August Schleicher

August Schleicher
August Schleicher 1869 Kriehuber.jpg
August Schleicher, by Friedrich Kriehuber
Born19 February 1821
Died6 December 1868 (1868-12-07) (aged 47)
Alma materUniversity of Tübingen, University of Bonn
Main interests
Indo-European studies

August Schleicher (/ˈʃlkər/; German: [ˈʔaʊɡʊst ˈʃlaɪçɐ];[3][4] 19 February 1821 – 6 December 1868) was a German linguist. His great work was A Compendium of the Comparative Grammar of the Indo-European Languages, in which he attempted to reconstruct the Proto-Indo-European language. To show how Indo-European might have looked, he created a short tale, Schleicher's fable, to exemplify the reconstructed vocabulary and aspects of Indo-European society inferred from it.


Schleicher was born in Meiningen, in the Duchy of Saxe-Meiningen, southwest of Weimar in the Thuringian Forest.

He died from tuberculosis at the age of 47 in Jena, in the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, in present-day Thuringia.


Schleicher was educated at the University of Tübingen and Bonn and taught at the Charles University in Prague and the University of Jena. He began his career studying theology and Oriental languages, especially Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit and Persian. Influenced by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, he formed the theory that a language is an organism, with periods of development, maturity and decline. In 1850, Schleicher completed a monograph systematically describing European languages, Die Sprachen Europas in systematischer Uebersicht (The Languages of Europe in Systematic Perspective). He explicitly represented languages as perfectly natural organisms that could most conveniently be described using terms drawn from biology: genus, species, and variety.

Schleicher claimed that he himself had been convinced of the natural descent and competition of languages before he had read Darwin's Origin of Species. He invented a system of language classification that resembled a botanical taxonomy, tracing groups of related languages and arranging them in a genealogical tree.

Schleicher's tree model

His model, the Stammbaumtheorie (family-tree theory), was a major development in the study of Indo-European languages. He first introduced a graphic representation of a Stammbaum in an article published in 1853 entitled Die ersten Spaltungen des indogermanischen Urvolkes. By the time of the publication of his Deutsche Sprache (German language) (1860) he had begun to use trees to illustrate language descent. Schleicher is commonly recognized as the first linguist to portray language development using the figure of a tree. Largely in reaction to this, Johannes Schmidt later proposed his 'Wave Theory' as an alternative model.

For the most part, however, Darwin's ideas simply overlaid the fundamental features of Schleicher's prior evolutionary project, which derived from the work of those individuals immersed in German romanticism and idealism, especially Wilhelm von Humboldt and Hegel.

Schleicher believed that languages pass through a life cycle, similar to that of living beings. They start simpler than they will become. This state of primitive simplicity was followed by a period of growth, which eventually slowed, and then gave way to a period of decay (1874:4):

As man has developed, so also has his language (...): even the simplest language is the product of a gradual growth: all higher forms of language have come out of simpler ones.... Language declines both in sound and in form.... The transition from the first to the second period is one of slower progress.

Schleicher was an advocate of the polygenesis of languages. He reasoned as follows (1876:2):

To assume one original universal language is impossible; there are rather many original languages: this is a certain result obtained by the comparative treatment of the languages of the world which have lived till now. Since languages are continually dying out, whilst no new ones practically arise, there must have been originally many more languages than at present. The number of original languages was therefore certainly far larger than has been supposed from the still-existing languages.

Schleicher's ideas on polygenesis had long-lasting influence, both directly and via their adoption by the biologist Ernst Haeckel. Ernst Haeckel was a German evolutionist and zoologist known for proposing the gastraea hypothesis.[5]

In 1866, August Leskien, a pioneer of research into sound laws, began studying comparative linguistics under August Schleicher at the University of Jena.



  1. ^ E. F. K. Koerner, Practicing Linguistic Historiography, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1989, p. 193: "Schleicher historicism ... was in effect radicalized by the Neogrammarians."
  2. ^ a b Hadumod Bussmann, Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics, Routledge, 1996, p. 85.
  3. ^ "August - Französisch-Übersetzung - Langenscheidt Deutsch-Französisch Wörterbuch" (in German and French). Langenscheidt. Retrieved 20 October 2018.
  4. ^ Wells, John C. (2008), Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd ed.), Longman, ISBN 9781405881180
  5. ^ "Ernst Haeckel | German embryologist". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2017-04-20.


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