Racialization, language science, and nineteenth century anthropometrics

Margaret Thomas
Boston College


In May 2019, the Executive Committee of the Linguistic Society of America approved of a ‘Statement on Race’ (https://www.linguisticsociety.org/content/lsa-statement-race), which puts on record the society’s opposition to racialization in the study of language, and in the discipline of linguistics itself.  As examples of racialization, the Statement cites such phenomena as ‘English Only’ initiatives, which limit support in public schools for immigrant children’s mother tongues; the imposition on research participants of mono-racial self-identification categories; treatment of white upper middle class language as normative; and devaluation of varieties of speech associated with stigmatized groups as inherently deficient.  The LSA’s Statement aims to ‘encourage linguists to critically reflect on the changing nature of academic, social, cultural, and linguistic understandings of race’, reminding readers that ‘all linguistic research has the potential to reproduce or challenge racial notions’ (‘Preamble’).  The Statement goes on to decry a lack of racial diversity within the discipline in the United States.

Three linguists involved in composition of the Statement (Anne H. Charity Hudley of the University of California at Santa Barbara; Christine Mallinson of the University of Maryland-Baltimore; and Mary Bucholtz, of UC Santa Barbara) went on to co-author a commentary on it, which argues that the modern discipline ‘urgently needs an interdisciplinarily-informed theoretical engagement with race and racism’ (Charity Hudley et al. in press).  Charity Hudley, Mallinson, and Bucholtz (CHM&B) make a case for the common failure of linguists to take seriously how integral race is to the study of language, and for linguists’ failure to confront insidious racialization in their own work.  They also document the failure of modern American linguistics to effectively welcome and incorporate the insights of racially minoritized language scholars.  In the words of CHM&B, ‘acknowledging and addressing rather than denying our discipline’s role in the reproduction of racism is central to ensuring equity and inclusion in the theory, practice, and teaching of linguistics’.

CHM&B acknowledge the value of probing into the history of the field as a tool for understanding the present, a stance developed in Charity Hudley (2017).  But they do not look back beyond a shoutout to Haitian scholar Anténor Firmin (1850–1911), whose largely ignored refutation of early ‘scientific racism’ (Firmin 1885) predated by more than 25 years Franz Boas’s (1858–1942) campaign against racism in anthropology and public life (Boas 1911, 1940).  Adding a historical dimension to discussion of race and racialization in linguistics is important, I believe, for at least two reasons.  First, because greater time-depth sometimes paradoxically opens up greater clarity about the ways in which racism is embedded in cultural practices and conventions, including those of the study of language.  Second, because it helps reduce the temptation to view racism as simply the damage done by individuals, which might be removed by playing what Hodges (2016) calls the ‘hunting for “racists” language game’, that is, by naming and exposing specific individuals responsible for racist acts.  To do so distracts us from the harder work of confronting racism as a complex, intractable, structural and institutional affliction within which individuals choose to do what they do—or, within which individuals have varying extents of agency over what they do.

This essay may seem to ‘hunt for “racists”’, in that I focus on the record of a particular scholar whose work now appears very problematic.  But my hope is that working through this case study may demonstrate not so much where one person went wrong, as what it means to belong to an intellectual community where racialization is taken for granted in ways that now seem painfully obvious.  Historians of eighteenth- through early twentieth-century racism like Barkan (1992) and Gossett (1997) narrate how saturated a culture can become with the notion that groups of people belong, by ‘nature’, to a hierarchy across which privileges and rights are differentially distributed.  A culture can, in fact, become so saturated that scholars bend the collection and interpretation of scientific data to serve their racialized preconceptions.  When language scholarship which echoes racist ideas falls short of meeting scientific standards, it needs to be criticized both for its content and for its epistemological faults.  I conclude with a brief reflection on the challenge of disentangling one’s ideological commitments from the kind of prejudice that can distort the scientific basis of one’s work and—much worse—can damage, exclude, or disparage fellow humans.  That this challenge is difficult to meet in no way exculpates racism in the study of language.  Rather, recognizing it as a challenge, and fortifying oneself to meet that challenge, may help linguists redress the structural and personal failures that CHM&B articulate.

