Discussing Disciplinary Development: The role of the First International Congress of Linguists (1928) in the formation of the discipline of general linguistics

Emma Mojet
University of Amsterdam

krantenfoto eerste linguïstencongres

Newspaper cutting from Leidsch Dagblad, 1928, on the opening of the First International Congress of Linguists in The Hague. On the first row, from left to right, J. Schrijnen, C.C. Uhlenbeck, P. Kretschmer, A. Meillet, and S. Feist.

Why congresses?

The organisation of an international congress of a discipline marks a noteworthy stage in the development of a discipline. Taking a broader perspective, the many first disciplinary congresses held around 1900 also mark a significant stage in the institutionalisation and internationalisation of the disciplinary system in general. Historians have signalled a “wave of congresses” being held in numerous disciplines in both the humanities and the sciences throughout the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth century. [1] Indeed, as Pascale Rabault-Feuerhahn and Wolf Feuerhahn show, the number of congresses in the nineteenth century is dizzying. [2] In another paper, Rabault-Feuerhahn gives an enumeration of reasons for the this phenomenon: improvement of transport and information infrastructure, foundation of intellectual societies on a national level, and rapid specialisations within disciplines. [3] The trend started in 1798 with the Congress on Definitive Metric Standards in Paris and fits in with the processes of modern discipline formation which are commonly attributed to the nineteenth century. [4]

At the congresses of the various disciplines, the scholars of the field from different nationalities would come together and discuss the status, future course and central problems of their discipline. In this way, the congresses were a means to go beyond the national backgrounds of the scholars and start to normalise the methods of the discipline. Certain theories or practices were validated thanks to the gathering of an international community, something which failed in the separate national contexts. The international congress could function as a judge in such cases. [5]

On the other hand, scholars could use the international congresses as a tool to show off not only their scholarship but also their country. Official representatives often honoured the congress with their presence and the hosts organised banquets and excursions to entertain the members of the congress in their country. Unsurprisingly for the prevailing nationalistic tendencies of the nineteenth century, nationalities definitely did play a role at the international congresses. International congresses could become a political tool, to endorse and to advertise national scholarship.

Not only do “the congresses define the discipline by defining who can and who cannot participate”, as Rabault-Feuerhahn and Feuerhahn claim, “but they also have the ambition to bring together once again the various options and subfields of the discipline. The return to an overall perspective is fundamental and studying this gives an insight in processes of professionalisation and discipline formation.” [6] Indeed, the scholars assembling at international congresses came from different backgrounds, both with respect to nationality and disciplinarity. At the congress, scholars from different subfields met and exchanged ideas, research and methods. We can thus see the congress as a site of communication. Even though the congresses played prominent roles in the development of specific disciplines, we need to study the congress from a multidisciplinary point of view to study the influence of cross-disciplinary interactions. As Bart Karstens argued in his post of March 2017, the history of linguistics provides a useful laboratory for this kind of research.

This blog post discusses the first International Congress of Linguists, held in The Hague in 1928. We will look at who organised and who attended the congress, what topics were dealt with, and what the linguists decided as the international organisation of their discipline. This will tell us more about the development of the discipline of general linguistics. As we will see, the scholars gathered from different countries and had different academic backgrounds and interests. These backgrounds ranged from philology to anthropology, and from dialectology to psychology, illustrating the multidisciplinary background of the discipline of general linguistics. Even though the scholars were all working on the study of language, they had different intents for and views of the methods used in the discipline. At the congress, these all came together and were debated.

