasst, einen Teil des Materials, das ich gesammelt habe, zu verarbeiten zu einem Aufsatz, den ich Ihnen beigehend sende". To Huizinga's great disappointment, this paper was also rejected, and it appears that Huizinga has always considered these two rejections as a real defeat. Subsequently, he turned definitively to Indian cultural history, and from that subject one can draw a straight line to his famous The Waning of the Middle Ages.