[Ads-l] Quote: In etymology vowels count for nothing and consonants for very little. (Attributed to Voltaire)

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Thu Feb 7 06:32:25 UTC 2019

A correspondent asked me to investigate the quotation specified in the
subject line of this message. The correspondent sent an 1864 citation
for a lecture delivered by Max Müller during which he credited
Voltaire. The Wikiquote entry for Voltaire cites the same Max Müller

Perhaps some list member is familiar with this quotation, and knows
about its current status. Alternatively, perhaps someone can improve
on the citations I am sharing below.

The saying was circulating in French (in an English language journal)
by 1833 without an attribution. The saying in French (in an English
language journal) was ascribed to Voltaire by 1851. Voltaire died in
1778; thus, these are very late citations.

This Voltaire attributed remark was discussed on this mailing list
back in 2002 without resolution.

Anatoly Liberman mentioned the saying in an article posted on the
Oxford University Press blog in 2008.

[ref] Website: OUPblog, Article: The Oddest English Spellings, Author:
Anatoly Liberman, Date: April 30, 2008, Website description: Blog of
Oxford University Press, a department of the University of Oxford.
(Accessed blog.oup.com on February 7, 2019) link [/ref]

[Begin excerpt]
Dozens of works on word history open with Voltaire’s witticism that in
etymology vowels count for nothing and consonants for very little. Yet
it does not turn up in any of his written works.
[End excerpt]

Here is the 1833 citation, No attribution is listed.

[ref] 1833 October, The Quarterly Review, Volume 50, Article VII,
(Book Review of "Grimm's Deutche Grammatik", 3 volumes published by
Gottingen), Start Page 169, Quote Page 169, John Murray, London.
(Google Books Full View) link [/ref]


[Begin excerpt]
It is in works of this nature that Germany is pre-eminent among the
European nations; and it is long since those who are interested in
philological researches have made a more valuable acquisition, or one
more fit to wipe out from their favourite study the reproach which has
been somewhat speciously cast on it, that it is a science 'où la
voyelle ne fait rien, et la consonne fort peu de chose.'
[End excerpt]

Here is an 1838 citation, No attribution is listed.

[ref] 1838, A Manual of Comparative Philology by Reverend W. B.
Winning (William Balfour Winning), Chapter 1: General Remarks,
(Footnote 7), Quote Page 11 and 12, Printed for J. G. & F. Rivington,
London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]


[Begin excerpt]
The smart satire against Philologists, that theirs is a science, où la
voyelle ne fait rien, et la consonne fort peu de chose, was perhaps
true in particular instances; but abstractedly considered, it is as
weak as the folly against which it was directed.
[End excerpt]

Skipping ahead - the 1851 citation below is the first I have found
attributing the remark to Voltaire.

[ref] 1851 October, The Edinburgh Review, Volume 94, Article 1: (Book
Review of A Comparative Grammar of the Sanskrit. Zend, Greek, Latin,
Lithuanian, Gothic, German and Sclavonic Languages by Professor F.
Bopp, Translated from the German), Start Page 297, Quote Page 298,
Adam and Charles Black, Edinburgh. (Google Books Full View) link


[Begin excerpt]
The old system of etymology, if system it can be called, in which, as
Voltaire remarked, 'la voyelle ne fait rien, et la consonne 'fort peu
de chose,' has certainly been stopped effectually by the introduction
of comparative grammar.
[End excerpt]

Garson O'Toole

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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