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
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

Praxeology and language: Social science as the study of human action

Daniel W. Hieber
University of California, Santa Barbara


Since the formulation and elaboration of speech act theory by Grice (1957; 1969), Austin (1962) and Searle (1962) as part of the ordinary language movement in philosophy,[1] the linguistics community has by and large adopted the consensus that speech is a variety of action.[2] Speakers use language to accomplish goals in the social world. Linguists of course differ on what precisely this means, what its implications are, and the extent to which they believe it is relevant to their particular subfield. However, even linguists who focus very little on the social or pragmatic dimensions of language acknowledge this essential fact (cf. Chomsky’s view that the use of language is “an exercise of free will” [McGilvray 2009:2]). This observation is the foundational principle of the fields of pragmatics and sociocultural linguistics, and has contributed significantly to linguistic anthropology, sociolinguistics, discourse, and conversation analysis, among others.

Yet linguistics and the philosophy of language are not the only fields to take interest in the notion of language as action, nor are they even the first.[3] In the decades before the ordinary language philosophers, it was the economists of the Austrian school (known for its subjective value theory [Menger 1976], formulating the problem of economic calculation [von Mises 1990], and for initiating the marginalist revolution in economics [von Böhm-Bawerk 1890]) who wrote about the nature of language as a system driven by individuals acting at various social ends. Though they did not write about language and action with the kind of systematicity that the ordinary language philosophers or early sociocultural linguists such as Hymes (1962) did, the collected body of works in the Austrian school show a consistent appreciation for and exposition of the nature of language as action, with Mises himself noting that “[a] language is not simply a collection of phonetic signs. It is an instrument of thinking and acting” (von Mises 1957:232). To the Austrians, as we shall see, the study of language is simply one subfield within a broader field of study that encompasses all the social sciences: praxeology, or the science of human action. What unites the disparate fields of economics, linguistics, sociology, and history is that they share as their object of study the actions of individuals aiming at various ends within the context of society. The enduring contribution of the Austrian economists to other social sciences is their systematic treatment of this broader science of human action, in which they construct the theoretical and methodological foundation for the entirety of social science.

Naturally, the immediate concern of the Austrian economists was to apply this new praxeological science to the problems of economics, leaving the other social sciences largely unexplored (though Mises’ [1957] later work concerning praxeological approaches to history, and more recent scholarship by Cantor & Cox [2009] concerning literature, Hieber [2013] concerning language, and Reid [2012a; 2012b] concerning anthropology). This article is therefore a first attempt to apply the insights of praxeology to the field of linguistics. In some cases, praxeological analysis yields new insight into the problems of linguistics. In others, it merely affirms our existing understanding of linguistic phenomena. Yet the fact that praxeological findings accord with the body of knowledge in linguistics not only lends greater credence and support to the findings of both fields, but also allows us to connect our understanding of language to broader principles pertaining to the social sciences as a whole, thereby relating phenomena previously thought to be disparate and unrelated into a more cohesive, encompassing framework, both within linguistics and across the social sciences. Read more ›

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Posted in Linguistics, Philosophy, Pragmatics

Joseph Greenberg’s comparative notebooks

Judith Kaplan
University of Pennsylvania

In John Webster Spargo’s 1931 translation of Holger Pedersen’s contribution to the genre of Disziplingeschichte, readers are introduced to a legion of mostly well-bearded men, marching toward the ‘discovery’ of the Comparative Method. Summing up his approach to nineteenth-century developments, Pedersen writes: “Evolution of method and expansion of material went on side by side, with constant reciprocal influence. But in the following treatment, the two sides of the growth of our science will be considered separately.”[1] This way of writing the history of linguistics—differentiating substrate from substance—has had enduring appeal, with emphasis given primarily to the latter. In what follows, I attempt to reunite the material and intellectual ‘sides’ of linguistic research, paying attention to the ‘constant reciprocal influence’ between Joseph Greenberg’s (1915-2001) comparative notebooks, on the one hand, and his inclusive genetic hypotheses, on the other.