Organising the Congress

The initial goal of the first International Congress of Linguists was to unite, for the first time, linguists from different parts of the field and to discuss a number of issues together. The congress was organised by professors Jos. Schrijnen (1869-1938) and Christianus Uhlenbeck (1866-1951), who were both working at the newly established Catholic University of Nijmegen at the time. In one of the few articles on this congress, Saskia Daalder claims that it was actually Antoine Meillet’s (1866-1936) idea to organise such a meeting. [7] Meillet’s ideal of internationalism in academia, which was shared by many scholars at the time, adds an extra dimension to the congress. Meillet’s student Alf Sommerfelt notes in a piece commemorating Meillet that Meillet became very interested in the international organisation of linguists. Even after the atrocities of the Great War, when even the academic world was divided into winners and losers, Meillet “maintained his quiet, objective and dispassionate judgment of German scholarship”, Sommerfelt remembers. [8] It therefore seems plausible that Meillet had suggested the organisation of an international congress. The Netherlands had been neutral during the War, and, during the interbellum, Dutch scholars took the task of reuniting the international community upon them. The organisation of this congress can be seen within this role. [9]

Antoine Meillet

Antoine Meillet (1866-1936).
Source picture: Wikimedia Commons (2018).

The Congress of Linguists was held from the 10th to the 15th of April 1928. A year in advance, in March 1927, Schrijnen and Uhlenbeck sent a letter to a large number of linguists from different countries to announce their plan to organise a first international congress. They wrote that the goal of the congress would be to meet each other in order to discuss the interests of their science and hopefully to find solutions for a number of practical questions. [10] In the letter they stated that the questions within the language sciences were becoming more and more general, multiple fields of research were coming together and becoming one general linguistics:

Étant donné que les différents subdivisions de la linguistique, qui est bien une science une et indivisible, ne sauraient être rigoureusement séparées les unes des autres et que, d’ailleurs, pratiquement les recherches dans chacun de ces domaines aboutissent de plus en plus à une linguistique générale. [11]

To structure the congress, Schrijnen and Uhlenbeck sent out six practical problems. The addressees were invited to respond and, by means of an answer, they formulated a series of propositions, 42 in total. The responses and propositions were once again distributed to the participants as preparation for the congress itself. During the days of the congress, there were five plenary sessions and a number of separate sessions. Every session had a president and a secretary. The plenary sessions would determine which groups should get together for separate discussions. The discussions of the separate sessions were subsequently presented again at the plenary session. All notes and reports from the congress were collected and edited by a specially appointed committee. The committee consisted of Cornelis de Boer (1880-1957), Jacobus van Ginneken (1877-1945) and Anton Gerard van Hamel (1886-1945). [12] The Actes du Premier Congrès de Linguistes. Tenu à la Haye du 10-15 Avril 1928 were published in 1930 in Leiden.


The six problems which were sent to the linguists were: 1) finding a basis for phonetic notations, 2) establishment and delimitation of technical terms, 3) methods of research for linguistic geography, 4) methods for studying a certain grammar, 5) the relation between past and present cultural domains to specific words and phonetics, morphological and syntactic particularities, and 6) research methods when philology is not sufficient. [13] These six practical problems show that the linguists were discussing research methods for their discipline. International congresses of other disciplines adhered to a similar trend. The existence of a central methodological topic, namely chemical nomenclature, also governed the first international congress of chemists in Karlsruhe, 1860. At the first international congress of orientalists in 1873, the participants debated the definition of their research topic, the Orient. First official meetings of international scholars prompted discussions on methodological topics.

The study of language had undergone a shift following the publication of the Cours de Linguistique Générale, a posthumous work of Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), published from students notes in 1916 by Charles Bally (1865-1947) and Albert Sechehaye (1870-1946). The Cours set out a new theoretical framework which became influential in the discipline of general linguistics. One main point of this framework, the principle of a synchronic study of language, was already a trend among scholars of general linguistics of which Saussure’s work became an important part. The task for the linguists was to look for methods and approaches to adapt the theories to their research. We can place the endeavours of the congress within the context of a turn towards a synchronic study of language.


As is noted in the Actes, 309 people expressed their interest in the First International Congress of Linguists, but it is unclear whether all these people were present. The Actes‘ list is not an attendance list, but a list of ‘members’: those who supported or were interested in the congress and wanted to be kept up to date. On the basis of the Liste des membres, we can establish that almost all scholars were working in European countries, except for eight scholars in America and one in South Africa. The spread over Europe is not very equal: looking at the top five shows 109 Netherlands based scholars, 47 in Germany, 26 in France, 12 in Italy and 12 in the United Kingdom. The age range at the Congress runs from 18 to 92, where most scholars are in their forties or fifties.

map members working 1928

Map of places where members of the First International Congress of Linguists were working in 1928.
Map created using mapsdata.co.uk, May 2017.

age distribution members

Distribution of the ages of the participants.

