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Alternating sounds and the formal franchise in phonology

James McElvenny

A matter of some controversy in the intersecting worlds of late nineteenth-century
linguistics and anthropology was the nature of “alternating sounds”. This phe-
nomenon is the apparent tendency, long assumed to be characteristic of “primitive”
languages, to freely vary the pronunciation of words, without any discernible sys-
tem. Franz Boas (1858–1942), rebutting received opinion in the American anthro-
pological establishment, denied the existence of this phenomenon, arguing that it
was an artefact of observation. Georg von der Gabelentz (1840–1893), on the other
hand, embraced the phenomenon and fashioned it into a critique of the compara-
tive method as it was practised in Germany.
Both Boas and Gabelentz – and indeed also their opponents – were well versed
in the Humboldtian tradition of language scholarship, in particular as developed
and transmitted by H. Steinthal (1823–1899). Although the late nineteenth-century
debates surrounding alternating sounds were informed by a number of sources,
this chapter argues that Steinthal’s writings served as a key point of reference and
offered several motifs that were taken up by his scholarly successors. In addition,
and most crucially, the chapter demonstrates that the positions at which the partic-
ipants in these debates arrived were determined not so much by any simple tech-
nical disagreements but by underlying philosophical differences and sociological
factors. This episode in the joint history of linguistics and anthropology is telling
for what it reveals about the dominant mindset and temperament of these disci-
plines in relation to the formal analysis of the world’s languages.


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