Gottfried in a Nutshell #9

Leibniz? Leibnitz? Or perhaps Leibnütz?

Leibniz was a man of the word, there is no doubt about that: Once, he teased that "if he had as many coins in his pocket as pieces of paper, he would be richer than the treasury of Hannover". Rather disrespectfully, Hans Magnus Enzensberger described the gigantic amount of Leibniz's posthumous works (about 200,000 sheets) as "an entire haystack filled with annals, expert's reports, memorandums, catalogues and miscellanea".

However, no other topic agitated Mr Leibniz as much as the use and improvement of the German language: According to him, the prevailing language abuse of those "mixing all sorts of languages in their writings" was simply "barbaric". With this, he primarily referred to the "à la mode German" of the 17th century, where French words and expressions were mixed in frequently. Even then, French was considered 'très chic'.

In Leibniz's time, German was still in the process of successful language cultivation. There were considerable flaws that needed to be rectified in order to establish German as a proven scientific language like Latin or a sophisticated language used in culture and society, like French. In the 17th century, many wrote by ear. For example, numerous different spellings of Leibniz's surname were used, including "Leibnitz", "Leibnütz" or even "Leubnütz" - the philosopher himself varied it when signing letters. Spelling is an invention of the 19th century. It was first determined in the context of Luther's translation of the Bible (1522) and only came to a close with the "German Dictionary" by the Brothers Grimm (1852/1854). Several centuries of struggle for orthography, grammar, lexicography, stylistics and poetics passed between those publications. Linguistic criticism was an important matter in the enlightenment philosophy. "Language societies" - especially the well-known "Fruitbearing Society" (Weimar, 1617-1680) - were committed to purifying and cultivating languages. Key themes included "purity", "accuracy", "daintiness" and "splendour". Leibniz was a central figure in the conceptualisation of linguistic criticism. He established a language programme in the "Society of Sciences" in Berlin (1700), which was founded on his initiative, and inspired major dictionary projects realised since the 18th century. For his comparative linguistic research, he asked missionaries from China and Russia to send him translations of the Lord's Prayer in different Slavonic, Chinese and Manchurian dialects in order to reconstruct language relations and linguistic origins.

Leibniz was particularly passionate about introducing German as a scientific language and intended to establish it as a "primary language" equal to more advanced European languages. According to Leibniz, language "acts as an interpreter of the soul and a keeper of science. Thus, one should strive to produce all kinds of pensive, useful and convenient key papers in German...". In particular, this could be beneficial in trade-related contexts, "since there is no other language in the world able to express content regarding ores or mining as impressively". Whereas, according to Leibniz, there was still room for improvement in "less common fields" such as in "the art of thinking", "in logic" or "in metaphysics". Furthermore, Leibniz pointed out that even French had some shortcomings. For example, "to ride", in Latin "equitare", "cannot be translated into French straightforwardly" (French: "faire du cheval"). However, he was no language purist: "I am not as superstitiously German as to conclude that the flow of speech is less potent if a word other than German is used." In spite of some emotional statements on cultural patriotism, the networking enthusiast considered himself a European scholar. Perhaps this is why only about 15 percent of his works were written in German. Leibniz conducted most of his correspondence in Latin. At court in Hannover he usually spoke French. His knowledge of English was quite limited. Today, English has become a "lingua franca", both in Europe and around the world. At the time, multilingualism and cultivating one's mother tongue - like Leibniz advocated - was practised in the context of European society at court. Today, the European Union alone has 24 official languages. Different languages are an inherent part of Europe's cultural wealth. To this day, language cultivation and linguistic criticism are current and controversial issues. Mainly because these issues affect us in situations where our hard-won identity needs to be safeguarded in mutual comprehension processes. Or, in Leibniz's words: "Language is a mirror of reason". Let's us it wisely.

With this in mind: Tschüss*!

* [German for "bye"], borrowed as a loanword from Romance languages in the 17th century, derived from "adieu", "adios" and adopted as "adjüst", "atschüs".

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Dr. Ariane Walsdorf
Communications and Marketing
Dr. Ariane Walsdorf
Communications and Marketing