Sapir’s form-feeling and its aesthetic background

Jean-Michel Fortis
Laboratoire d’histoire des théories linguistiques, Université Paris-Diderot

I find that what I most care for is beauty of form, whether in substance or, perhaps even more keenly, in spirit. A perfect style, a well-balanced system of philosophy, a perfect bit of music, the beauty of mathematical relations — these are some of the things that, in the sphere of the immaterial, have most deeply stirred me.
(Sapir, letter to Lowie, 29 September 1916, cited in Silverstein 1986: 79)

In several texts, Sapir uses the term form-feeling, or closely related expressions (e.g. relational feeling, form intuition, feeling for form / relations / patterning / classification into forms, to feel a pattern / form etc.), to refer to the grasp of an unconscious linguistic or cultural and behavioral pattern. This grasp is what directs the subject of a given culture and speaker of a given language to act and speak in accordance with the patterns set down in his social and linguistic environment.

The following post is about the possible source of the notion of form-feeling. It is divided into two parts. First, I present the notion of form-feeling and the form-function duality in Sapir’s thought (sections 1 and 2). Next I come to the possible source of the notion, which I argue is to be found in German-speaking aesthetics and the concept of Formgefühl (sections 3, 4 and 5). Lastly, I will say a few words about Sapir’s striving for form and, again, its possible aesthetic origin.

My pathological lack of a feeling for concise form has resulted in a lengthy post. I beg to be forgiven. Many thanks to James McElvenny and Nick Riemer, who reviewed this post and checked the English.

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, America, Europe, Germany, History, Linguistics

(Non-)universality of word-classes and words: The mid-20th century shift

Martin Haspelmath
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig

While looking at a range of views by grammarians on word-class distinctions (noun, verb, adjective etc.) and word division in two recent papers (Haspelmath 2011; 2012a), I was struck by what appears to have been a major shift of perspective: While the first half of the 20th century emphasizes the uniqueness of languages and the categorial differences between them, the second half starts out from the assumption that languages do not differ in their basic categories. (Elsewhere I called this distinction categorial particularism and categorial universalism; Haspelmath 2010.) There are some signs that the perspective adopted in the first half of the 20th century is now getting more attention again.

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Posted in 20th century, History, Linguistics, Typology, Uncategorized

German Lutheran Missionaries and the Linguistic Landscape of Central Australia 1890-1910

David Moore
University of Western Australia

My research aims to investigate documentation and research in the languages of Central Australia, providing a valid interpretation of the materials of the earliest work on the Aranda (Arrernte, Arrarnta) language of Central Australia. I examine the linguistic influences and language ideologies underpinning the analysis and description of Central Australian languages by German Lutheran Missionaries from 1890 to 1910. The Arandic languages in Central Australia are among the most researched languages in Australian linguistic history. German Lutheran missionaries conducted fieldwork in Australian languages in the late nineteenth century at Lake Killalpaninna in South Australia (Harms 2003; Kneebone 2005) and Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory (Kenny 2008; J. Strehlow 2011). The period 1890-1910 saw the first comprehensive grammars and wordlists of Central Australian Aboriginal languages by missionaries from Hermannsburg (Kempe, 1891) and Neuendettelsau (Strehlow 1909).


The background to the missionary linguistics of Central Australia is events which occurred in Germany in the early sixteenth century. The Lutheran Reformation set the stage for philology with Martin Luther establishing the use of vernaculars in church services rather than Latin. Protestants engaged with the Hebrew and Greek, Classical source languages of the Old and New Testaments. The Bible was translated in Protestant countries with the German New Testament published in 1522 and the complete German Bible in 1534. The resulting social context involved the need to read the Bible in vernacular languages with High German adopted as the literary standard. Kral (2000) has explored Lutheran practices of literacy at Hermannsburg and the central role of the text. The principles of translation and exegesis developed for the translation and understanding of Biblical texts. The first published translations of the Bible were made by Lutherans, Dieri (1897) and Aranda (1956).

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Posted in 19th century, Australia, Field linguistics, Grammars, History, Linguistics

‘You don’t see what you don’t know’: examining material aspects of manuscripts (Part I)

Anna Pytlowany
University of Amsterdam

Part one: Paper, ink, watermarks

My interest in manuscripts as material objects was sparked when I started my PhD research into the history of Dutch descriptive linguistics. Ultimately, I want to create a virtual digital archive of linguistic documents from the Dutch East India Company (VOC) period (1600-1825). There are many vocabularies, wordlists and grammars of the “exotic” languages that the Dutch encountered in the course of their trade expeditions. However, since the Company had no real policy regarding language documentation, most of the manuscripts are scattered around various libraries and archives all over the world – and largely forgotten.

But when, how, and by whom were they created and what were their itineraries? How can we read between the lines of these old texts when the explicit historical information is missing? Can the paper, the ink, or maybe the crease indicating the way the page was folded hold clues to unravelling the story of a particular text-carrying object – the manuscript?

“You don’t see what you don’t know”, the saying goes; you won’t be able to recognise the important hints unless you know what you are looking for.

