From a theory of verse to a typology of musical rhythm and back again

Eduard Sievers - Gustav Becking - Roman Jakobson

Patrick Flack

pp. 201-216

That Eduard Sievers and his famous model of Ohrenphilologie (auditory philology) were of some relevance for the Russian formalists and, by way of consequence, for the development of literary theory in the first decades of the 20th Century is a well-known fact. It is attested, for instance, by a review of Sievers’s ideas on rhythm and metre by Viktor Šklovskij’s brother, Vladimir, conspicuously placed in the second volume of the OPOJAZ’s Sborniki po teorii poetičeskogo jazyka [Studies in the Theory of Poetic Language] (1917), as well as by the frequent references to Sievers made by Boris Eichenbaum (1922), Jurij Tynjanov (1924), Boris Tomaševskij (1928) or Viktor Žirmunskij (1928). Further, the role of auditory philology as a source of inspiration for the Formalists has been pinpointed time and again, as much by the foremost historians of Russian formalism (Erlich 1955, Hansen-Löve 1978, Steiner 1984) than by more recent commentators (Dmitriev 2002, Trautmann-Waller 2006, Rieger 2014, etc.). As is often the case with our accounts of Russian formalism’s conceptual sources, however, it is harder to find analyses, let alone article-length studies that go beyond a general acknowledgement of the relevance of Sievers and thus provide an adequate description of the scope and nature of his impact on the OPOJAZ or the Moscow Linguistic Circle (the only such example I am aware of is Tchougounnikov 2007).

An obvious, if regrettable reason for the absence of a more detailed description and analysis of Russian formalism’s ties with auditory philology is the latter’s general obscurity and historiographical neglect. Although Sievers was one of the most influential historical linguists of the late 19th Century (Cf. Frings 1933) who took part in all the important collective publications of the Neogrammairians (Tchougounnikov 2007, 145), nowadays „he only survives, if at all, in the graveyard of German Studies secondary literature footnotes“ (Rieger 2014, 10-11 [my translation]). Only a handful of recent monographs (Meyer-Kalkus 2001, Rieger 2009) have paid auditory philology and its historical role any significant amount of attention. Just as tellingly, Sievers’s seminal Rhythmisch-melodische Studien [Rhythmico-melodic Studies] (1912) – which was never translated and has long been a rare book – will be republished this year (2014) for the first time since its original edition.

Another, more significant explanation for the relative lack of interest in auditory philology and its ties with Russian formalism is that despite their obvious sympathy for Sievers’s emphasis on the sound shape of poetry and his efforts to develop methodological tools to account for the acoustic, rhythmical and prosodic properties of verse, the Russian formalists are usually seen to have been moving away and distancing themselves from Sievers’s allegedly strict focus on the physiology of sound and his indebtedness to the Neogrammarian paradigm (cf. Mandelker 1983, Steiner 1984, 160-163, Dmitriev 2002, 426-427, Aumüller 2006, 37-39). Alongside the theories of Aleksandr Potebnja, Aleksandr Veselovskij or Andrej Belyj – who are moreover widely deemed to have been more important –, the work of Sievers and his colleague Franz Saran is presented more as a negative backdrop, against rather than thanks to which the Russian formalists profiled and demarcated their own approach to literature. This characterisation of Sievers’s role – which places his work squarely within the paradigm of late 19th Century philology – fits in well with a mainstream interpretation that sees Russian formalism mostly as a radical reaction against the psychologistic, positivist and socio-historical approaches to language and literature that preceded it.