As for the different backgrounds of the scholars, which we determined from the research they were working on and the chairs they occupied around 1928: most study specific languages or philology. We can also distinguish a group of already distinguished general linguists, like Bally and Sechehaye, but also Meillet and members of the Prague School of linguists, such as Roman Jakobson, Serge Karcevski, Vilém Mathesius, Bohumil Trnka, and Nikolai Troubetzkoy . But not only general linguists were interested in the congress. A number of anthropologists, dialectologists, and ethnologists also joined the list including Franz Boas, Wilhelm Schmidt, Karl Jaberg, Casimir Nitsch, Paul Rivet, Leonard Bloomfield, and Ferdinand Hestermann. These scholars all had an explicit interest in the study of language, but came to the congress with different interests and aims. Some studied the more social aspects of language and linguistic change, where others worked on historical-comparative and philological problems. The assembly of these different views was a main goal of the congress. It shows the multidisciplinarity of the study of language. When debating the use of the questionnaire as a research method, for example, the scholars who were more inclined towards the social sciences shared their experiences with the method with other scholars.

There were also 35 female visitors at the congress. Of these 15 were wives or daughters accompanying another member of the congress, six were nuns who were enrolled at the Catholic University of Nijmegen, and the remaining 14 were scholars. Some notable names are phonetician Louise Kaiser (1891-1973), Africanist Maria Klingenheben-von Tiling (1886-1974), classicist Christine Mohrmann (1903-1988), psychotherapist Marguerite Sechehaye (née Burdet) (1887-1964), and celtologist Maria-Louise Sjöstedt (1900-1940).


Rounding up the congress, the linguists compiled a list of decisions that were made, categorised into four main points. First, the congress established a permanent international committee – now known as CIPL, “Comité International Permanent des Linguistes” – consisting of a general secretary and ten other members. The permanent committee’s task was to organise an international congress every three years and appoint a president for the congress. The first members of the permanent committee were Bally, Boas, Carl Brockelmann, Otto Jespersen, Daniel Jones, Bernhard Karlgren, Paul Kretschmer, Meillet, Jan Rozwadowsky, and Alfredo Trombetti, with Schrijnen as the general secretary. Second, the congress decided to submit a request to several governments and national academic societies. The request pertained to the issue that languages and dialects worldwide were becoming extinct. In order to preserve and map all the current languages, the congress proposed to administer a questionnaire in various countries. An international committee was instituted to oversee this project, of which the members were Boas, Rivet, Matteo Bartoli, Jaberg, Schmidt, Sommerfelt, and Nikolai Jakovlef. Third decision on the list was to start using an international index for books on linguistics which were important in the discipline. To make this as general as possible, the congress suggested to consult linguists and decided that the permanent committee would administer the responses. The fourth decision of the congress was to create a review journal on the subject of phonetics, directed by Hubert Pernot in Paris. The congress also nominated an international committee of editors for this journal.

The four decisions signalled a change within the discipline of linguistics. Linguists were organising their discipline internationally. This included a permanent international committee with subcommittees, a series of congresses, and journals. The increase of international organisation was an important stage in the establishing of an autonomous and professional discipline of general linguistics. As Schrijnen concluded in his closing speech:

La linguistique était devenue depuis longtemps une science autonome, elle s’était créé des organes, des chaires d’université, des sociétés propres ; mais cette semaine-ci, pour la première fois, elle a, au grand jour et devant le forum du monde entier, plaidé ses propres causes, arrangé ses propres affaires, défendu ses propres intérêts, fait signe de sa vie, de son esprit, de sa mentalité propre. [14]

