Whitney, William Dwight

Whitney, William Dwight,

1827–94, American Sanskrit scholar and lexicographer, b. Northampton, Mass. After studying in Germany, Whitney became professor of Sanskrit and of comparative philology at Yale. He was outstanding among American Orientalists and philologists and wrote A Sanskrit Grammar (1879) and Language and the Study of Language (1867). He was also brilliantly successful as editor of The Century Dictionary.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Whitney, William Dwight


Born Feb. 9,1827, in Northampton, Mass.; died June 9,1894, in New Haven, Conn. American linguist.

Whitney graduated from Williams College, Northampton, in 1845. In 1854 he was appointed a professor at Yale University, where he taught until 1894. He was a member of the American Oriental Society, serving as its secretary from 1857 to 1884 and as its president from 1884 to 1890. Whitney helped found several other scholarly societies, including the American Philological Association (1869); he was also the association’s first president.

Whitney did most of his work in the field of Indology. In his Sanskrit Grammar he made use of original texts and statistical data to show the productivity and stylistic variations of linguistic forms. The first American theoretical linguist, Whitney upheld the principle of historicism in the study of languages, demonstrating the regularity of linguistic changes and their dependence on social factors.

Whitney was a member or corresponding member of several academies and scholarly societies.


The Life and Growth of Language [new ed.]. New York, 1902.
Language and the Study of Language, 6th ed. New York, 1901.
Sanskrit Grammar, new ed. Delhi, 1969.


Whitney on Language. Edited by M. Silverstein. Cambridge, Mass., 1971.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Whitney, William Dwight

(1827–94) philologist, lexicographer; born in Northampton, Mass. After graduating from Williams College (1845), and working briefly as a bank teller, he studied languages at the University of Breslau (Ph.D. 1861). He taught Sanskrit at Yale and was appointed head of both that department and the modern language department. He translated the Vedas (the ancient Hindu sacred scriptures), authored a Sanskrit grammar, and contributed to an important Sanskrit dictionary. He served as the first president of the American Philological Association (1869) and edited the 6-volume Century Dictionary (1889–91). His interest in the origin and growth of languages, as detailed in his Language and the Study of Language (1867) and The Life and Growth of Language (1875), helped popularize the study of language. Recognizing the central importance of usage in governing language change, he was one of the first modern grammarians. His Essentials of English Grammar (1877), although never as popular as some other 19th-century grammars, is widely regarded as a pathbreaking work.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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