Greenberg’s training, like his subsequent linguistic research, was staggeringly broad by contemporary standards. Not only was he an accomplished musician (see the previous hiphilangsci post for more on the productive exchange between music and linguistics), his work bore the imprint of early exposure to American structuralism, European structuralism, comparative-historical linguistics, logical positivism, and cultural anthropology as well.[2] Furthermore, Greenberg was committed to exploring intersections between (what came to be) linguistics and various allied disciplines, which provided crucial reinforcements to his own theories in return. As he wrote in the preface to Essays in Linguistics in 1957:

In the nature of things, problems as diverse as those dealt with here often have solutions which do not depend on one another. If there is any single point of view that runs through the whole, it is that further substantial progress in linguistics requires the abandonment of its traditional isolationism, one for which there was formerly much justification, in favor of a willingness to explore connections in other directions. The borderline areas most prominent in the present essays are those with logic, mathematics, anthropology, and psychology, but of course, others exist.[3]

Autonomy was won from philology and anthropology only to beg the question of their newly interdisciplinary significance. Despite such breadth of research outlook, Greenberg is best remembered for two contributions—to linguistic typology and genetic classification. Nor were these disconnected. As others have noted, Greenberg regarded the work of genetic classification as a necessary preliminary to typological analysis, in which he sought to identify universal phenomena through constraints on cross-linguistic variation (ranging over distinct family and areal groupings, once established), rather than cross-linguistic uniformity.[4]

My remarks in what follows will focus on three of Greenberg’s genetic studies—concerning the Indo-Pacific, Amerind, and Eurasian hypotheses—setting to one side his most celebrated work on the languages of Africa.[5] Each one of these cases represents Greenberg’s irrepressible research style. As he told Peter Thomas in a 1994 interview looking back on the African classification, “I’m attracted…to areas of the world in which classification has not yet been accomplished to people’s satisfaction. There are always new etymologies to be discovered…it’s very much like detective work.”[6] Just how was this detective work to be carried out? He continued,

In Africa…it seemed to me that the sensible thing was to actually look at all of the languages. I usually had preliminary notebooks in which I took those elements of a language, which, on the whole, we know are the most stable over time…I would look at a very large number of languages in regard to these matters, and I did find that they fell into quite obvious groupings.

Two aspects of this recollection stand out to me: Greenberg’s allusion to the controversial method of multilateral comparison, and his introduction of the comparative notebooks. Read more ›

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

The Prague Linguistic Circle and the Analogy between Musicology and Linguistics

Bart Karstens
University of Amsterdam

Prager Presse

In recent historiography an upsurge in interest in the interaction between academic disciplines can be seen. This is in no small part due to the rise of the history of humanities as a specialized field of study.[1] On the one hand, writing a comprehensive history of the humanities is motivated by the idea that in some sense the humanistic disciplines form a whole and without general perspectives we cannot gain a proper understanding of the history of the separate disciplines that together constitute the humanistic spectrum.[2] On the other hand, there is the broader aim to integrate the history of the humanities with mainstream history of science and for this to happen the history of humanities should first become clearly recognizable as a respectable field of study. We are still a long way off from an integrated historiography of all knowledge-making disciplines, as the humanities have been largely neglected in historiography of science, and this attitude is not easy to overcome.[3]

An integrated picture may emerge through an analysis of connections between knowledge-making disciplines that have been established in the past. These connections are ultimately the result of the epistemic transfer of ideas, methods, experimental practices, teaching models, etc. Consider the case of the encounter between Roman Jakobson and Claude Lévi-Strauss in New York in 1941, where both were in exile at the time. As is well known, Lévi-Strauss acquired the structuralist method of analyzing kinship relations through his contact with Jakobson, who had been among the founders of structuralism in linguistics.[4] Consequently, structuralism had an enormous impact on anthropology, and from there also on a host of other disciplines. It is thus impossible to gain a proper understanding of modern anthropology without taking into account the epistemic transfer that took place between linguistics and anthropology in the 1940s.

