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

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Thu Feb 7 13:12:18 UTC 2019

I know next to nothing about Voltaire, but

1) The claim that "vowels are nothing in etymology" goes back at least to 1807 (Satires of Juvenal, trans. and annotated by F. Hodgson, p. 514).*

2) Besides the usual quote magnet story, one could, in some possible world, claim a vague resemblance in his Philosophical Dictionary (near its beginning):

"From exclamations formed by vowels--as natural to children as croaking is to frogs--the transition to a complete alphabet is not so great as it may be thought. A mother must always have said to her child the equivalent of come, go, take, leave, hush ! &c. These words represent nothing; they describe nothing; but a gesture makes them intelligible."

Stephen Goranson

with a little bit of etymology included here:

Comments on Companion to DSS.pdf<http://people.duke.edu/~goranson/Comments_on_Companion_to_DSS.pdf>

  *   https://books.google.com/books?id=oKhfAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA514&dq=voltaire+nothing+etymology+vowels&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi-jumqyangAhUPhOAKHYaODcwQ6AEIKjAA#v=onepage&q=voltaire%20nothing%20etymology%20vowels&f=false

From: American Dialect Society <...> on behalf of Ben Zimmer <...>
Sent: Thursday, February 7, 2019 6:25:26 AM
To: ...
Subject: Re: [ADS-L] Quote: In etymology vowels count for nothing and consonants for very little. (Attributed to Voltaire)

Here are two early versions in English. The second one, from 1836/37,
pushes back the earliest attribution to Voltaire.

Edward Moor, _Oriental Fragments_, London, 1834, p. 240
In another place I have essayed to show that, in such speculations as
these, reasonable allowance must be made for non-efficiency, or impotency,
or nonimportance of vowels. Consonants are the vertebrae of language.
Without going the length of admitting, what has been pleasantly said on
this topic, that vowels are to stand for nothing and consonants for very
Also appears in: The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British India
and Its Dependencies, Vol. XIV, May-Aug. 1834, p. 177

The Foreign Quarterly Review, Vol. 18, No. 35, Oct. 1836-Jan. 1837, p. 142
[Book review of _Wamik und Asra_ by  Joseph von Hammer]
Vowels are the distinguishing mark of European speech, as consonants of the
Asiatic; yet, while the test of our application, as above, fully bears out
the jest of Voltaire, "that in etymology vowels are nothing, and consonants
next to nothing," are we to prefer the dicta of the philologist to the
facts of our experience?

On Thu, Feb 7, 2019 at 1:32 AM ADSGarson O'Toole <...>

> 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
> lecture.
> 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.
> https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=http-3A__listserv.linguistlist.org_pipermail_histling_2002-2DAugust_001561.html&d=DwIFaQ&c=imBPVzF25OnBgGmVOlcsiEgHoG1i6YHLR0Sj_gZ4adc&r=uUVa-8oDL2EzfbuMuowoUadHHcJ7pjul6iFkS5Pd--8&m=cZBGqfJaM8xbqbaQApKD4e2P5oAKGSesgm9_-2osddI&s=s-E5StUir3OupR7mVzzSceOsh6hKQsj_fFsFIkG0tFM&e=
> https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=http-3A__listserv.linguistlist.org_pipermail_histling_2002-2DAugust_001564.html&d=DwIFaQ&c=imBPVzF25OnBgGmVOlcsiEgHoG1i6YHLR0Sj_gZ4adc&r=uUVa-8oDL2EzfbuMuowoUadHHcJ7pjul6iFkS5Pd--8&m=cZBGqfJaM8xbqbaQApKD4e2P5oAKGSesgm9_-2osddI&s=46wunemuY53r6IW57gTnYbPiMpyCk8qKNKYjV2rwIVs&e=
> 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]
> https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=https-3A__blog.oup.com_2008_04_the-2Doddest-2Denglish-2Dspellings-2Dor-2Dthinking-2Dof-2Do-2Dwith-2Dmy-2Dcompliments-2Dto-2Dthe-2Dconference-2Dof-2Dthe-2Dspelling-2Dsociety-2Din-2Dcoventry-2Duk_&d=DwIFaQ&c=imBPVzF25OnBgGmVOlcsiEgHoG1i6YHLR0Sj_gZ4adc&r=uUVa-8oDL2EzfbuMuowoUadHHcJ7pjul6iFkS5Pd--8&m=cZBGqfJaM8xbqbaQApKD4e2P5oAKGSesgm9_-2osddI&s=82ZdwAwWaYVquUHaTXFYNXsEew_WIYbSY6WvzDbpYK0&e=
> [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]
> https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=https-3A__books.google.com_books-3Fid-3DnbJZAAAAcAAJ-26q-3Dconsonne-23v-3Dsnippet-26&d=DwIFaQ&c=imBPVzF25OnBgGmVOlcsiEgHoG1i6YHLR0Sj_gZ4adc&r=uUVa-8oDL2EzfbuMuowoUadHHcJ7pjul6iFkS5Pd--8&m=cZBGqfJaM8xbqbaQApKD4e2P5oAKGSesgm9_-2osddI&s=4YVaESkrv7DjvtJ4U7T9_EeFrb99EAbYnI1Ib5fAHws&e=
> [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]
> https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=https-3A__books.google.com_books-3Fid-3DucoKAAAAMAAJ-26q-3Dconsonne-23v-3Dsnippet-26&d=DwIFaQ&c=imBPVzF25OnBgGmVOlcsiEgHoG1i6YHLR0Sj_gZ4adc&r=uUVa-8oDL2EzfbuMuowoUadHHcJ7pjul6iFkS5Pd--8&m=cZBGqfJaM8xbqbaQApKD4e2P5oAKGSesgm9_-2osddI&s=xBd6zBmAsOSz4Z4vhSEDvGpNnabtGRFVsIS1mBkcbgg&e=
> [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
> [/ref]
> https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=https-3A__books.google.com_books-3Fid-3DVmxs17WZelUC-26q-3Dconsonne-23v-3Dsnippet-26&d=DwIFaQ&c=imBPVzF25OnBgGmVOlcsiEgHoG1i6YHLR0Sj_gZ4adc&r=uUVa-8oDL2EzfbuMuowoUadHHcJ7pjul6iFkS5Pd--8&m=cZBGqfJaM8xbqbaQApKD4e2P5oAKGSesgm9_-2osddI&s=EEEwl9E0IZT5leU2Y_lSTjYqiSKOffwUM3LXXITO6b8&e=
> [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]

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