Wallis on Etymology, Sound Symbolism and Universal Language
The Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae, which was published in 1653, was one of Wallis’s earlier works. It was also a text he continually returned to in the course of his career. Revisions in successive editions show the direction of his thought, and the evidence of extensive previously unpublished manuscript notes reveals the significance that he attributed to his theories of etymology.
Although written in Latin for the sake of foreign learners, Wallis’s Grammar is one of the first analyses of English not to force the vernacular into a traditional Latin mould. The work was enormously successful, going through many editions within Wallis’s lifetime. It set the pattern for grammar writing throughout the eighteenth century. The English grammar prefaced to Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) is essentially a digest of Wallis’s grammar.
Modern scholars have focused largely on Wallis’s inductive and distributionalist approach, a primary example of which is his original analysis of the English tense system (see below) in terms of a small number of primary underlying elements. Less familiar and more uncomfortable to modern theorists is his treatment of ‘etymology’, which combines derivational morphology with notions about sound symbolism. Our edition shows how this key element in Wallis’s work is intimately connected with contemporary schemes for the construction of a philosophical language, as pursued by Wallis's colleague John Wilkins under the auspices of the Royal Society.
Analysis of tense system (pdf)