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Wilhelm Viëtor's life and career

Wilhelm Viëtor (1850–1918) was the main initiator of the late 19th century Reform Movement in modern language teaching (see Howatt 1984; Howatt and Smith 2002), although it benefitted from work by a wide range of writers. The son of a pastor, in 1869 Viëtor began to pursue studies in theology and philosophy which took him to the Universities of Leipzig, Berlin and Marburg. In 1872–73 he spent a short time teaching German in England before returning to begin English studies at the University of Marburg (in 1874). From 1876 he spent a six-year period as a teacher of English and, to a lesser extent, French in schools in Düsseldorf, Wiesbaden and Friedrichsdorf, first as probationary teacher, then as a full-time member of staff, and finally (in 1882, for a short period) as headmaster (Viëtor 1882/1886: v). Drawing on a combination of his formal academic studies and practical teaching experience, he also began to contribute articles to journals, notably ‘Die wissenschaftliche Grammatik und der englische Unterricht’ (1880a) for Englische Studien, and another (1880b) article containing pedagogical advice on the teaching of French pronunciation in which he argued strongly that spoken rather than written exercises should follow class-reading of texts. He was, however, in favour of English as the first foreign language for German Realschule pupils (Viëtor 1882/1886: 27), and his (1879) Englische Schulgrammatik (‘English School Grammar’) was later to gain high praise from Sweet (1884: 582), who described it as the first ever attempt to apply phonetics to the teaching of English. Viëtor followed this up with the 1880a article for Englische Studien, in which he not only provided a scholarly treatment of issues in the description of contemporary standard English but also recommended that the teaching of morphology should be carried out on the basis of the spoken rather than the written language (indeed, he claimed (Viëtor 1882/1886: 28) to have carried this out in practice in Englische Schulgrammatik by restricting himself to only the most important features, in other words limiting the number of ‘exceptions’ to be memorized). Viëtor was to refer approvingly to all of these previous works (including this particular paper) in his 1882 pamphlet, making use of the third person to refer to himself as their author.

Der Sprachunterricht muss umkehren! provided the spark that ignited the Reform Movement in foreign language teaching in Europe and the speed at which its ideas spread thereafter is testimony to the strength of dissatisfaction felt within the language teaching profession of the time. In Germany, the foreign-language controversy was only part of a more general reaction against ‘formal’ education and ‘faculty’ training (Gilbert 1953: 9), as the pamphlet’s dedication to Friedrich Wilhelm Fricke (1810–91) shows (Fricke was a well-known German educationalist whose (1881) book on the burdens imposed by schools on young people inspired this dedication). An English translation of this influential pamphlet can be found in the Appendix to Howatt (1984).

A debate on the poor state of language teaching was also well under way when Der Sprachunterricht was published in 1882 (see the author’s own citations of previous work, the details Breymann (1895) provides of ‘Reform literature’ from 1876 onwards, and Bahlsen’s (1903/1905: 13–17) historical overview). Although Der Sprachunterricht was by no means the first contemporary criticism of the state of foreign language teaching in German schools, it did serve a very special purpose as an unparalleled ‘trumpet-blast’ (Trompetenstoss) for Reform (Viëtor 1902: 29; Breymann 1895: 18).

For the first edition of Der Sprachunterricht, Viëtor used the pseudonym ‘Quousque Tandem’, drawn from a quotation from Cicero which, freely translated, means ‘how much longer must the present abuse continue?’ ( ‘Quousque tandem abutere, Catalina, patientia nostra’ (lit., ‘How long will you abuse our patience, Catalina?’)). For the second (1886) edition of this work, Viëtor revealed his identity, partly because everyone had guessed it anyway, as he says in the final sentence of the Foreword.

The pamphlet is short (only 32 pages), but it is justifiably famous. It was mentioned and discussed by most if not all of Viëtor’s contemporaries in the Reform Movement. The earliest British reference to its importance, however, came even before the pseudonym had been revealed. The occasion was Henry Sweet’s contribution to the proceedings surrounding the Presidential Address to the Philological Society in 1884, when he referred to it as ‘The teaching of languages must start afresh!’ (Sweet 1884a: 581). This title was borrowed by Howatt and Abercrombie in an English version included as an appendix to Howatt (1984).

Following the publication of Der Sprachunterricht in 1882, Bahlsen (1903/1905: 23) describes how ‘In the clash of opinions [this] modest, earnest man continued quietly in his course, conscious of his purpose’. Appointed professor of English at the University of Marburg in 1884, Viëtor used this base to further the cause of reform, founding the journal Phonetische Studien in 1888 and incorporating this from 1893 within Die neueren Sprachen, which he also founded and edited (Bahlsen (1903/1905: 24) terms the latter, with just cause, ‘the authoritative organ of the German reform movement’).

