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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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

Missionary linguistics and the German contribution to Central Australian language research and fieldwork 1890-1910

David Moore
University of Western Australia


This article explores the outstanding contribution of German Lutheran missionaries to linguistics, language documentation and translation in Aboriginal languages in Central Australia from the last decade of the nineteenth century to the years leading up to the First World War. The Hermannsburg missionaries compiled texts, grammars, dictionaries and translations of Aboriginal languages. The Hermannsburg missionaries laid the groundwork for this linguistic work, establishing the Hermannsburg mission in 1877. Hermann Kempe pioneered language description of the Aranda (Arrernte, Arrarnta) language. The Neuendettelsau missionaries however were more highly trained in languages and undertook more extensive linguistic work. Missionary Carl Strehlow (1871-1922) worked at the Hermannsburg mission from 1894 until his death in 1922. Read more ›

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, Australia, Field linguistics, History, Linguistics, Missionary Linguistics

Ludwig Noiré and the Debate on Language Origins in the 19th Century

Jacopo D’Alonzo
Sorbonne Nouvelle & Sapienza Università di Roma

Renato Guttuso, Contadini al lavoro

Renato Guttuso, Contadini al lavoro. Source


Linguistic naturalism was one of the main positions taken in linguistic research during the 19th century (for France, see Auroux 1984 and Desmet 1996; for England, see Aarsleff 1983; for Germany, see Knobloch 1988). Although the origin of language is a traditional question of linguistic reflection, linguistic naturalism paid special attention to this topic. According to Auroux (1989, 123), the 19th century was one of the most fruitful periods in the history of the question of language origins. But the 19th Century was also the epoch of the well-known official interdiction of that topic promoted by the Linguistic Society of Paris (Société de Linguistique de Paris, founded in 1866). Article 2 of its constitution states, “the Society does not admit any communication regarding language origins as well as the creation of a universal language” (quoted by Auroux 1989, 123). The scepticism concerning that topic was not limited to France. In 1873 the president of Philological Society in Britain, Alexander J. Elis (1814-1890), declared the question of language origins to be “out of the field of philology proper” (quoted by Aarsleff 1983, 230).

Such scepticism was almost certainly reinforced by the main goal of linguistics during the 19th century. Linguistics wanted to appear as a science and to strengthen its own academic position (Auroux 1989). Questions of a more philosophical nature, such the origins of language, were officially left out. Nonetheless, almost all of linguists, anthropologists, psychologists, biologists and sociologists of the period were more or less interested in the issue of language origins.

Among the scholars who tackled topics of this kind, the German philosopher Ludwig Noiré (1829-1889) deserves special mention. Noiré’s theory appears as one of the most eccentric in that Noiré linked language origins with collective labour. To him, the unique sociability of humans implies cooperation and in turn cooperation involves language. Remarkably, Noiré’s theory deeply influenced the debate on language origins until the 1950s. Noiré’s theory was also mentioned by scholars who did not directly deal with the question of language origins but needed a provisional theory of language origins which would be suitable for their theoretical aims. To give a few examples, Noiré’s theory was meticulously described by Steinthal ([1851] 1888), Plekhanov ([1907] 1976), Mauthner (19122), Bogdanov ([1923] 2015), Cassirer (198013), Jespersen (1922), Janet (1934) and others. Some traces of Noiré’s theory could be seen in no less than the theory of language origins suggested by the Vietnamese philosopher Trần Đức Thảo (1917-1993). Thảo’s theory, set out in his Phenomenology and Dialectical Materialism (1951), clearly reflected the influence of Noiré’s account. In this case, a philosopher who was interested in a dialectical-materialist theory of the human being argued for a theory of language origins somehow similar to Noiré’s one (see Thảo [1951] 1985, 169-170).

Before offering some theoretical and historical explanations for the enduring influence of Noiré’s theory, it is necessary to describe the general features of his theory and the context in which it arose. After dealing with the German-English debate on language origins during the 19th century, a section will be especially devoted to Noiré’s theory of language origins. Finally, we will suggest a comparison between Noiré’s insight and the naturalistic framework of the 19th century. Read more ›

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

The Chilean Academy of the Spanish Language: the institutionalization of a discourse community

Darío Rojas
University of Chile

Library of the Instituto de Chile. Source

Library of the Instituto de Chile. Source

In the present entry, I will make an initial case for the thesis that the Academia Chilena de la Lengua (Chilean Academy of the Spanish Language, from this point forward “Chilean Academy”), founded in 1885, has as its precursor a discourse community which, from the beginnings of the second half of the 19th century, interacted by means of various types of metalinguistic discourses (primarily dictionaries). Through these discourses, the members of this discourse community reproduced and transmitted a historically contextualized version of the standard language ideology (Milroy & Milroy 1999) applied to the Spanish language. This ideology developed naturally amid the political processes of constructing the nation-state of Chile, initiated in the first half of the century. Read more ›

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, America, Chile, History, Language teaching, Lexicography, Linguistics, Spanish