Primitive Languages: linguistic determinism and the description of Aranda eighty years on

David Moore
University of Western Australia

Strehlow Research Centre

Strehlow Research Centre, Alice Springs. Photo by Alex Nelson.


The view that Australian Aboriginal languages are primitive endured into the twentieth century and is still widespread throughout the Australian community. ‘Primitive languages’ were a means of using linguistic evidence from a language to prove the primitiveness of the associated culture. The assumption was made that primitive languages were spoken by those who belonged to primitive cultures (Henson 1974:9). A number of deficiencies were found with them: a lack of abstract nouns, grammatical categories, numerals and colour terms. One of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century who was ‘steeped in Social Darwinism’ was Otto Jespersen (1860–1943), who claimed that ‘the aborigines of Tasmania had no words representing abstract ideas’ (Errington 2008:130). There were very few actual descriptions of ‘primitive languages’ and ethnographic accounts were lacking in linguistic data, as Sommerfelt (1938:17) noted. It was these sparse accounts of Australian languages which enabled speculative views about ‘primitive languages’ to become widespread. The Aranda language of Central Australia appears to have been that most frequently identified as a ‘primitive language’.

In this post I explore an incident which occurred following the publication, nearly eighty years ago, of an armchair study of Aranda, a language which was primitive in the opinion of a leading intermational scholar. This episode in Australian linguistic history shows how intensive fieldwork, deep understanding of languages and the use of linguistic records could be used to counteract false ideas about Aboriginal languages which persisted even in scholarly publications. Read more ›

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, Australia, Grammars, History, Linguistics, Missionary Linguistics, Typology

Benvenuto Terracini and the history of linguistics between the 19th and 20th century

Diego Stefanelli
University of Pavia

Benvenuto Terracini (1886–1968) Source: Atlante Linguistico Italiano

Benvenuto Terracini (1886–1968) was a notable Italian linguist who lived through all the most important methodological innovations that characterize linguistics in the first half of the 20th century. In the Italian context, he played a fundamental transitional role in two crucial periods: during the crisis of positivism and the emergence of new methods and approaches at the beginning of the 20th century, and at the time of the discussions between structuralism and historicism in the 60s. Moreover, he experienced the sadly common trauma of many European scholars of Jewish origin: because of the Fascist Italian Race Laws, he was forced to leave Italy in 1938, going into exile in Argentina, where he taught Lingüística románica and Lingüística general at the University of Tucumán (1941-1946). Terracini is a typical – and nowadays quite unknown outside Italy – example of a European linguist, deeply connected to the historical, theoretical and cultural context of the first decades of the century.

A good starting point to rediscover Terracini is his activity as a historian of European linguistics at a key point in its history: the crisis of the positivistic paradigm and the rise of new approaches in the first decades of the 20th century. Read more ›

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, History, Italy, Linguistics

From godly analogy to “distant like floating clouds”: the inevitability of the Sino-Dene hypothesis and the scalability of comparative linguistics

Yukun Zeng
University of Chicago

Li Fang-Kuei and Edward Sapir

Li Fang-Kuei and Edward Sapir (Sources: Li & Sapir)

1. The Problem of Scaling in Language Classification

Language classification is a matter of scale and scaling. Most basically, it assigns languages into mutually exclusive categories. The scale underpins the categorization but does not come from nowhere. It displays an historical configuration and is invariably centered on the authoritative voice of science (Gal 2016:95). Both linguistics and anthropology are essentially Western disciplines that scale themselves up from provincial to universal sciences (Chakrabarty 2008). For instance, comparative linguistics depends on the expandability of the colonial project, which is best exemplified by the British colonialization of India and the discovery of Indo-European linguistics (Trautmann 1997). To understand the dialectical relationship between language classification and political agenda, it is useful to follow the recent conceptualization of scaling as pragmatics (Carr and Lempert 2016). Language classification is necessarily political in terms of both pragmatic presupposition (colonial exploration) and entailment (governing colonized territory).

It is reasonable to question the absence of intellectual agency in such an account and to reconsider one of the most intellectually triumphant moments in the development of linguistics, Bloomfield and Sapir’s adoption of the originally Indo-European comparative method to study Native American languages. As Sapir famously commented on Bloomfield’s reconstruction of Primitive Central Algonkian, their applications of neogrammarian comparative method brought “postulates of exceptionless […] autonomous phonological change” (Silverstein 2014) from mere assumptions to “proved truth.” Read more ›

Posted in 20th century, America, China, History, Linguistics

10th Conference of Missionary Linguistics, 21-24 March 2018

10th Conference of Missionary Linguistics
21-24 March 2018, Rome

The International Conference on Missionary Linguistics focuses on older texts (colonial, postcolonial, mainly from missionaries) with the following objectives: the history of linguistics, linguistic documentation, translation studies and sociocultural analysis. The aim of historical linguistics is to describe older stages of languages as well as (processes of) language change, while the history of linguistics studies early thinking on languages, linguistic typologies and structures. These studies are often interrelated with those of the cultural context in which colonial and postcolonial societies developed. Non-Western languages are our main focus.

