Dead End for a 19th-Century Linguist

He was one of the most notable linguists of the 19th century. Yet since his lifetime he hasn’t merited even a footnote in the history of linguistics (or philology, as they said then).

Edward H. Rulloff was so well-known in his time that he was the subject of two contemporary biographies. And the biographies were no dry-as-dust treatises, but best-selling books chronicling the exciting life of a philological genius.

He was expert in Latin and Greek, as well as French and German. But his claim to linguistic fame was that he had discovered the origin of language in the very language of the present day.

Near the end of his life, he gave a glimpse of his discoveries in an interview with a reporter for The New York Sun. Human language, Rulloff explained, had been deliberately constructed by the first humans, based on the four liquid sounds l, m, n, r:

“They combine readily with other consonants in the formation of the roots of words, and these roots are all-important. The possibility of the construction of an artistic and scientific language rests upon roots susceptible of change without loss of identity. …

“Such roots are entirely unknown to modern philologists. I have discovered them, and if I had time could revolutionize the study of language, and make it a new and living thing.”

Unfortunately, his time was nearly at an end. But he left this example: “It is a principle in the formation of a philosophical language that things which are opposites in meaning are named from the same roots, in which the elements are reversed. Take the words stir and rest for example, the meanings of which are opposites. In stir, the root is composed of s, t, r; in rest these are reversed—r, s, t. Things relatively large and small are also named from the same roots.”

Aha! Or perhaps, huh? No wonder his fellow philologists were unimpressed. Try doing this systematically not just with a carefully chosen example but with the entire vocabulary of a modern language, or for that matter an ancient one. And then try making connections between ancient languages and modern based on this theory. No wonder he had not made much progress with his theory when his life was cut short at age 50.

It was, in fact, not philology that made the biographies of Rulloff best sellers, but the reason for cutting his life short. On May 18, 1871, in Binghamton, N.Y., Edward H. Rulloff was hanged by the neck until dead.

It seems that, to support his philological studies, Rulloff had led a life of crime, including many burglaries. Furthermore, 25 years earlier his wife and infant daughter had been murdered under circumstances that strongly implicated Rulloff as the perpetrator. He was charged with those murders but set free for lack of evidence.

In between, living variously in upstate New York, New York City, and New Jersey, he was in and out of prison, including Sing Sing, for his criminal activities.

In 1871, he wasn’t so lucky. He and two others had been busy burglarizing silks from a dry-goods store in Binghamton one night in August 1870 when they were confronted by two clerks who lived in the store. After a brief struggle, one clerk was murdered.

Two of the criminals drowned trying to escape across a river, but Rulloff was soon discovered hiding in an outhouse. After lengthy and scrupulous legal proceedings, he was convicted and sentenced to death.

The truth of Rulloff’s story is hard to pin down, because he told many lies and used many aliases. But a distinguished modern scholar of American English, the late Richard W. Bailey, carefully unraveled the lies and uncovered the facts. He told the whole lurid story in a 2003 book from the University of Michigan Press with the grand title Rogue Scholar: The Sinister Life and Celebrated Death of Edward H. Rulloff.

A New York Times best seller? Soon to be made a major motion picture? Bailey’s book has the necessary subject—a quintessential villain who happened to be a self-taught genius at languages—but it didn’t get much notice. Perhaps some day it will get the recognition it deserves.

Rulloff worked on his theory to the bitter end. In a petition to the governor of New York, he explained that his method “so far transcends in elegance and art all that has hitherto been regarded as possible in language that to minds unprepared its principles are nearly incomprehensible, and the mere statement of them often causes your petitioner to be regarded as insane.”

Is there a moral to this story? Maybe it’s this: The study of language is no guarantee of virtue.

But perhaps you knew this already.

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