Language and nineteenth-century anthropometrics.

My case study concerns the nineteenth-century French surgeon and physical anthropologist Pierre Paul Broca (1824–1880).  Most contemporary students of linguistics encounter Broca as a far-seeing scholar who put modern evidence-based neurolinguistics into motion.  Although the last forty years have not been kind to Broca’s reputation, even today no one disputes that he was a brilliant, highly-trained, empiricist and freethinker remembered as one of the founders of French physical anthropology.  Broca’s lifework was to understand human physical variation, especially the anatomy of the brain and the light that craniometry—measurement of brain size and shape—might bring to mental function.

In 1861 Broca performed an autopsy on a man named Louis Victor Leborgne, who for 20 years had suffered only being able to utter a single monosyllable, ‘tan’.  Broca confirmed—in some versions of the story, discovered (Greenblatt 1984)—that Leborgne’s defect lay in damage to the third frontal convolution of his left brain.  A few months later he examined, through autopsy, the brain of an older man who had lost virtually all speech, Lazare Lelong.  Broca concluded on the basis of these two cases that a critical area for productive language is asymmetrically located in the left hemisphere (Broca 1861, 1865), in the region now identified as ‘Broca’s area’.  With this, he publicly broke with the dogma that human brain function is necessarily bilaterally symmetrical.  In the usual narrative, Broca’s meticulous powers of observation, diagnostic perspicuity, and commitment to empirical analysis made him the first to attribute a specific constellation of language deficits to damage at a specific location in the left brain.  Although twenty-first century neuroscience has access to imaging technology and a corpus of accumulated data that goes far beyond what was available in the 1800s, Broca’s core insight remains largely intact (Grodzinsky & Santi 2008).  This is the conventional representation of Broca’s contribution to scientific study of language.


Leborgne’s preserved brain,
showing lesion in 3rd frontal convolution, left side

We are familiar with the debunking of the reputations of heroic historical figures, so it is not surprising to learn that this representation has its faults.  Most consequentially, it gives a false picture of the goals Broca pursued in his research on brain / language connections, as in his anthropometric research overall.  But the totality of the case against Broca’s reputation goes beyond a routine takedown of a pioneering, prescient, figure.  It calls attention to the necessity for scholars in general to engage in disciplined interrogation of why and how they pursue a particular object of study, and what goals their study ultimately serves.  In 2020 more than ever, we need to diligently probe into the personally- and culturally-imposed preconceptions that deform our research.  We need to do this even though the effort may be doomed, for several reasons.  One reason is that it is difficult to distinguish prejudice from the valuable creative resource called intuition.  Another reason is that it may be impossible to assess one’s own professional commitments as if from outside the context within which those commitments developed and are valued, because, as CHM&B put it, ‘researchers’ own identities and subjectivities inform the topics they choose to study, the research questions they ask, and the methodologies they use’.  Nevertheless, we must try to accomplish this difficult task.  The forty or so years that followed the centenary of Broca’s death have brought to light multiple object lessons in what can go wrong—and even what can accidentally go right—when scientists’ preconceptions unwittingly contaminate their evaluation and interpretation of evidence.

At least three threats which undermine our regard for Broca as a scientist have surfaced since the 1980s.  Among these three, the first involves Broca’s claims about brain size and shape; the second, his analysis of the ethnic population of France; and the third, his work on the human olfactory system.  Not all of these threats are directly relevant to language issues, but they all bear on Broca’s scientific legacy.  They have a consistent logical structure: in each case, modern scholars have asserted that Broca harbored socio-political commitments and prejudices that contaminated his scientific work.[1]