The history of linguistics may potentially serve as a useful laboratory to study the interaction between disciplines, as the past has shown abundant cross-over between linguistics and a great variety of other fields, including biology, philosophy, computer science and psychology (to name just a few), with linguistics being on both the sending and receiving end of communication. This has of course not gone unnoticed in historiography of the language sciences, but may gain renewed importance when put in broader perspective.[5] The expertise of historians of linguistics can in this way also potentially reach a wider audience. Moreover, our analysis and assessment of the importance of the relation(s) between linguistics and other disciplines may still be incomplete. An example is the birth of historical and comparative linguistics in the 19th century. About this Morpurgo Davies writes: “In Germany, but also elsewhere, organic metaphors are often accompanied by references to the natural sciences and/or to the scientific character of the new linguistics. How important is the connection? How much did Friedrich Schlegel and his followers know about the sciences? How influential were these in the development of the new linguistics? A full enquiry is still a desideratum.”[6] Read more ›

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Posted in 20th century, Europe, History, Linguistics, Phonology

La langue de Boas. Quelques remarques à propos de l’écriture de Franz Boas.

Chloé Laplantine
UMR 7597 – Laboratoire Histoire des Théories Linguistiques, Université Paris Diderot

header illustration

F. Boas posant en train de représenter un chasseur de phoque inuit (Minden, Allemagne, 1885)

As we require a new point of view now, so future times will require new points of view and for these the texts, and ample texts, must be made available.[1]
Comme nous avons besoin d’un nouveau point de vue maintenant, et de la même manière les temps futurs auront besoin de nouveaux points de vue et pour ceux-là les textes, et beaucoup de textes, doivent être rendus accessibles.

En dehors de l’ouvrage Primitive art (traduit en 2003), l’œuvre de Franz Boas n’a jusqu’à maintenant pas été traduite en français[2]. La réception du travail de Boas en France est très mince et réservée certainement aux étudiants en ethnologie (ce qui participe aussi à la réduction de l’envergure de cette œuvre). Dans son article « Histoire et ethnologie » (1949), qui deviendra l’introduction de Anthropologie structurale, Claude Lévi Strauss avait donné à lire en traduction différents passages de textes de Boas. Mais en dehors de cet important écho, et de cet effort de passage en français, Boas reste en France un inconnu lu en anglais et par bribes. Pour ce qui est de sa réflexion linguistique, il est celui qui parle de la neige, et des phoques.

F. Boas a ré-organisé l’étude des langues amérindiennes (à la suite du Major J.W. Powell), en établissant une méthode neuve d’analyse, et l’« Introduction » du Handbook (texte de 83 pages) est le texte-manifeste de ce projet, dans lequel il enrôle ses disciples et collègues. L’une des nouveautés du projet linguistique de Boas est l’abandon du modèle de la grammaire latine, pour une grammaire analytique écrite depuis le point de vue amérindien : the grammar has been treated as though an intelligent Indian was going to develop the forms of his own thoughts by ananalysis of his own form of speech. (p.81[3]) – « la grammaire a été traitée comme si un Indien intelligent se mettait à développer les formes de ses propres pensées par une analyse de sa propre forme de discours ».

Le travail de traduction rend inévitablement sensible à la manière d’écrire d’un auteur. Chez Franz Boas, cette manière d’écrire n’est pas séparable de la manière d’aborder les problèmes. En lisant et traduisant l’« Introduction » du Handbook of American Indian Languages (travail en collaboration avec Andrew Eastman), on remarque que la théorie du point de vue que Franz Boas développe, et qui constitue un argument majeur contre les théories racistes ou banalement ethnocentriques de son époque, n’est pas séparable d’une écriture du point de vue.