A closer look both at Sievers’s work and its relationship with Russian formalism soon reveals the limitations entailed by reducing its influence in this way. Although one is undoubtedly correct to assume stark differences between Sievers and the likes of Brik, Eichenbaum or Tynjanov, or indeed to see the formalists’ theories of verse as offering a marked theoretical improvement on the principles of auditory philology, it is also fairly clear that the ideas of the German philologist played a much more complex, lasting and constructive role for Russian formalism than that of initial springboard and purely negative background. For one, as evidenced above by the list of extensive references to Sievers’s theories made by many of the formalists, they effectively engaged with his work and continued to have a sense of its relevance throughout the entire course of the 1920s. As is the case with their treatment of Potebnja’s ideas, there is reason to believe that when the Russian formalists rejected, opposed or corrected Sievers’s key concepts and hypotheses, they – consciously or unconsciously – also retained substantial elements and underlying assumptions from the philological model they were reacting against. Most significantly, one can find a strong indicator of a persistent, if diffuse influence of Sievers on the Russian formalists in the existence of less direct but nonetheless obvious filiations between them. The work of the German musicologist Gustav Becking (1894-1945), which was strongly inspired by Sievers and Saran and which was later highly rated by Roman Jakobson for its anticipation of key structuralist principles (Jakobson 1970, 1971 [1932]; also Tchougounnikov 2007, 156-158), constitutes a clear and convincing example of an intricate common context shared by the traditions of auditory philology and Russian formalism.

The existence of a mediatory figure such as Gustav Becking, it is crucial to add, is not interesting only as an indirect, circumstantial proof of the continued importance of Sievers or auditory philology for Russian formalist theory. Because Becking’s work reveals a theoretical continuity or enmeshment that extended well beyond Russian formalism itself into Prague structuralism, it intimates that the impulses and contributions derived from Sievers’s brand of philology were sufficiently broad in scope and fundamental (or foundational) in nature to be sustained in some way through several changes of paradigm or methodological framework. Because Becking’s work is closely connected with a string of other important thinkers of the late 19th and early 20th Century – the philosophers Edmund Husserl and Wilhelm Dilthey, the musicologists Hugo Riemann and Eduard Hanslick or the psychologist Wilhelm Wundt – who in turn were important for both Sievers and Jakobson, it also intimates that a proper understanding of the auditory philology-formalism connection can only be gained if that connection is contextualised and placed in a multi-nodal, interdisciplinary and international network of intellectual transfers and exchanges (cf. Flack forthcoming [a]; also Espagne 2014). In short, as has been suggested by both Tchougounnikov (2007) and Rieger (2014), and as I will myself try to show, it is highly desirable to approach Sievers’s work not as a narrowly circumscribed and historically dated model that was soon cast aside, but as the vector of significant innovations that played an integral, long-lasting role in the very broad process of epistemological renovation that defined the whole field of the human sciences in the first decades of the 20th Century.

Although I intend to turn my attention in the following pages to the problem of Sievers’s complex, multi-layered impact on the Russian formalists, literary theory or the human sciences as a whole, I will of course not aim here to tackle its entire scope. My more modest objective will be to trace just one particular conceptual line of development, which starts with Sievers’s so-called “melodic” turn and his recourse to the method of “sound analysis” (Schallanalyse), continues with Becking’s famous “curves” (Beckingkurven) and ends with Jakobson’s positive assessment of Becking’s and Sievers’s theories and their convergence with his own conception of structural linguistics or structuralism in general. To be even more precise, my focus will be specifically to underline the way in which the successive conceptual adjustments and changes of disciplinary perspective revealed by the intellectual transfers from Sievers to Becking and finally Jakobson were instrumental in facilitating the slow transformation of psychologistic, physiological, mechanistic and positivist ideas typical of late 19th Century philology into the more holistic, hermeneutic, functional and semiotic concepts that defined the “new” literary theory and linguistics of the 20th Century.

