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

Yukun Zeng
University of Chicago

Li Fang-Kuei and Edward Sapir

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

1. The Problem of Scaling in Language Classification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information, see the conference website.

Posted in Announcements

Speech act theory and Georg von der Gabelentz

Forms of speech

Sven Staffeldt
University of Würzburg

1. The modernity of the ancestors

Georg von der Gabelentz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vivien Law Essay Prize 2017

Vivien Law

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

Further information is available here:

Posted in Announcements

Program September-December 2017

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

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

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

Workshop organiser: Camiel Hamans (, Adam Mickiewicz University

Please submit abstracts in English by 24 July 2017:

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

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

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

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

Posted in Announcements

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

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

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

Dealine for submission: July 31, 2017.

Acceptance notifications: September 30, 2017.

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

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

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

For more information, see the conference website.

Posted in Announcements

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

Nick Thieberger
University of Melbourne

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


James Cosh

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

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

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

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

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