The organisers of the congress entertained their guests with a programme of festivities. This included a visit to Amsterdam, a tour through the tulip bulb fields by car, a reception with various ministers, a car trip to Rotterdam where they visited the harbour, and a banquet. Here we see the ‘informal’ part of the congress. As Rabault-Feuerhahn and Feuerhahn note, scholars at times benefit more from the informal meetings and discussions at congresses than the plenary or topical sessions. [15] These interactions are more difficult to trace than the formal meetings of which we have notes and reports. Even though it would be great to know exactly who sat next to whom during the banquets or who shared a car with whom, we might be able to find only traces of such interactions through personal correspondences.

Subsequent Congresses

The first international congress of linguists was the start of a series of international congresses of linguists, of which the twentieth meeting will be held in Cape Town in July 2018. The second congress was organised in Geneva by the famous Saussurian scholars Bally and Sechehaye in 1931. The main points of the congress were on the one hand of a methodological nature again, namely to discuss the improvement of technical aids to research and publications, such as an agreed terminology, bibliographies, and the classification of material, and the advisability and practicability of an auxiliary international language. The other half of the topics were more on linguistic content, on the new theories in phonetics and phonology and the relations of the Indo-European family of languages with other families of speech. At the second international congress of linguists, the members of the Prague School were the important speakers. While these scholars had tentatively presented themselves as a group at the first congress in The Hague, now the Prague School confidently took the stage with their programme of structuralism.

We see the same phenomenon at the third international congress, in Rome in 1933. Now the main questions are almost only about linguistic content, a lot more than in the previous two congresses, where central attention was on methodological questions. A large part of the congress was devoted to phonetic symbolism, a topic which the Prague School linguists predominantly focussed on. As for the fourth international congress, held in Copenhagen in 1936, the organisers decided to not send out practical problems anymore, but instead divided the submitted topics into categories for the congress itself. As a consequence, very few talks at the fourth congress were explicitly on methodological topics.

Lining up these congresses shows a development of the discipline of general linguistics through some of its crucial stages of international organisation. While at first the topics were mostly methodological, the balance shifted towards sharing the content of newest research projects. This shift can be explained within the context of a discipline which is becoming more professional and institutionalised on an international scale, going beyond large methodological issues and concentrating on content.


In this blog post, we have examined the event of the first international congress of linguists. As part of a wave of scientific congresses in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the congress touches upon a number of themes which appeal to historians of knowledge. The scholarly ideal of internationalism is clearly present at the congress, since an explicit goal of the congress is to bring about international connections between linguists. The international connections go on to play a role in the organisation of the discipline, in the form of committees and international projects. The wish to preserve and map all of the world’s languages and dialects serves as an example of an international project, which unfortunately seems to have perished after the Second World War.

Apart from the internationalisation of the discipline, the discipline of linguistics also saw some content-related changes thanks to the methodological discussions at the congress. The assembly of scholars not only had an international background, but also came from different academic fields and subfields. This highlights the multidisciplinary foundation and the cross-disciplinary interactions which played an important role in the formation of the discipline of general linguistics. Developments in the discipline – both organisational and content-related – come to the fore through the historical study of the first international congresses.

How to cite this post

Mojet, Emma. 2018. Discussing Disciplinary Development: The role of the First International Congress of Linguists (1928) in the formation of the discipline of general linguistics. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.


[1] Fuchs, E. (2001) “The Politics of the Republic of Learning: International Scientific Congresses in Europe, the Pacific Rim, and Latin America” in: Across Cultural Borders: Historiography in Global Perspective. Edited by E. Fuchs & B. Stuchtey. Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 205-244, p. 2; and Feuerhahn, W. & Rabault-Feuerhahn, R. (2010) “Présentation: la science à l’échelle internationale” in : Revue germanique internationale, 12, pp. 5-15, p. 8.

[2] Feuerhahn & Rabault-Feuerhahn (2010), p. 11.