Please send abstracts of no more than 500 words to by 1 December 2017.

For more information, see the conference website.

Posted in Announcements

Speech act theory and Georg von der Gabelentz

Forms of speech

Sven Staffeldt
University of Würzburg

1. The modernity of the ancestors

Georg von der Gabelentz

Georg von der Gabelentz
(Ezawa & Vogel 2013, 28)

There is a trend in linguistics – or maybe even in general – to reclaim the works of older authors. Older authors are sometimes used as sources of information for finding the origin of certain schools of thinking or the origin of particular assumptions. For example, feminist linguistics sees its origin in repeatedly cited parts of Fritz Mauthner’s (esp. Mauthner: 31923, 56-61) and Otto Jespersen’s (esp. Jespersen: 1925, 220-238) works (cf. Samel: 22000, 27). In phonetics and phonology reference is sometimes made to Sievers (51901) to explain tenseness as a phonetic feature (cf. Chomsky/Halle: 1968, 324 f.).

Sometimes older authors are rediscovered in their own right. The slogan that would sum up such rediscoveries is: “That has been said (or written) before (by the ancestors).” For example, Hermann Paul plays a major role in recent developments in cognitive semantics, as described by Dirk Geeraerts:

Paul’s usage-based model of semantic change fits seamless in any contemporary view on the dialectic relationship between semantics and pragmatics; and the regular patterns of metaphor and metonymy investigated in cognitive semantics may sometimes be found almost literally in the older literature.
(Geeraerts: 2010, 277)

Speech act theory can also be traced back to older authors. A major candidate for being a predecessor is Karl Bühler (Bühler: 1934), who is one of the most important sources of information for pragmatics as a whole. Besides Bühler, there are other potential candidates: Cloeren (1988) identifies 19th century German language critics as the predecessors of speech act theory. According to Burkhardt, legal philosopher Reinach (1921) developed a theory of social acts, anticipating speech act theory:

Zunächst soll jedoch die in ihren Umrissen skizzierte Geschichte der Sprechakttheorie um eine Position ergänzt werden, die wesentliche Aspekte der sprechakttheoretischen Betrachtung bereits vorwegnimmt und bisher fast völlig unbeachtet geblieben ist. Es handelt sich um die ‚Theorie der sozialen Akte‘ des Rechtsphilosophen und Husserl-Schülers Adolf Reinach, die – neben ihrer philologischen Bedeutung – geeignet ist, einige Probleme der Sprechakttheorie in neuem Lichte anzugehen.
(Burkhardt: 1986, 10)

(First of all, the history of speech act theory sketched here should be completed by a position that anticipates major aspects of speech act theory and that has gone more or less unnoticed. It is the ‘theory of social acts’ of Adolf Reinach, legal philosopher and disciple of Husserl, which, alongside its philological importance, can be applied to see some of the problems of speech act theory in a new light.)

In this post, we do not intend to rediscover Georg von Gabelentz as yet another predecessor of the speech act theory of J.L. Austin and J.R. Searle. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see if and to what degree speech act theory is foreshadowed in Gabelentz (2016/1891). The higher the degree of foreshadowing, the less clearly we can speak of a sudden pragmatic shift, coming out of nowhere, radically breaking with long-standing positions. Rather, pragmatic ideas, descriptions and claims had been in the wind for a long time and the pragmatic shift did not come out of nowhere.
Read more ›

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Posted in 19th century, Europe, History, Linguistics, Pragmatics

Vivien Law Essay Prize 2017

Vivien Law

The Vivien Law Prize is offered annually by the Henry Sweet Society for the best essay in the history of linguistic ideas. The competition is open to all currently registered students, and to scholars who have received their PhD or equivalent qualification within the last five years. Essays can be in English, French or German and up to 8000 words in length. Closing date is 30 September 2017.

Further information is available here:

Posted in Announcements

Program September-December 2017

September Speech act theory and Georg von der Gabelentz
Sven Staffeldt
University of Würzburg
October From godly analogy to “distant like floating clouds”: the inevitability of the Sino-Dene hypothesis and the scalability of comparative linguistics
Yukun Zeng
University of Chicago
November Benvenuto Terracini and the history of linguistics between the 19th and 20th century
Diego Stefanelli
University of Pavia
December Primitive languages: linguistic determinism and the description of Aranda eighty years on
David Moore
University of Western Australia
Posted in Programs

Call for papers: History of Linguistics and its Significance, ICL20, 2-6 July 2018

History of linguistics & its Significance
ICL20, International Congress of Linguists
The Dynamics of Language
2-6 July 2018, Cape Town South Africa

Workshop organiser: Camiel Hamans (, Adam Mickiewicz University

Please submit abstracts in English by 24 July 2017:

The history of linguistics as a separate and well organized discipline is relatively young. There has always been interest in the topic among individual scholars. However, till the mid-1960s linguists and students of linguistics were familiar with relatively few names of important predecessors. The 1967 Short History of Linguistics by Robert H. Robins was very short. With the publication of Cartesian Linguistics, in which Noam Chomsky tried to base his theory of generative grammar on the foundations of an earlier philosophical and linguistic tradition, research into the actual history of linguistics turned out to be not only necessary, but also proved to be a meaningful linguistic discipline in itself. The history of linguistics appeared as worthwhile as any other historical research, as evidenced by the three-volumed Landmarks in Linguistic Thought (Harris, Talbot-Taylor et al) and the also three-volumed History of the Language Sciences (Auroux, Koerner, Niederehe and Versteegh).