By emphasising the transition of Becking’s, Jakobson’s or even Sievers’s theories away from what was their psychological, positivist substrate, my short analysis will of course consolidate the generally accepted view mentioned above, which sees the “formal” turn carried out by the Russian formalists as a decisive rejection and supersession of the methodological paradigms of 19th Century thought, in particular its naturalism and psychologism. At the same time however, my description of the Sievers-Becking-Jakobson transfer will also bring an important correction to this view: it will emphasise how the psychological, positivist substrate at the origin of their theories was not decisively and suddenly rejected in their respective disciplines by each of these thinkers, but was gradually adapted and corrected through a process in which all disciplines partook and to which they contributed in complementary ways. Instead of appearing as the result of a clear-cut emancipation from 19th Century positivism carried out through the creation and institutionalisation of a well-defined, separate and self-sufficient discipline, my reconstruction will suggest that the new theory of literature emerged thanks to – or at least was facilitated by – a series of profoundly cross-disciplinary exchanges and a productive dialogue not only with other emerging “formal” disciplines such as art history (Oskar Walzel, Heinrich Wöllflin, Wilhelm Worringer) and musicology (Eduard Hanslick, Gustav Becking), but with psychology or “psychological” philosophy itself (Johann Friedrich Herbart, Carl Stumpf, Wilhelm Wundt, etc.).

It goes without saying that the Sievers-Becking-Jakobson filiation on its own would not provide sufficient evidence either of the psychological anchoring or of the cross-disciplinary, gradual dimension of the “formal turn” in literary theory and its sister disciplines. That being said, a slew of studies, on the one hand, have already revealed and confirmed the extent of Formalism’s intellectual debt to 19th century psychology (Espagne 2014, Maigné & Trautmann-Waller 2009, Romand & Tchougounnikov 2008, Svetlikova 2006, Trautmann-Waller 2006). On the other hand, further instances of an interdisciplinary, gradual process of transformation very similar to the Sievers-Becking-Jakobson transfer can be observed, for example in the adaptation of Potebnja’s philosophy of language, first in Andrej Belyj’s “transcendental” epistemology and then in the Russian formalists’ theory of poetic language (Flack, forthcoming [b]). The Sievers-Becking-Jakobson filiation, in other words, is not an isolated phenomenon and can legitimately serve here as corroboration both of the profound roots of Formalism in 19th Century German psychological thought and the cross-disciplinary scope of its nominally so independent theory of literature.

As it happens, the story of the intellectual transfer between Sievers, Becking and Jakobson has already competently been told, in French by Tchougounnikov (2007) and – in more detail but with a narrower emphasis on the Sievers-Becking relations – in German by Rieger (2014). In view of this fact, I will provide here only a brief summary based on these two accounts.

Auditory philology is generally mentioned as the part of Sievers’s work most relevant to the Russian formalists. The true starting point of the conceptual line between Sievers, Becking and Jakobson, however, was the method Sievers developed somewhat later and which he referred to as Schallanalyse (sound analysis). With this method, exposed in texts such as “Neues zu den Rutz’schen Reaktionen” [New Thoughts on the Rutz-Reactions] (1914), H. Lietzmann und die Schallanalyse [Lietzmann and Sound-Analysis] (1921) and, most importantly, Ziele und Wege der Schallanalyse [The Paths and Aims of Sound Analysis] (1924), Sievers aimed to systematically study the psycho-physiological conditions that accompany and determine the production of human speech, in order to gain objectively valid philological knowledge of texts and their author. As was the case in his Neogrammarian-inspired work in phonetics, one of the key tenets of Sievers’s new approach was that it is the sound-layer of language that provides the most essential and objective source of information for its scientific, philological study. As was the case with Sievers’s conception of auditory philology, a further feature of sound analysis was to focus on the retrospective, subjective experience of sound (Nacherleben) of a speaker, rather than to develop an abstract, external or statistical analysis of the physiological properties of sound. The specific innovation of sound analysis, in addition to the features characteristic of Sievers’s earlier approaches, was to direct the analysis not so much on the sounds of language themselves than on the whole bodily, psycho-physiological process thanks to which they are produced.

