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Henry Sweet (1845 - 1912)

Inspiring Pioneer of Modern Linguistics

"Sweet was a pioneer student of the English language who did much to further knowledge of both history and its living structure." (Bolton & Crystal, 1969: 8).

Sweet inspired modern linguistics (especially Structuralism) in the following major fields:

  • Division of synchronic and diachronic, the acknowledgement of the importance of the descriptive approach
    Sweet differentiated synchronic and diachronic studies and later made fellow linguists aware of the importance of the descriptive approach. He stated that "in studying grammar, it is important to keep the descriptive and the historical view apart. The first object in studying grammar is to learn to observe linguistic facts as they are, not as they ought to be, or as they were in an earlier stage in the language. When the historical view of language gets the upper hand, it is apt to degenerate into one-sided antiquarian philology, which regards living languages merely as stepping-stones to earlier periods. (Sweet, 1891: 207)."

  • The desire to make the study of language both scientific and autonomous

Sweet's works intended to provide a scientific English grammar.

  • Objectively observable data: Spoken language as study object

Sweet emphasized the importance of the study of spoken language by saying: "the study of a language should always be based - as far as possible - on the spoken language of the period which is being dealt with." (Sweet, 1891: 203).

  • The importance of phonetics in the study of linguistics

As Sweet put value on spoken language, he emphasized the importance of the study of phonetics in linguistics. His idea influenced Structuralist linguists who later did extensive studies on phonetics.

  • System thinking

Sweet influenced structuralism by shaping the concept of system-thinking. He said that every language should be considered a system of relations. Every unit and every element in this system has no value if it is isolated. Its meaning has to be established in relation to all the other elements in the language.

  • Relations between form and meaning

For Sweet, language and grammar are concerned not with form and meaning separately, but with the connections between these two fields.

Main Publications

  • Handbook on Phonetics, 1877.

  • Oldest English Texts,1885.

  • Primer of Old Icelandic, 1888.

  • The History of Language, 1900; 1995.

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