His publications in the field of phonetics were popular and widely respected, with his (1884) Elemente der Phonetik (‘Elements of Phonetics’) going through seven editions by 1923 (this was abridged as Kleine Phonetik in 1897), and his (1895) Die Aussprache des Schriftdeutschen (‘The Pronunciation of Written German’) reaching its eleventh edition in 1925 (Anon. 1999). With his interests in German and French as well as English, he was, according to Kohler (1981: 170), ‘the most outstanding figure in the field of descriptive and practical phonetics of individual languages in Germany at the turn of the century’.

In addition, Viëtor’s materials for modern language learning were widely used in Germany, notably his phonetic charts (Viëtor 1893) –– Brebner (1898: 10) provides an account of their use in teaching by Max Walter –– and his (1895) Englisches Lesebuch, co-authored with F. Dörr. Finally, as professor of English at Marburg, he developed, like Jespersen (q.v.) in Copenhagen, ‘a corps of capable modern-language teachers to whom he gave a thorough training in phonetics’ (Bahlsen 1903/1905: 24).

Viëtor also took an interest in the teaching of German to foreigners (he published, according to Bahlsen (ibid.) a pamphlet entitled Wie ist die Aussprache des Deutschen zu lehren? (‘How should German pronunciation be learnt?’) and a book with the title German Pronunciation, Practice and Theory). His interests in this area were further developed in the context of a series of summer schools held in Marburg at the turn of the century, which were attended by teachers from all over Europe. Van Herp (1910: 147), for example, describes how in 1899–1900 Belgian teachers were encouraged and given scholarships by the government to visit England (Cambridge) or Germany (Jena or Marburg) on vacation courses, and he remarks further that in 1901 the Ministry of Education chose Marburg as the favoured destination. In this manner, van Herp claims (ibid.), Viëtor strongly influenced Belgian teachers.

The 1899 summer school was announced, with a full programme, in a special supplement to the June-July 1899 issue of Le maître phonétique). Paul Passy and the Australian William Tilley (1860–1935) were featured speakers alongside Viëtor (see Collins and Mees (1998: 12–17) for details of the formative influence Tilley was to exert on Daniel Jones (1881–1967) during the latter’s own period of German language study at Tilley’s school in Marburg during the winter vacation, 1900–01). According to the programme for the first session (17–29 July), a variety of lectures and practical classes were given in German, French and English, with Viëtor, Passy and Tilley, respectively, taking responsibility for teaching the phonetics of these three languages. During the main summer session (between 2 and 15 August) Viëtor additionally gave lectures in German on ‘Methodik des neusprachlichen Unterrichts’, and these were to form the basis for his 1902 book with the same title (as he notes in his Foreword to this, the lectures were repeated in 1900 and 1901).


 For details of publications by Viëtor referred to in the above text, see the separate 'Works' page on this site.

Anon. 1999. Entry for ‘Viëtor, (Karl Adolf Theodor) Wilhelm’. In Killy, W. and R. Vierhaus (eds), Deutsche Biographische Enzyklopädie (DBE), Vol. 10, Munich: Saur.

Bahlsen, L. 1903/1905. The Teaching of Modern Languages. 2nd edition. Translated from German by M. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Ginn. [Originally published by Teachers’ College, Columbia University.]

Brebner, Mary. 1898. The Method of Teaching Modern Languages in Germany. London: Clay.

Breymann, H. 1895 Die neusprachliche Reform-Literatur von 1876–1893: Eine bibliographisch-kritische Übersicht. Leipzig: Deichert.

Collins, Beverley and Inger M. Mees. 1998. The Real Professor Higgins: The Life and Career of Daniel Jones. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Gilbert, M. 1953 ‘The origins of the reform movement in modern language teaching in England: Part I’. Research Review (Institute of Education, University of Durham) 4: 1–9.

Howatt, A.P.R. 1984. A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

–––––– and Richard C. Smith (eds.). 2002. Modern Language Teaching: The Reform Movement (five volumes). London: Routledge.

Kohler, K. 1981. ‘Three trends in phonetics: the development of phonetics as a discipline in Germany since the nineteenth-century’. In Asher, R.E. and E.J.A. Henderson (eds), Towards a History of Phonetics: In Honour of David Abercrombie, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Sweet, Henry. 1884. ‘The practical study of language’. [Part of the programme relating to the Thirteenth Address of the President, to the Philological Society, 16 May 1884, printed in modified spelling.] Transactions of the Philological Society 1882–84: 577–99.

van Herp, J. 1910. ‘Die Reform des neusprachlichen Unterrichts in Belgien’. In a special supplement to Die neueren Sprachen (1910) entitled ‘Festschrift Wilhelm Viëtor’.



The above essay by Richard C. Smith (uploaded here in 2007) is adapted from the Introductions to Howatt and Smith (2002). Details of Viëtor’s career are based mainly on Anon. 1999 and the Foreword to Viëtor 1882/1886.