Broca’s craniometry revisited

A survey of recent textbooks introducing psycholinguistics to English-speaking university students converge on presenting four features of Broca’s legacy: that he participated in on-going debate about variation in form and size of the human brain; that he had outstanding powers of observation, and carefully measured and recorded many facts about the topography of the brain and the volume of the human skull; that he brought those empirical data to bear on debate about language and the brain; and that he was a pioneer in the identification, through autopsy, of a specific anatomical basis for language faculties.[2]

A counter-narrative starts in 1981 with the publication of Harvard paleontologist Steven Jay Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man.  Gould’s thesis is that since at least the mid nineteenth century Euro-American social science has erred in treating human intelligence as an attribute that is ‘unitary, rankable, innate, and effectively unchangeable’ (1981/ 1996: 27–28).  Gould goes on to show how, in a textbook demonstration of what CHM&B identify as racialization, scientists used that dubious assumption to assign different intrinsic levels of intelligence to different ethnic and racial groups.  With aching predictability, white Europeans come out on top in this scenario.  To justify that foregone conclusion, scientists searched for a physical basis to the purported intellectual superiority of white Europeans.  Paul Broca’s craniological research is one of Gould’s parade cases.  Unlike the data of other historical figures whose claims about intelligence Gould debunks, Gould finds the data that Broca collected—the accuracy and consistency of his physiological measurements—to be without serious flaws.  But where Broca went wrong was in his assumption that brain size correlates with intelligence.  Worse, in Gould’s words, Broca then ‘used facts as illustrations, not as constraining documents.  [He] began with conclusions, peered through the facts, and came back in a circle to [the] same conclusions’ (Gould 1981/1996: 117).  Broca applied this method repeatedly in his exploration of variation in brain size.  For example, he took for granted the intellectual advantage of males over females, then observed that the average adult male brain is larger than the average adult female brain.  He then used that observation to support his assumption of male intellectual superiority (Broca 1861).

Broca also studied the brain volume of people of different races and social classes.  Whenever his specimens showed that Europeans—most essentially, educated, white, European men of high social and professional standing—not proving to have the largest brains in any sample, then Broca would selectively open the analysis to mitigating factors.  For example, the unexpectedly low volume of the brain of a highly-educated male European in his sample he attributed to the effects of advanced age, since age diminishes cerebral volume.  Conversely, he speculated that the brain of a criminal found to be unexpectedly large might have been due to swelling induced by execution by hanging (Gould 1981/1996: 126).  Members of higher social classes were necessarily more intelligent, and would therefore necessarily have larger brains; deviations from that principle might be accounted for because laboratory techniques of preservation varied, affecting the accuracy of measurement.  Among these mitigating factors is one that is most salient to us, namely, Broca’s contention that, even if the overall brain volume of any one high-status white European male specimen was unimpressive, the front part of the brain would be relatively larger, or at least relatively more intricately developed (Gould 1981/1996: 129–130).

Gould hardly adverts to localization of language in the front part of the brain, which is the finding that made Broca famous among linguists.  But in the 1800s as now, language had crown-jewel status among cognitive faculties.  Therefore, Broca’s discovery of a language center in the front of the brain—the area he asserted to be largest (or at least most developed) in the brains of his favored groups—was thoroughly amenable to his preconceptions about race, ethnicity, gender, class, and brain anatomy.  Twenty-first century neurolinguistics has complicated the details of Broca’s claims about localization, while conceding that he was right about the special status of the left frontal lobe.  But it is unsettling to recognize that Broca made essentially the right call within an extended analysis that presupposed what appears to us now as a grotesque tableau of unwarranted, unacknowledged, self-serving, socio-political prejudices.  What Broca took for granted, we now view suspiciously on two grounds: on scientific grounds, because (at least in Gould’s telling) Broca seems not to have proven, but only to have assumed from the start, that intelligence can be reduced to a fixed trait linked to craniometric measurement, and that certain groups are obviously more intellectually endowed than others; and on socio-cultural grounds, because we reject not only the specific rankings that Broca arrived at, but the whole conception of ranking people’s intelligence on the basis of their membership in an assigned racial or cultural group.  It is worth noting that the minutes of mid- to late-nineteenth century scholarly meetings at which Broca presented his results record no protest from his colleagues on any of these bases.[3]

