Evolving words: Darwin on Müller on Schleicher

“A struggle for life is constantly going on among quotations in academic writings. The better, the shorter, the easier forms are constantly gaining the upper hand and they owe their success to their own inherent virtue.” Sounds familiar? Perhaps because it’s a variation on a bon mot attributed to Charles Darwin that you may have seen in any of a range of recent papers on how language evolves.

We’ve seen the remarkable role of acacia trees in language evolution (Geraint 2011); now behold a case of parallel evolution towards a mutant quotation. Terence Deacon in PNAS (2010); Morten Christiansen & Nick Chater in BBS (2008); Mesoudi, Whiten and Laland in Evolution (2004) — they all quote the following words from Darwin 1871/1874:1

A struggle for life is constantly going on among the words and grammatical forms in each language. The better, the shorter, the easier forms are constantly gaining the upper hand, and they owe their success to their own inherent virtue.

Except that if you look up the original, you’ll find that these words aren’t by Darwin, but by Max Müller.

Darwin (1872)

Darwin (1872:58)

Here is Darwin’s version, from p. 58 in a 1872 version of The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex:

We see variability in every tongue, and new words are continually cropping up; but as there is a limit to the powers of the memory, single words, like whole languages, gradually become extinct. As Max Müller has well remarked: “A struggle for life is constantly going on among the words and grammatical forms in each language. The better, the shorter, the easier forms are constantly gaining the upper hand, and they owe their success to their own inherent virtue.”

In Darwin’s text, a footnote is attached to Müller’s name, giving the source of the quotation: “‘Nature’, Jan. 6, 1870, p. 257.”.

Max Müller in Nature, 1870

The piece by Müller is not very hard to find. It was published in what was then a brand new journal called Nature (the first issue of which appeared barely two months earlier). It fitted this new journal well — in its early years, Nature was backed by the illustrious X Club, a society of liberal scientists supportive of the then still controversial theories of Charles Darwin on evolution and natural selection.

Müller’s article is somewhat confusingly titled “Darwinism tested by the Science of Language. Translated from the German of Professor August Schleicher, by Dr. Alex, V. W. Bikkers”. What this means is that it is a review (by Max Müller) of an English translation (by Alex Bikkers) of a German pamphlet (by August Schleicher of Schleicher’s fable fame). Such a messy attribution is asking for trouble of course!

Here’s the original in context, from Müller 1870:257:

A much more striking analogy, therefore, than the struggle for life among separate languages, is the struggle for life among words and grammatical forms which is constantly going on in each language. Here the better, the shorter, the easier forms are constantly gaining the upper hand, and they really owe their success to their own inherent virtue. Here if anywhere, we can learn that what is called the process of natural selection, is at the same time, from a higher point of view, a process of rational elimination; for what seems at first sight mere accident in the dropping of old and the rising of new words, can be shown in most cases to be due to intelligible and generally valid reasons.

We see that Darwin’s version is close to verbatim, but with some adjustments. Müller presented his conception of evolving words as an alternative to Schleicher’s idea of evolving languages. Darwin obviously approved and decided to quote him on it, in the process liberating the words from their original context and thereby preparing them to be quoted way more widely… and without the original attribution.

Better, shorter, easier

There is a satisfying recursion to the idea of an evolving quotation about the evolution of cultural items, all the more because it has become its own demonstration of “the better, the shorter, the easier” form being propagated. Better because it’s a succinct rendition of Müller’s most crucial point. Shorter because it omits the laborious reference to Müller writing in Nature on Schleicher translated by Bikkers. Easier because clearly authors propagating this version are not taking the trouble to go back to the original but instead are copying from a secondary source.2

What are the inherent virtues to which this statement owes the success of being quoted over and over again? It appears that Müller’s words are quote-worthy for at least three reasons. First, because they shift the perspective from whole languages evolving (which was Schleicher’s conception) to individual words and grammatical forms evolving. This paved the way for the idea (most recently incarnated in Croft’s (2000) theory of utterance selection) that it is not the language system as a whole that is pitted against other systems, but the items in the systems that are constantly evolving. Second, because they foreshadow a Zipfian account of the evolution of words: “better, shorter, easier” is clearly a proto-version of Zipf’s (1935) principle of least effort. Third, simply because they are so felicitously formulated. Müller certainly had a knack for writing things in a memorable and pithy way.

Time will tell which of these replicators will win out; either way, the ideas they embody have already germinated in many places. To use another rogue replicator of dubious provenance: let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend.

P.S. Should you wish to cite the opening paragraph of this posting, I suppose it’s too much to ask to attribute it to yours truly — or more precisely to Dingemanse’s version of Christiansen’s version of Darwin’s version of Müller’s words. Oh well, just attribute it to Darwin. Nobody will notice.


  1. Christiansen, Morten H., and Nick Chater. 2008. “Language as shaped by the brain.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 31 (05): 489–558. doi:10.1017/S0140525X08005086.
  2. Croft, William. 2000. Explaining language change: an evolutionary approach. Harlow, Essex: Longman.
  3. Darwin, Charles. 1872. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. New York: Appleton.
  4. Deacon, Terence W. 2010. “A role for relaxed selection in the evolution of the language capacity.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107: 9000–9006. doi:10.1073/pnas.0914624107.
  5. Geraint, Sean. 2011. “Language Evolution and the Acacia Tree.” Speculative Grammarian CLXII (4). http://specgram.com/CLXII.4/07.geraint.acacia.html.
  6. Mesoudi, Alex, Andrew Whiten, and Kevin N. Laland. 2004. “Perspective: Is Human Cultural Evolution Darwinian? Evidence Reviewed from the Perspective of the Origin of Species.” Evolution 58 (1): 1–11. doi:10.1111/j.0014-3820.2004.tb01568.x.
  7. Müller, Max. 1870. “Darwinism tested by the Science of Language.” Nature 1 (10): 256–259. doi:10.1038/001256a0.
  8. Schleicher, August. 1869. Darwinism tested by the science of language. Trans by. Alex V. W. Bikkers. London: John Camden Hotten.3
  9. Zipf, George K. 1935. The psycho-biology of language. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  1. The earliest work in which I found a version like this is Morten Christiansen’s 1994 Edinburgh PhD thesis. Very likely, that’s where it all started. []
  2. The misattributed version is not the only variant of this quote out there. In fact, an unreliable Google Scholar search yields about a 50/50 division between the misattributed version and versions closer to the original, with attributions to the original author varying from “Muller”, “Müller”, “Mueller”, to “a writer in Nature in 1870”. []
  3. Sean G. Roberts kindly points out that there’s an online version of Schleicher-translated-by-Bikkers here. []

2 thoughts on “Evolving words: Darwin on Müller on Schleicher

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  2. If I recall correctly, I originally found the quote in Steve Pinker’s “The Language Instinct”, with no reference to Müller. I should, of course, have checked up on the original source. I’ve corrected this in more recent work (e.g., Christiansen, in press), where I focus on what Darwin said (e.g., “The survival and preservation of certain favored words in the struggle for existence is natural selection.”, Darwin, 1871, p. 60- 61).


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