The fundamental postulate around which the method of sound analysis revolves is the inseparable unity of the production of linguistic sounds (or speech) and the disposition of the body (Körpereinstellung) of the speaker. This concept of bodily disposition, it should be made immediately clear, goes far beyond factors such as articulation or the use of the vocal organs: what Sievers implies here is a muscular participation of the whole body in the act of speech, including for examples arm, hand or finger movements that are automatically triggered by the sound structure of what is being spoken. Such movements, of course, do not contribute directly to the production of speech, but only accompany it: as such, they are called Mitbewegungen (sometimes Begleitbewegungen) or accompanying movements by Sievers. These accompanying movements, according to Sievers, can be free (frei) or inhibited (gehemmt) – depending on whether a speaker is speaking naturally, “in his own voice” or is constrained, for example when reading a written text whose sound structure (accentuation, rhythm, melody, intonation, etc.) he does not understand and thus cannot respect and correctly reproduce. Crucially for Sievers, the distinction between a free and an inhibited bodily disposition can easily be ascertained empirically, through a careful observation of the accompanying movements. As such, sound analysis provides a tool to objectively establish the correct sound structure of a written text: the researcher needs but to figure out through trial-and-error experimentation how to read a text in a free, uninhibited fashion. If one accepts these premises, the philological utility of such a method is obvious: it allows the philologist to both objectively reconstruct and obtain immediate knowledge of the sound structure of any text – even written texts by long-dead authors – and thus to derive philological conclusions pertaining to its melodic, rhythmical or prosodic features.

Gustav Becking, who studied with Sievers and Saran, was both directly influenced by sound analysis and decisively contributed to its further development. Becking, indeed, explicitly took up the idea of bodily disposition and accompanying movements (cf. Becking 1928, 16ff), adapting them to the study of music, and in particular of musical rhythm. His crucial move, outlined in his fundamental work, Der musikalische Rhythmus als Erkenntnisquelle [How Musical Rhythm Reveals Human Attitudes] (1928), was to associate the idea of accompanying movements with the beat of a conductor. The beat itself is a conventional, formalised set of hand and arm gestures used to indicate a rhythmical schema (4/4, 3/8, etc.) or rhythmical points of reference (upbeat, downbeat, etc.):

When beating time to a given piece of music, however, a conductor does not just rigidly and mechanically realise the successive geometrical gestures (up, down, left, right) associated with the abstract rhythmical schema he is indicating. Instead, he adapts it to the music and enhances his beat with further expressive movements, for example by emphasising a downbeat with a broad, “rounded” gesture of the arm, or by marking the lightness of an upbeat with a swift “sharp” flexion of the wrist. According to Becking, these expressive features of a conductor’s beat should be construed as “accompanying movements”, in other words as the symptoms or expression of the natural bodily disposition of the conductor in reaction to the underlying rhythmical structure of the music he is conducting. As was the case in Sievers’s conception of sound analysis, Becking also assumes it is possible to differentiate between a free and an inhibited fashion of beating time to a piece of music. Similarly, he thus considers that it is possible for a researcher to ascertain empirically and objectively the “correct” rhythmical structure and underlying impulse of a given piece of music by establishing – again through trial-and-error experimentation – how to beat to it in a free, uninhibited way.

At this point, Becking took Sievers’s approach a step further. Because, in Becking’s view, the adequate, natural way of beating time to a piece of music is always the same and can be determined empirically, it is also possible to schematise that typical beat with the help of a graphical “curve”. These curves, which were subsequently christened Beckingkurven or Becking-curves, offer a sort of two-dimensional visualisation of the virtual trajectory of the tip of a conductor’s baton as a result of his beat. The thickness of the curve serves to represent the speed of the movement, a thicker line standing for a slower, more emphatic or heavy beat, and a thinner line for a quicker, lighter movement:

A striking property of the Becking-curves is that they do not only represent the underlying rhythmical structure of a single piece of music (even in its entirety), but of all music written by an individual composer. Thus for example, the Becking-curve pictured above represents the rhythmical structure typical of the whole work of Georg Friedrich Haendel. In other words, when beating time in unhindered, uninhibited fashion to a piece of music by Haendel, –whatever its abstract rhythmical schema (3/8, 4/4, etc.), tempo, mood, etc. –, a conductor will naturally reproduce the above-mentioned curve. Quite logically, all composers have their own, unique Becking-curve, which expresses their individual style.