[3] Rabault-Feuerhahn, P. (2016) “Orientalistenkongresse. Mündliche Formen der philologischen Zusammerarbeit – Funktionen, Probleme und historische Entwicklung” in: Symphilogie. Formen der Kooperation in den Geesteswissenschaften. Edited by S. Stockhorst, M. Lepper & V. Hoppe, V&R unipress, pp. 101-121, p. 104.

[4] Crosland, M. (1969) “The Congress on Definitive Metric Standards, 1798-1799: The First International Scientific Conference?” in: Isis, 60(2), pp. 226-231. For mention of congresses in this context, see: Feuerhahn & Rabault-Feuerhahn (2010). On processes of discipline formation, see: Stichweh, R. (1992) “The Sociology of Scientific Disciplines: On the Genesis and Stability of the Disciplinary Structure of Modern Science.” In: Science in Context, 5, pp 3-15; and Cunningham, A. & Williams, P. (1993) “De-centring the ‘big picture’: The Origins of Modern Science and the modern origins of science” in: The British Journal for the History of Science, 26(04), pp 407-432.

[5] Feuerhahn & Rabault-Feuerhahn (2010), p 10-11.

[6] Feuerhahn & Rabault-Feuerhahn (2010), p 11. Own translation.

[7] Daalder, S. (2004) “Achter de schermen van een congress: Het eerste Internationale Linguïstencongres (Den Haag, 1928)” in: Voortgang, Jaargang 22, pp 315-321, p 318.

[8] Sommerfelt, A. (1966) “Antoine Meillet, the Scholar and the Man” in: Portrait of Linguists. A Biographical Source Book of the History of Western Linguistics, 1746-1963. Volume Two: From Eduard Sievers to Benjamin Lee Whorf. Edited by T. A. Sebeok, Indiana University Press, pp. 241-248, p. 247-8.

[9] The Netherlands also hosted the 9th version of the modern Olympic Games in Amsterdam, which is indicative of the role the Netherlands fulfilled during these years on an international scale. This was already explicitly mentioned in the invitation letter for the Congress of Linguists. Actes du Premier Congrès de Linguistes. Tenu à la Haye du 10-15 Avril, 1928. Published by A.W. Sijthoff (1930), Leiden, p vi.

[10] “que les linguistes des différents pays se réunissent afin de discuter ensemble des intérêts de leur science et d’arriver, si possible, à un accord sur un certain nombre de questions pratiques.” Actes (1930) p v.

[11] Actes (1930), p vii.

[12] Actes (1930), p viii.

[13] 1) “Quelles doivent être les bases d’une notation phonétique ? a. Valeur de la phonétique expérimentale. b. Système de transcription et de signes phoniques.” 2) “Etablissement et délimitation des termes techniques. Quelle est la traduction exacte des termes techniques dans les différentes langues (français, anglais, allemand) ?” 3) “Quelles sont les meilleures méthodes de recherche en géographie linguistique ? a. Valeur des cartes, questionnaires, gramophones et des recherches sur place. b. L’aspect géographique de la lexicographie et de la stylistique.” 4) “Quelles sont les méthodes les mieux appropriées à un exposé complet et pratique de la grammaire d’une langue quelconque ?” 5) “Délimitations des domaines culturels du passé et du temps présent par rapport à des mots déterminés et à des particularités phonétiques, morphologiques et syntactiques. L’influence réciproque de ces domaines culturels.” 6) “Les méthodes de recherche pour les langues qui n’ont pas encore fait l’objet d’un travail philologique satisfaisant.” Actes (1930), own translations.

[14] Actes (1930), p 97.

[15] Feuerhahn & Rabault-Feuerhahn (2010), p 9.

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, Europe, History, Linguistics, Netherlands
One comment on “Discussing Disciplinary Development: The role of the First International Congress of Linguists (1928) in the formation of the discipline of general linguistics
  1. Camiel Hamans says:

    C.C. Uhlenbeck wasn’t professor at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. He had been professor at Amsterdam University for a short period. Subsequently he was appointed at Leiden University, where he stepped down in 1926 because of health problems. He moved to Switzerland, but remained active in the field.

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