J. D. Michaelis on Language and Vowel Points From Confessional Controversy to Naturalism

Avi Lifschitz

in Language and Enlightenment

Published in print September 2012 | ISBN: 9780199661664
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191751653 | DOI:

Series: Oxford Historical Monographs

J. D. Michaelis on Language and Vowel Points From Confessional Controversy to Naturalism

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)


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This chapter is dedicated to the early career of the 1759 prize laureate, the Göttingen orientalist Johann David Michaelis. The main question is how Michaelis came to write a naturalistic essay on language that would appeal to the Berlin Academy. The chapter traces his complete change of mind about the antiquity and special status of the Hebrew vowel points. In his first works Michaelis adhered to the traditional Protestant view, endorsed by his ancestors, that the diacritical signs marking Hebrew vowels were extremely ancient (already in use in Moses's time), and have since undergone remarkably little change. By the late 1750s Michaelis had revised this view and regarded all languages, Hebrew included, as naturally evolving along the lines of the naturalistic thesis. Michaelis's confrontation with his own background demonstrates that a naturalistic view of language did not necessarily entail a radical or materialist outlook.

Keywords: Johann David Michaelis; language; vowel points; poetry; Hebrew; Robert Lowth; Arabian expedition; Mosaic law; Göttingen

Chapter.  10835 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945)

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