The ‘Genius of language’
Transformations of a concept in the History of linguistics
The so-called ‘genius of language’ may be regarded as one of the most influential, and versatile, metalinguistic metaphors used to describe vernacular languages from the 17th century onwards. Over the centuries, philosophers, grammarians, translators and language critics etc. wrote of the ‘genius of language’ in a wide range of text types and with reference to various linguistic positions so that a set of rather diverse types of the concept was created. This paper traces three prominent stages in the development of the ‘genius of language’ argument and, by identifying some of the most frequent types as they evolved in the context of the various linguistic discourses, endeavours to show the major transformations of the concept. While early on, discussion of the stylistic and grammatical type of the ‘genius of language’ concentrates on surface features in the languages considered, during the middle of the 18th century, the ‘genius of language’ is relocated to the semantic, interior part of language. With the 19th-century notion of an organological ‘genius of language’, the former static concept is personified and recast in a dynamic form until, taken to its nationalistic extremes, the ‘genius of language’ argument finally ceases to be of any epistemological and scientific value.