L’anglais n’est pas la langue native de Boas ; son anglais n’est ni idiomatique ni esthétique (à tel point que la traduction peut être difficile car on traduit un anglais un peu limité), néanmoins, aussi limité qu’il soit, répétitif, aussi lourd parfois, on doit reconnaître que la manière d’écrire de Boas est la mise en œuvre et l’enseignement d’une méthodologie du travail en sciences humaines et qu’on aurait du mal à vouloir qu’elle soit différente. Read more ›

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, America, Field linguistics, History, Linguistics

Program February-June 2017

[Program updated 16 February 2017]

La langue de Boas. Quelques remarques à propos de l’écriture de Franz Boas.
Chloé Laplantine
Laboratoire d’Histoire des Théories Linguistiques
CNRS-Université Paris Diderot
The Prague Linguistic Circle and the analogy between musicology and linguistics
Bart Karstens
University of Amsterdam
Joseph Greenberg’s comparative notebooks
Judith Kaplan
University of Pennsylvania
Praxeology and language: Social science as the study of human action
Daniel William Hieber
University of California, Santa Barbara
Missionary-induced language change, on the trail of the conditional in Nafsan, central Vanuatu
Nick Thieberger
University of Melbourne
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Posted in Programs

Mapping Language: linguistic cartography as a topic for the history of science

Jan David Braun
University of Vienna

Karte des deutschen Reiches

Map of Deutscher Volks- und Kulturboden, by Albrecht Penck (design) and Arnold Hillen Ziegfeld (cartographer; Penck 1925: 73).


Beginning with the history of cartography, this paper will first discuss the development of spatial thinking in different scientific contexts. It will then deal with the practice of linguistic mapping in German dialectology. As dialectology is by definition the discipline that investigates the spread of language in geographic space, it is clear that we have to consider the connection of geographic and, of course, cartographic disciplines with variety linguistics. Astonishingly, this connection is not yet an established object of research, neither for the history of science nor for the history of cartography. But the links between dialectology, cartography and geography are fundamental, going beyond their common spatial orientation and external — i.e. institutional — circumstances.

This relation is also quite obvious if we consider the various multidisciplinary projects on which linguists and geographers worked together in the 20th century, along with researchers from other, not primarily linguistic disciplines in the humanities, such as history, ethnology and archaeology. In these Gemeinschaftsarbeiten (community works), as they were later called, various thematic atlases were produced and published that showed the linkage of scientific, political, territorial and expansionist thinking in the period from the 1920s to the 1940s in German dialectology and other disciplines of the humanities. This way of thinking was not some kind of state political instruction coming from “above”: it can be detected in the disciplinary works of both dialectology and geography since the territorial losses after Word War I and the decreased self-esteem of all scientists who called themselves “German” and embraced nationalistic thought. This can also be seen in the shift of 1920s academic geographers from pure physical geography to so-called “cultural geography”, which sought to study the Volksboden (soil of the people) and Kulturboden (soil of the culture). In the resulting Volks- und Kulturbodentheorie (theory of the soil of the people and of the culture), an undeniably political notion emerged in the idea of German Lebensraum (living space) in Eastern Europe, a notion that was motivated and justified by the apparent existence of German settlements in Eastern Europe since the time of the great migrations in the early middle ages. At this point, dialectological research, language historical research etc. came to underpin the expansion of the Third Reich into Eastern Europe.

In order to additionally provide a contemporary insight into current spatial thinking in dialectology, relatively new methodological and theoretical developments in the field will be presented: with the emergence of cognitive maps and the research of perceptual dialectology we can see partly a shift (or theoretical supplement) in the discipline from the problematic image of objective dialect areas to a rather constructivist view consisting of an understanding that attitudes and subjective perception of dialect produce the space that we want to observe and that it is by no means a representation of the “real” space.

Nevertheless, the desideratum of a theoretical and historical reflection of the common but less criticized use of dialect maps and dialect atlases still remains. Read more ›

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Posted in 20th century, Austria, Dialectology, Europe, Germany, History, Linguistics