Becking-curves were very well received by Sievers, who proceeded to integrate them into his own theory of sound analysis. In fact, as Rieger has shown, Becking-curves were an integral part of the theoretical development of sound analysis itself (Rieger 2014, 28ff). Instead of using sound analysis only to establish the rhythmical or prosodic properties of given texts, Sievers followed Becking in his attempt to draw wider typological conclusions on their author. Thus, Sievers accepted Becking’s idea that an individual poet or composer possesses only one Becking-curve, which expresses his idiosyncratic, personal style (as such, Sievers often call’s the Becking-curves Personalkurven, or personal curves). Connecting Becking’s work with the ideas of Herman Nohl and Joseph Rutz, Sievers also tried to categorise these curves in general types or “basic forms” (Grundform)

According to Sievers, who followed Rutz on this point, there are only three basic forms :

« I.    (e.g. Goethe) the basic form is ‚sharp-rounded’ […]

II.   (e.g. Schiller) the basic form is ‚rounded-rounded […]

III. (e.g. Heine) the basic form is ‚sharp-sharp […] » (Sievers 1924, 244 [my translation])

. In the following table, one can see how Sievers groups the Becking-curves of famous composers (e. g. 1: Mozart, 5: Wagner, 14: Bach, etc.) according to their “basic form”:

Jakobson’s involvement in the conceptual development of sound analysis and the Becking-curves was much less hands-on and his position in this theoretical framework should be likened to that of a commentator rather than a participant. Jakobson, indeed, did not take up or apply in his own theories the ideas of the Becking-curve, accompanying movements and bodily disposition that lie at the heart of both Sievers’s and Becking’s theories. But what he had to say, in particular about Becking, is highly significant and leaves no doubt as to his very positive view of their theoretical achievements. In a short review published in 1932, “Musikwissenschaft und Linguistik” [Musicology and Linguistics], Jakobson begins by stating: “The talk given for the Prague Linguistic Circle by G. Becking, Musicology Professor at the Prague German University, is one of the most significant events of Prague’s scientific life of recent years” (Jakobson 1971 [1932], 551 [my translation]). The root of Jakobson’s enthusiasm, as he himself explains, lies with Becking’s capacity “to outline a convincing comparative characterisation of musicology and phonology” (ibid). In Jakobson’s eyes, Becking’s theory offers a typology of the musical system whose normativity (Gesetzmässigkeit) reminds him strongly of the typology of his own phonological system. Concluding his short review, Jakobson declares: “Musicology must plunder the achievements of phonology” (ibid). Crucially, this enthusiastic reception of Becking’s thought is confirmed in a much later article, “Linguistics and Natural Sciences” (Jakobson 1970). Discussing a completely different problem, Jakobson explicitly refers there to the Becking-curves and to their classification by Sievers according to their three basic forms to defend his hypothesis that there exists inalienable and inalterable characteristics in human speech (on this point, see Tchougounnikov 2007, 157-158). In other words, Jakobson’s affinity for what he referred to as the “seducing psychophysical typology” of Becking and Sievers (Jakobson 1970, 53) did not weaken over the years, revealing the strong, fundamental nature of the convergence of their approach with his own, structuralist conception of language.

I will not pretend here that this very brief overview of the Sievers-Becking-Jakobson intellectual filiation demonstrates anything with regard to the genesis of literary theory or Russian formalism. As is made perfectly clear by the fact that I mentioned neither Russian formalism nor the discipline of literary theory per se (Jakobson, as we saw, appears here mostly as a proponent of structural phonology), this whole episode is only indirectly relevant to the birth of the new “formal method” in literary studies. If my goal here had been to show that the Becking-curves and Sievers’s typological classification of basic forms had a direct impact on the Russian formalists and were used by them in the elaboration of their new literary theory, I would not have advanced very far. Given that the afore-mentioned theories were developed only in the early to mid 1920s (and Becking’s major work on the subject was published only in 1928), it would also seem that any attempt to attain such a goal would be ill-founded and condemned from the start to failure. Luckily, my aim was never to demonstrate the direct influence of Sieversian sound analysis on the likes of Šklovskij, Eichenbaum and Tynjanov. Instead, I hoped only to mobilise Sievers and Becking as contrastive evidence against a certain narrative of Russian formalism’s and literary theory’s epistemological achievements, which interprets them as a radical rupture with the preceding philological paradigm on the one hand, and as a clear segregation of literary theory as a specific discipline conditioned by and focused on its own object of study.