Within a few decades several international organizations for the study of the history of linguistics were established in Europe, North and South America, Australia and Asia. A series of international conferences has followed, together with a few specialized journals and international handbooks. However, until now the history of linguistics never managed to gain a substantive place at ICL, the world congress of linguists. A positive exception was the last ICL (Geneva 2013), where Giorgio Graffi was invited to present a plenary on the history of the relations between linguistics and psychology, and where Frederick Newmeyer organized a workshop on the legacy of de Saussure.

The aim of this workshop at ICL20 is to demonstrate that the history of linguistics is an important sub-discipline in itself and especially how research into the history of linguistics may be fruitful to linguistics as such. Contributors are invited to show how older, lesser known or forgotten linguistic theories may support modern research. In addition, papers which show how certain seemingly modern concepts have been approached and sometimes refuted in the past also are most welcome.

Emphasis in the contributions should be on the importance of the history of linguistics for current linguistic research.

Posted in Announcements

Call for papers: The circulation of linguistic and philological knowledge between Germany and the world (16th to 20th cent.), 25-27 January 2018

The goal of this conference is to gain a better understanding of transnational exchanges between the German-speaking world and the rest of the world in the fields of linguistics and philology. The period under consideration stretches from the 16th century to the 20th. We welcome proposals dealing with the history of these bi-directional transfers.

The conference will take place in Paris, 25-27 January 2018. There is no registration fee.

Dealine for submission: July 31, 2017.

Acceptance notifications: September 30, 2017.

Papers will be allowed 30 min. (+10 min. for questions).

Abstracts of 300–400 words must be submitted by e-mail as a file attachment in Word to

Abstracts should include: name and affiliation, e-mail address, title of paper, abstract (if possible on one side of A4 in a typeface no smaller than 10). In your e-mail, please indicate the following: scheduling restrictions or other special needs for your presentation; audiovisual needs; need for written letter of acceptance (or indicate if an email acceptance is sufficient). Abstracts will be anonymized and submitted to a double-blind review. The languages of the conference are English, French and German. A selection of the papers will be published.

For more information, see the conference website.

Posted in Announcements

Missionary-induced language change, on the trail of the conditional in Nafsan, central Vanuatu

Nick Thieberger
University of Melbourne

Can a missionary make a change to a language so that an existing construction is replaced by one based on English? This is what appears to have happened in Nafsan, Efate, in Vanuatu, which has independently innovated a conditional or ‘if’ construction, of the form –f, occurring in the verbal complex. The earliest witnesses of the use of the ‘if’ construction are in Christian translations, so we have no sources that express what must have been an earlier way of expressing conditionals (given that all languages in the region have conditionals of other forms). Another innovation is the term kano ‘to be unable to’. I am concerned here to discuss the methods used by missionaries in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in the mid- to late 1800s in order to understand if they could have chosen to use a new form which was then taken up by speakers to be the only conditional construction in the language.


James Cosh

Vanuatu, formerly the New Hebrides, was first occupied around 3,500 years ago and the 130 or so languages spoken there are all from the Oceanic group of Austronesian. Europeans began visiting in the late 1500s, as explorers, whalers, sandalwood traders, missionaries, and blackbirders (also known as slave traders) and eventually, in 1906, it became jointly ruled by both French and British authorities in a condominium that lasted until 1980. Disease introduced by these early contacts led to a huge loss of life, estimated as being a decimation of the population (Durand 1922), so that the population of the island of Erromango, for example, was reduced to only 400 inhabitants (Crowley 1997).

The earliest European missionary to Efate (central Vanuatu) arrived in 1863 and was a Presbyterian, and, like those who followed him, was from Scotland, either directly or via Nova Scotia. The London Missionary Society had placed missionaries elsewhere in the New Hebrides since 1839, and Samoan ‘teachers’ had been on Efate since the 1840s, many more of them than European missionaries, but with very little recorded of their experience except the fact that they were there.

An important part of their work was to translate Christian material, the first of which, a hymnal and small set of Bible translations, were printed in 1864, followed by a revised hymnal (1868), Genesis (1874), Bible texts (1875 & 1877), Apostles (1880), and John (1885). I have prepared a textual corpus of this material that is described here. I want to  explore the way in which the earliest three missionaries to Erakor and Pango villages in Efate approached the task of translation, what we can glean about how they worked with speakers, and what impact this work may have had on the use of the language Nafsan (also known as South Efate). Read more ›

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