Revisiting Broca’s polygenism

The disquiet that Gould interjected into the reception of Broca’s research on craniometry has spread to other topics Broca studied.  It surfaces in publications by Claude Blanckaert, a contemporary historian of anthropology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, about how French writers and scholars have represented groups considered racially different from the French themselves.  Without mentioning Gould, Blanckaert (2003) magnifies the matter Gould raised, depicting Broca has having led a life dedicated to race classification in his support for polygenism, that is, the hypothesis that different human races comprise independent lines of descent from different ancestral species.  Broca’s deep-rooted skepticism of religious authority made polygenism attractive to him, since polygenism disrupted nineteenth-century Biblical understanding of human history.  Moreover, many polygenists claimed that, if modern humans descended from several different but related species of primates, then cross-species hybridity among humans would lead to degeneration of the stock.  As support, polygenists cited the sexual sterility of mules, produced as they are by breeding a horse with a donkey.  On that grounds (and in the absence of evidence from the study of human beings) polygenists predicted that humans born of parents identified with different races would be incapable of producing healthy, fertile, offspring.

Granted Broca’s commitment to polygenism, his craniometric research rendered the ‘mule problem’ a crisis for him.  Broca analyzed physical-anthropological data culled in the late 1800s from the records of military recruits in diverse parts of the France (Broca 1867, 1870, 1873).  He concluded that the population of France was in general a hybrid of what he considered to be two races: the short, dark, wide-skulled Celts and the tall, blonde, long-skulled ‘Kymris’, who predominate between the Seine and the Rhine rivers.  According to Broca’s polygenist assumptions, the hybridity of the Celts and Kymris in the French population would predict cultural and physical degeneration of the overall group.  Broca, however, saw little evidence of degeneration.  To reconcile polygenism with that evidence, he disputed the tenet that hybridity necessarily led to corruption, countering the ‘mule problem’ by citing the fact that cross-breeding of a rabbit and a hare yields a healthy, fertile, animal known as a leporide (1860: 574–577).  He therefore split hybridity into four sub-categories, which would admit both the sterility of mules and the fecundity of leporides (1860: 533–536).  On one extreme, the ‘sterile hybridity’ of mules obtained where there was maximum disaffinity between the two parents.  In between, Broca posited two types of partially fertile hybridity.  On the other extreme, minimal disaffinity between the two parents led to ‘eugensic hybridity’ and a wholesome reproductive outlook, as in the case of the leporide and as attested among Celts and Kymris in France.

Capture d’écran 2020-06-08 à 09.07.28

In this way, Broca found a means to harmonize his polygenism with his conviction that, in his words, ‘we [French] can sleep easily [because] the fatherland is not in danger’ (1867: 55).  As Blanckaert commented, Broca ‘us[ed] natural history to verify and plant the seeds of a republican political history’ (2003: 63).  But Broca’s writings on the hybridity of the French people remind one of Gould’s complaint about what he calls ‘[Broca’s] method’, namely that Broca ‘shift[ed] [his] criteria to work through good data toward desired conclusions’ (1981/1996: 134).  Here the conclusion—the assertion that all was well with the French gene pool, despite its evident mixed ethnic stock—seems to have been Broca’s tacit goal from the start.  He managed to reach that goal while retaining his fidelity to polygenism.  In doing so, Broca fails as a model of how to do science.  Polygenism fell out of currency in the latter decades of the 1800s.  But in the rhetoric of eugenics and scientific racism, popular and academic classification of humans by race into stratified groups continued, with catastrophic effect, into the twentieth century (Barkan 1992; Hutton 1999; Okrent 2019).  In 2020, classification of humans by race into stratified groups, and the catastrophes it brought on, are still very much with us.