In this comparative perspective, I believe, even the rather limited set of facts presented in the preceding section provides highly interesting evidence. What the Sievers-Becking-Jakobson clearly displays, at least in my view, is a strong conceptual continuity in the study of language and literature between the positivist, psychologistic or psycho-physiological models of Sievers and the structuralist, “phonological” paradigm of Jakobson. Regardless of the effective impact of Becking’s or Sievers’s ideas on Jakobson (or indeed of their true methodological compatibility), his positive reception of their respective efforts to establish systematic typologies signals an undeniable convergence of point of view. At the very least, one finds no clear point of rupture in the transition from Sievers’s initial psycho-physical conception of sound analysis to Jakobson’s approval of the Becking-curves as proto-structuralist models. This absence of rupture, moreover, concerns not only the fundamental epistemological orientation of these theories (from Sievers’s empirical psycho-physicalism to Jakobson’s functional structuralism), but also their disciplinary boundaries: one passes almost effortlessly from empirical psychology (used in the objective determination of accompanying movements) to verse theory, musicology, phonology and then back again to the natural sciences (as in Jakobson’s 1970 article). Even better, as the case of the Becking-curves proves, it is only thanks to the cross-disciplinary transfer that methodological progress was made: the curves, indeed, are derived from a conductor’s beat – a convention evidently associated with music, not poetry or verse, let alone prose.

Again, the modalities of the transition from Sievers to Jakobson do not necessarily prove anything with regard to the transition between Sievers and the Russian formalists and, by way of consequence, with regard to the emergence of literary theory as such. Still, one cannot ignore the obvious parallel between the Sievers-Becking-Jakobson conceptual line on the one hand, and the Sievers-Formalism-Jakobson filiation on the other. In both cases, initial inspiration was drawn from the Sievers’s work and developed or integrated into a structuralist framework by the “Russian philologist” Jakobson. Whilst it is entirely conceivable that the transition was gradual and collaborative in one case, and sudden and exclusive in the other, a much likelier hypothesis – especially given the closeness of Jakobson with Russian formalism – is that there was in fact no radical break between Sievers’s psychological positivism and the Russian formalists’ new method, but a complex, polemical but none the less constructive dialogue. The most controversial part of such an assertion, I would like to add, lies not so much with the suggestion that Russian formalism was still determined in great part by psychological or even psychologistic conceits and models. As mentioned above, this fact has been largely and convincingly established. What seems perhaps more surprising is to present Sievers’s theory – which is apparently so profoundly attached to empirical psychology and positivism – as anticipating, and thus being able of transforming itself into, formalist and structuralist models.

To clear this point and defend its plausibility, I would like finally to correct or at least bracket out one of the most common misconceptions concerning the work of Eduard Sievers himself. It is fair to say, indeed, that Sievers often falls victim to oversimplifications that fail to do justice both to the conceptual background of his ideas and to their historical role. One such oversimplification, as Tchougounnikov points out, is “to establish a distinction between two Sievers, the “good” phonetician and physiologist of sound on the one hand, and the “suspicious” theoretician of “sound analysis” on the other” (Tchougounnikov 2007, 145 [my translation]). When understood in this way, Sievers appears as a serious contributor to linguistics and philology only insofar and as long as he worked within the Neogrammarian framework. As a consequence, his work as a whole is assimilated almost completely to the Neogrammarian paradigm and his interests and relevant contributions reduced to the narrow field of phonetics and the physiological study of sound. His later investigations, carried out under the banner of auditory philology and sound analysis, are dismissed, for example by Bertil Malmberg who states that this part of Sievers’s legacy “was not endorsed by posterity, although there were behind these ideas a few basic notions worthy of interest” (Malmberg, 1991, 320-321). The famous psychologist Carl Stumpf also shared this negative assessment of Sievers’s later work, deeming it to be “an incomprehensible self-deception by the famous Germanist and phonetician” (Stumpf 1883, quoted after Meyer-Kalkus 2001, 107).