I would like to give you a glimpse into the science of codicology, which I wish I was offered when I first held a 17th-century manuscript in my hands.[1] Read more ›

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Posted in 17th century, 18th century, 19th century, Europe, History, Netherlands

The lost Tesoro del ydioma ylocano

Rebeca Fernández Rodríguez
Universidade de Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro

At the end of the 18th century, Russian Empress Catherine II wanted to compile an atlas of the world’s languages. She commissioned first the German Peter Simon Pallas (1741-1811) and then the Serb Fyodor Jancovich de Mirievo (1741-1814) to publish a book containing the translation of a list of words into as many languages as possible. In 1785 Pedro Normande, Spanish chargé d’affaires at St. Petersburg,  sent a letter to Spanish king Charles III. It was a petition including two lists: the first a list of fourteen grammars and vocabularies from America and the Philippines, including such titles as the Vocabulario de pampango en romance (1732) by Diego de Bergaño (1690-1747), and Arte breve de la lengua aymara para introducir el Arte grande de la misma lengua (1603) by Ludovico Bertonio (1552-1625); and the second a list of 445 words to be translated into the different languages spoken within the territories of the Spanish Crown. Charles III agreed to the petition and directed the viceroys and governors in America and the Philippines to buy or copy the books and translate the words. They did so; and from 1789 to 1791 boxes of books and documents arrived in the Archivo de Indias in Seville and in the Real Biblioteca in Madrid. However, Charles III soon died and his son, Charles IV, inherited the Crown. This fact, among others, contributed to the lists and books never leaving Spain.

Apparently, although it was not in the list of books sent by the embassy in Russia, a bilingual Ilokano dictionary, Tesoro del ydioma yloco, was sent among others from the Philippines. For more than 200 years, scholars thought it lost, but it has in fact been in the library of the Palacio Real in Madrid all along. It is a copy made between 1781 and 1784 in Batac for the personal use of the Augustinian monk Agustín Pedro Blaquier (1749–1803), who loved books and whose library was believed to be one of the richest in the Philippines. It is made up of two volumes, one Spanish-Ilokano (1782–1784) and the other Ilokano-Spanish (1781–1782).  It is, so far, the oldest Ilokano dictionary currently available.
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Posted in 18th century, Lexicography, Philippines

Saussure’s sound symbolism

John Joseph
University of Edinburgh

“The most celebrated opponent of the sound symbolic hypothesis,” writes Magnus (2013: 201), “was, of course, Ferdinand de Saussure”. Of course. One of Saussure’s key contributions to modern linguistics is the principle of the arbitrariness of the link between sound and meaning, or more precisely between signifier and signified within the linguistic sign, his most detailed discussion of which took place in his third course in general linguistics in 1910-11. It was carried over into the posthumous Cours de linguistique générale (1916), where it has long been the target of attacks by linguists convinced of the explanatory power of sound symbolism.

But how is it then that in the last paper he published during his lifetime, Saussure (1912) argued that a group of Latin adjectives had developed in a particular way because the shape of the diphthong in their stressed syllable is mimetic of the shape of the idea common to the words containing the diphthong?

Few investigators of iconicity have read the 1912 paper (one of the rare later studies to discuss it is Gmür 1990: 47-49). Like Magnus, they generally understand sound symbolism to be the direct opposite of the arbitrariness which Saussure professed. Since he wrote this paper just after, or even while, giving the lectures on arbitrariness, it may look like a deathbed conversion. But given that it was for a Festschrift presented to Vilhelm Thomsen on his 70th birthday, 25 January 1912, chances are that Saussure was writing the paper no later than the semester in which the lectures on arbitrariness took place. If we go back 35 years to his second published paper (Saussure 1877), it too proposed a form-meaning link, more conventional but still of the sort that typically gets classified as iconic (see Joseph 2012: 200-202). In between, we have his testimony from 1892 concerning his own synaesthetic associations of vowels with colours, textures and smells (Joseph 2012: 392-397).

This is starting to look like quite a different man from the one of whose limited vision Magnus & Co. despair. In this post I shall explain why I think their despair is misplaced.

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, Europe, History, Linguistics, Structuralism

ConSOLE XXIII Call for Papers

Conference of the Student Organization of Linguistics in Europe XXIII

The University Paris Diderot-Paris 7 will host the 23rd Conference of the Student Organization of Linguistics in Europe (ConSOLE XXIII) from 7 to 9 January 2015 in Paris.

Graduate students and advanced undergraduate students not having defended a Ph.D. by September 5th 2014 are invited to submit abstracts for presentations (30 minutes, plus 10 minutes discussion) or posters. Submissions in all areas of linguistics are welcome, such as syntax, semantics, phonology, morphology, phonetics, language acquisition, psycholinguistics, computational linguistics, history of linguistic theories, diachronic linguistics and syntax in ancient grammatical traditions etc.

Deadline for submissions: September 5th, 2014

See the ConSOLE XXIII website for further details.

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Posted in Announcements, Europe, Linguistics

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