Revisiting Broca’s research on human olfactory capacity

A third threat to the scientific legacy of Paul Broca was brought forward in a paper published in the spring of 2017.  Psychologist John McGann of Rutgers University tested humans versus other mammals for olfactory discrimination, and found that, comparatively speaking, human beings have a good sense of smell.  This finding contradicts a popular folk belief that humans have a poor sense of smell relative to other animals.  McGann labels the derogation of human olfactory perception a ‘19th century myth’ which he attributes specifically to Paul Broca (2017: 1).  Among his many studies of the human brain, Broca accurately observed that the olfactory bulb takes up a proportionally much smaller area of the human brain than it does of the mouse brain (Broca 1879).  However, McGann points out that the absolute size of the olfactory bulb in humans is still far larger than that in mice, because of the much larger volume of the human brain versus the mouse brain overall (2017: 2–3).  Broca failed to raise the issue of absolute size, and moreover failed to carry out any empirical investigation of human versus non-human sensitivity to smells.  McGann speculates that this is because it was important to Broca to locate a material basis for the uniqueness of humans among other animals (2017: 1).  Broca the freethinker rejected the notion that the presence of an immaterial, immortal, soul was the cornerstone of human distinctiveness.  The proportionally small size of the human olfactory bulb was to Broca enough to settle the issue: a poverty of olfactory ability—not the presence of an immortal soul—distinguished humans as a higher species.  To quote Gould again, Broca had ‘peered through the facts’ to reach his desired conclusions, and with that closed the case.

McGann also points out that Broca made sense of his exposition of the poverty of human sense of smell by claiming that atrophy of the olfactory bulb near the bottom of the brain made room for greater development of the frontal lobe of the human brain, where ‘intellectual life is centralized’, and which became ‘enlarged at the expense of the others’ (McGann 1917: 6, citing Broca 1879).  In another article summarizing these claims (which McGann does not cite), Broca (1877: 655) asserts that differential atrophy of the olfactory bulb can be discerned in the morphology of brains of ‘men of the white race’ compared to the brains of the ‘inferior races’.  In the former group, the olfactory bulb is especially reduced, presumably because of compensatory hyper-development of intellectual abilities.

‘Dismantl[ing] raciolinguistic ideologies’

Neither of these last two threats—Broca the polygenist’s rescue of France’s racial hybridity, and Broca the anatomist’s specious derogation of the human sense of smell—bear specifically on language issues, and neither holds up to modern scientific scrutiny.  In contrast, Broca’s identification of the key role of the front brain in language is consistent with modern neurolinguistics.  But all three of these research results rest on, and build up, unacknowledged, unexamined, presuppositions that are obnoxious to the twenty-first century.  All three cases also fail as models of lawful application of scientific reasoning.  Blanckaert (1997: 40) grapples with this feature of Broca’s legacy in writing that ‘Il y aurait donc deux Broca, face diurne et face nocturne’.  However, I’m not convinced that splitting Broca’s reputation in two—one part sunny, one part dismal—puts the matter to rest.  That Broca’s work had a dismal side wasn’t apparent to him or to his contemporaries.  It only looks dismal to us, now.  Our own dismal places are equally hidden to us, and may remain that way until somehow, someday, the lights go up on them.  When that happens, what will our intellectual descendants see then that we don’t see now?  One can only hope that they will be shocked and dismayed by, for example, the extent to which early twenty-first century linguistics continues to, in CHM&B’s words, either ‘simply “count” race, mechanically classify[ing] participants racially, or assume that race is irrelevant’.  Against that, CHM&B urge us to ‘dismantle raciolinguistic ideologies in linguistic research’.  As a first step, we need to pay attention to the history of unnoticed, deep-seated, prejudices and presuppositions that deform the analysis of language and that make the discipline of linguistics inhospitable to racially minoritized language scholars.