An obvious consequence of separating Sievers’s work and ideas in this way is to render quite problematic the question of its reception by the Russian formalists and Roman Jakobson. The formalists were indeed clearly interested in Sievers’s auditory philology and sound analysis: as Tchougounnikov correctly points out, “the “good” Sievers seems to end where Jakobson’s interest begins” (Tchougounnikov 2007, 145 [my translation]). This, for one, squarely contradicts Malmberg’s above-mentioned claim, since at least some thinkers posterior to Sievers, including as prominent and influential a linguist as Jakobson, did in fact express a keen interest in the apparently methodologically “suspicious” part of Sievers’s work. One might of course want to object that the Russian formalists did not endorse auditory philology and sound analysis as such, proceeding instead to criticise and replace much of Sievers’s conceptual apparatus with their own, very different approach. However, of the criticism directed against Sievers by the Russian formalists centred on his narrow focus on the physiological properties of sounds – not on his attempt to generalise the analysis of sound and to explore its typological, hermeneutical potential. In short, while it is clear that the formalist rejected the allegedly “good” Sievers – i.e. the Neogrammarian phonetician – their position on the “suspicious” Sievers of auditory philology and sound analysis – who broadened and questioned the role of sound in language, verse and literature – is much more ambivalent and, in my view, should on the whole even be deemed positive.

Be that as it may, one should in any case emphasise that a strict dichotomic division of Sievers’s work clearly precludes an adequate understanding of the inner logic of its own development, even at a superficial level. True, at least if one follows Frings (1966, 12-15), there does seem to have been a break in Sievers’s thinking over a period going from 1898 to 1903, when he took his distance from Neogrammarian models and began exploring new paths in the analysis of sounds. That break, or “melodic turn”, corresponds to Sievers’s rejection of a strictly physiological, atomistic study of sound on the one hand, and of an abstract approach to the phenomenon of language that treated it as a purely theoretical object on the other hand. What Sievers sought to develop and explore instead was a method that allowed a physical, implication of the researcher in the execution of sounds, in order both to intuitively capture the “sonorous” facticity of the linguistic material (Cf. Tchougounnikov 2007, 148) and to account for the “melody of language” (Sprachmelodie), i.e. the suprasegmental, systematic properties or functions of sounds in language. When taking stock of this undeniable shift in Sievers’s approach to the study of language, however, it is important to note that his interests were never entirely circumscribed by phonetics and the problems of the physiology of sound in the first place.

Lest one forget, Sievers was also a prominent scholar of Anglo-Saxon poetry noted for his reconstructions of historical poetic texts. More to the point, even in the first phase of his career, his preoccupation with sound was not oriented exclusively towards producing phonetic analyses per se, but also towards the use of such analyses for the study of rhythm, meter, prosody, etc. Some confusion on this point stems from the fact that, in some way, Sievers was indeed a “sound reductionist”: Tchougounnikov is thus undoubtedly correct when he states that “whilst others explored the physiology of sound as a means to achieve further goals, Sievers limited himself to the “life of sounds”, treating them as they are and eliminating anything he deemed inessential or heterogeneous” (Tchougounnikov 2007, 147). This exclusive focus, does not mean, however, that Sievers bracketed out of his analysis the broader, functional or systemic properties of sounds themselves. In fact, he was always interested in applying his specific, phonetic discoveries to his other area of study, Anglo-Saxon and Old Saxon poetry, as a heuristic tool used to solve very broad hermeneutical problems. As Stefan Rieger keenly remarks, Sievers’ “obsession for the small observation” (including, for example, on abstruse questions of “dipodic” or “podic” stress, pitch or accentuation) “often occults the big picture, which Sievers’s work however does provide. That big picture pertains to one of the central phantasms of our culture, namely the question of the individuality of expression and the traces it leaves in both spoken and written literature.” (Rieger 2014, 11).

