William Dwight Whitney

[hwit-nee, wit-]
William Dwight Whitney (1827-1894) was an American linguist, philologist, and lexicographer who edited The Century Dictionary.

Born in Northampton, Massachusetts, February 9, 1827. He entered Williams College at fifteen, graduating in 1845. He continued studying and worked at a bank in Northampton for several years, then assisted his brother Josiah Whitney on a geological survey of the Lake Superior region in 1849. For three years, he studied Sanskrit in Germany, and gained wide reputation for his scholarship in the field. At Yale, he became professor of Sanskrit in 1854, adding comparative philology in 1869. He also taught modern languages at the Sheffield Scientific School. He served as secretary to the American Oriental Society from 1857 until he became its president in 1884.

Whitney revised definitions for the 1864 edition of Webster's American Dictionary, and in 1869 became a founder and first president of the American Philological Association. He wrote metrical translations of the Vedas, and numerous papers on the Vedas and linguistics, many of which were collected in the Oriental and Linguistic Studies series (1872-74). He wrote several books on language, and grammar textbooks of English, French, German, and Sanskrit.

In his Course in General Linguistics in the chapter on the 'Immutability and Mutability of the Sign', Ferdinand de Saussure credits Whitney with insisting on the arbitrary nature of the linguistic signs.

Although he suffered from a heart ailment in his later years, he was editor-in-chief of the first edition of the respected Century Dictionary, which appeared from 1889 to 1891. He was the brother of Professor Josiah Whitney. He married the daughter of US Senator & Governor of the State of Connecticut Roger Sherman Baldwin, Elizabeth Wooster Baldwin. His son was Assistant US Attorney General Edward Baldwin Whitney and his grandson was the much celebrated mathematician Hassler Whitney.


  • Language and the Study of Language: Twelve Lectures on the Principles of Linguistic Science (1867)
  • On the Material and Form in Language (1872)
  • Oriental and Linguistic Studies - First Series: The Veda, The Avesta, The Science of Language (1872)
  • Oriental and Linguistic Studies - Second Series: The East and West, Religion and Mythology, Hindu Astronomy (1874)
  • Darwinism and Language (1874)
  • The Life and Growth of Language: An Outline of Linguistic Science (1875)
  • Essentials of English Grammar for the Use of Schools (1877)*
  • Sanskrit Grammar (1879, 2d edn. 1889)
  • Language and its Study: with Special Reference to the Indo-European (lectures) (1880)*
  • Logical Consistency in Views of Language (1880)
  • Mixture in Language (1881)
  • The Roots, Verb-forms and Primary Derivatives of the Sanskrit Language (supplement to Sanskrit Grammar) (1885)
  • Practical French Grammar (1887)*
  • A Compendious German and English Dictionary (1887)*
  • The Century Dictionary (editor) (1889-1891)
  • Introductory French Reader (1891)*
  • Max Müller's Science of Language (1893)
  • Atharva Veda Samhita 3 volumes (translator)
  • Who are the Americans?
  • The History of Sanskrit Grammar (Indian reprint edition of Sanskrit Grammar)
  • Manuscript Diary (photo reprint)

NB: Dates marked * may not be first publication.

Modern collections

  • Oriental and Linguistic Essays
  • On the Vedas
  • Whitney on Language: Selected Writings of William Dwight Whitney

External links

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