I will conclude with an autobiographical anecdote.  My first few years of professional work in linguistics were devoted to a topic that was all the rage in the late 1980s, generative grammar’s Binding Principles, specifically Principle A.  I got to the early dissertation stage just as Rita Manzini and Kenneth Wexler published an article in Linguistic Inquiry (1987) that offered a way to parameterize the Binding Principles, rendering the attested cross-linguistic variation in anaphora tractable under Chomsky’s ‘principles and parameters’ syntactic model.  I spent far too long collecting far too much data on the second-language acquisition of anaphora, and was pleased to find little evidence that contravened Wexler and Manzini’s proposals (Thomas 1991, 1993).  I realize now that, from the start, I was expecting and covertly hoping to find that result, so that my work could reinforce (if only in a very low-profile manner) the general consensus that all human languages can be treated on a par with each other, and are amenable to theoretical analysis.

When I look back on my first publications based on the dissertation, several thoughts come to mind.  First, I am struck by how limited this topic is.  Second, I am relieved to find in my methods and analysis no evidence of gross scientific impropriety, only a certain crudeness of conception and execution.  Nor, as far as I can see now, did that work contribute to racialization in the terms that CHM&B depict it.  Nevertheless, I recognize that the presupposition of parity across languages was present in my research even before that research started.  In that sense, like Broca, I ‘peered through the facts’ to arrive at my conclusions.  No advisor I worked with, nor any journal reviewer who assessed the products of my research, called attention to, much less challenged, that presupposition.  I conceived the project; I gathered the data; I analyzed the results; I wrote it all up; but I never consciously opened my imagination to the possibility that all languages might not be equally theoretically tractable.  In fact, I still believe they are all equally theoretically tractable; I communicate that conviction to my students all the time; and that stance seems unremarkable in the pages of contemporary journals in linguistics and in the corridors and meeting rooms of conferences that linguists attend.

Likewise, Paul Broca seemed never to have reflected on his own presuppositions about race, ethnicity, sex, or species.  There is no evidence that his colleagues did so either, in the pages of the Bullétins de la Société d’Anthropologie, or in the corridors and meeting rooms of Paris Society for Anthropology where Broca presented his research.  Had Broca had any students, he too would probably have tacitly communicated to them the full weight of his presuppositions.  He was sure he was right, and was pleased that his research proved consistent with his convictions—which seems remarkable only to us, only now.


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[1] There is a fourth threat as well.  This comprised a polite struggle, already underway during Broca’s lifetime, regarding whether he was actually the first person to locate a dedicated language center in the left front brain.  See Broca (1877), and modern analysis in Joynt & Benton (1964); Cubelli & Montagna (1994); Roe & Finger (1996); Finger & Roe (1996; 1999); Buckingham (2006).  I set aside the dispute over historical priority, as it has a different complexion from other threats to Broca’s reputation.

[2] Textbooks surveyed include Berko-Gleason & Ratner (1993), Carroll (2008), Harley (2008), Fernández & Smith Cairns (2011), Traxler (2014), and Sedivy (2014).

[3] In the interest of completeness, I would add that Gould’s (1981/1996) thesis and his own scientific objectivity met with resistance since the publication of The Mismeasure of Man.  Research that challenges Gould’s treatment of Broca includes Ruston (1997), Lewis et al. (2011), a Nature editorial, ‘Mismeasure for mismeasure’ (2011), and Ashok (2017).

How to cite this post

Thomas, Margaret. 2020. Racialization, language science, and nineteenth century anthropometrics. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2020/06/08/racialization-language-science/

Posted in 19th century, 20th century, Article, History, Linguistics
3 comments on “Racialization, language science, and nineteenth century anthropometrics
  1. […] Racialization, language science, and nineteenth century anthropometrics Margaret Thomas (Boston College) […]

  2. […] societies into racial hierarchies. The Haitian anthropologist Anténor Firmin (discussed within this post by Margaret Thomas) was among the few early scholars who challenged this model, making the case in 1885 that Egyptian […]

  3. […] Racialization, language science, and nineteenth century anthropometrics […]

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