On top of this “literary” or “hermeneutical” dimension of Sievers’ early investigations, it is also worth mentioning that his work in phonetics itself followed an original orientation, whose extremely narrow focus on sound paradoxically also allowed Sievers to treat that particular dimension of language in a more functional, systematic perspective and to nearly achieve a “phonological” level of explanation (Cf. Tchougounnikov 2007, 147). In other words, his early work already displays features that are characteristic of his later pre-occupations and were (arguably) foreign to the Neogrammarians. In parallel, one should also point out that Sievers’s later work “explicitly refers to the terminology of the physicalist and physiological acoustics founded by Hermann von Helmholtz” (Meyer-Kalkus, 200, 95). As such, it obviously continued to inscribe itself in a clearly empirical, even experimental and “naturalistic” framework.

My point here is neither to deny that there was a significant re-orientation in Sievers’s approach to language and its study, nor to suggest that the new methods of auditory philology and sound analysis were nothing more than a slight correction and broadening of the Neogrammarian template that clearly informs and conditions his early work. But I do want to insist that Sievers’s turn towards new ways of investigating and studying the sound shape of language should not be seen as constituting a one-off discontinuity in his intellectual development, as an outright, sudden break. The most compelling argument against this view is to point out that auditory philology itself was only a first step in Sievers’s quest for new explanatory models, which further evolved and was radicalised in sound analysis. In turn, sound analysis itself underwent progressive developments, for example through the integration of Becking-curves or Rutz’s typology.

Simply put, Sievers’ intellectual trajectory was not a clear two-stage process, but a constant, gradual evolution. In that sense, it is fully admissible to see Sievers as moving decisively away from his Neogrammarian heritage into new, original territory, without however, having to oppose his later work diametrically with his early ideas. If anything, what my short discussion of the evolutionary logic of Sievers’s ideas underlines is the “immanent” and “integral” nature both of the crisis of the positivist template of the Neogrammarians and 19th century philology and Sievers’s reaction to it. What I mean by this is that Sievers’s auditory philology and sound analysis were not devised so much as consciously different, anti-Neogrammarian models than as answers to the blind spot of Neogrammarian philology itself. Instead of being (or even seeking to be) radically extrinsic reactions with completely new sets of questions and principles, they represented rather a change of emphasis, a different approach to problems which stemmed directly from the preceding theoretical approach. Conversely, Sievers’s move away from the “naturalistic” precepts of Neogrammarian philology –through his “melodic turn” and the elaboration of the systematic typologies that so impressed Jakobson – happened almost against his best intentions. As Rieger perceptively points out:

Was Sievers, vielleicht sogar gegen die eigene Intention, leistet, ist etwas anderes: Seine Schallanalyse und sein Einsatz für sie machen deutlich, dass Daten und Physiologie, dass Kurven allem Anschein nach und entgegen aller von ihm gezielt benutzten Semantik naturwissenschaftlicher Objektivität, semiotische Konstrukte sind – Effekte einer Datenpolitik von Individualisierung und Kodifizierung (Rieger 2014, 67).

This paradox – that a method that explicitly sought to adhere to the objectivity of the natural sciences would encounter or even produce irreducibly semiotic constructs – provides a fitting conclusion to this paper. Indeed, it highlights perfectly the disciplinary porosity and epistemological fluidity that underpinned the transformation of 19th Century philology into the “new” literary theory and linguistics of the 20th Century.

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(2018) "Deux théories du vers et une typologie du rythme musical", in: Flack Patrick, Idée, expression, vécu, Paris, Hermann, pp.63-82.