1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Whitney, William Dwight

WHITNEY, WILLIAM DWIGHT (1827–1894), American philologist, was born at Northampton, Massachusetts, on the 9th of February 1827. He was the fourth child and the second surviving son of Josiah Dwight Whitney, a banker, and Sarah Williston, daughter of the Rev. Payson Williston (1763–1856) of Easthampton, Mass., and a sister of Samuel Williston (1795–1874), founder of Williston Seminary at Easthampton. Through both parents he was descended from New England stock remarkable alike for physical and mental vigour; and he inherited all the social and intellectual advantages that were afforded by a community noted, in the history of New England, for the large number of distinguished men whom it produced. At the age of fifteen (1842) he entered the sophomore class of Williams College (at Williamstown, Mass.), where he graduated three years later with the highest honours. His attention was at first directed to natural science, and his interest in it always remained keen, and his knowledge of its principles and methods exerted a noticeable influence upon his philological work. In the summer of 1849 he had charge of the botany, the barometrical observations and the accounts of the United States survey of the Lake Superior region conducted by his brother, Josiah D. Whitney, and in the summer of 1873 assisted in the geographical work of the Hayden expedition in Colorado. His interest in the study of Sanskrit was first awakened in 1848, and he at once devoted himself with enthusiasm to this at that time little-explored field of philological labour. After a brief course at Yale with Professor Edward Elbridge Salisbury (1814-1901), then the only trained Orientalist in the United States, Whitney went to Germany (1850) and studied for three years at Berlin, under Weber, Bopp and Lepsius, and at Tübingen (two summer semesters) under Roth, returning to the United States in 1853. In the following year he was appointed professor of Sanskrit in Yale, and in 1869 also of comparative philology. He also gave instruction in French and German in the college until 1867, and in the Sheffield scientific school until 1886. An urgent call to a professorship at Harvard was declined in 1869. The importance of his contributions to science was early and widely recognized. He was elected to membership in numerous learned societies in all parts of the world, and received many honorary degrees, the most notable testimonial to his fame being his election on the 31st of May 1881, as foreign knight of the Prussian order pour le mérite for science and arts to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Carlyle. In 1870 he received from the Berlin Academy of Sciences the first Bopp prize for the most important contribution to Sanskrit philology during the preceding three years his edition of the Tāittirīya-Prātiçākhya (Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. ix.). He died at New Haven, Connecticut, on the 7th of June 1894.

As a philologist Whitney is noted especially for his work in Sanskrit, which placed him among the first scholars of his time. He edited (1855-1856), with Professor Roth, the Atharva-Veda-Sanhitā; published (1862) with a translation and notes the Atharva-Veda-Prātiçākhya; made important contributions to the great Petersburg lexicon; issued an index verborum to the published text of the Atharva-Veda (Journal of the American Oriental Society, 1881); made a translation of the Atharva-Veda, books i.-xix., with a critical commentary, which he did not live to publish (edited by Lanman, 1905); and published a large number of special articles upon various points of Sanskrit philology. His most notable achievement in this field, however, is his Sanskrit Grammar (1879), a work which, as Professor Delbrück has said, not only is “the best text-book of Sanskrit which we possess,” but also places its author, as a scientific grammarian, on the same level with such writers as Madvig and Krüger. To the general public Whitney is best known through his popular works on the science of language and his labours as a lexicographer. The former are, perhaps, the most widely read of all English books on the subject, and have merited their popularity through the soundness of the views which they present and the lucidity of their style.[1] His most important service to lexicography was his guidance, as editor-in-chief, of the work on The Century Dictionary (1889-1891). Apart from the permanent value of his contributions to philology, Whitney is notable for the great and stimulating influence which he exerted throughout his life upon the development of American scholarship.

The chronological bibliography of Whitney's writings appended to vol. xix. (first half) of the Journal of the American Oriental Society, issued in May 1897, contains 360 numbers. Of these the most important, in addition to those mentioned above, are: Translation of the Sūryasiddhānta, a Text-book of Hindu Astronomy (Jour. Am. Oriental Soc., vol. vi., 1860); Language and the Study of Language (1867); A Compendious German Grammar (1869); Oriental and Linguistic Studies (1873; second series, 1874); The Life and Growth of Language (1875); Essentials of English Grammar (1877); A Compendious German and English Dictionary (1877); A Practical French Grammar (1886); Max Müller and the Science of Language (1892).

  1. They are particularly important in that they counteracted the popular and interestingly written books of Max Müller: for instance, Müller, like Renan and Wilhelm von Humboldt, regarded language as an innate faculty and Whitney considered it the product of experience and outward circumstance. See Whitney's article Philology in the present edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.