CfP: International Conference Ideology and Linguistic Ideas 2019, Tblisi

12 September 2019 – 14 September 2019

After the two successful conferences in 2015 and 2017, we are pleased to invite scholars interested in the history of linguistic ideas developed alongside with different ideologies in different times once more to Georgia. Read more ›

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Recent publications in the history and philosophy of linguistics, December 2018

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Pierre-Philippe Potier’s Elementa Grammaticae Huronicae (1745)

Zanna Van Loon
University of Leuven


Instead of imposing European languages, Catholic friars conducting missions in the Americas in the early modern period opted to learn indigenous tongues to more efficiently teach local communities the religious doctrine. To guarantee the success of their missions, many missionaries systematically studied native languages and recorded the knowledge they acquired in religious texts, grammars, wordlists and other sorts of linguistic instruments. By storing all that they had learned on paper, missionary friars made linguistic knowledge available to others, and opened up the possibility of passing it onto successors. They were often among the first and sometimes the only ones who accumulated, codified, and distributed knowledge on Amerindian languages, pioneering work that set in motion the circulation of linguistic knowledge on these languages. In particular, the Jesuits who dominated the missionary field in New France since the 1630s – which encompasses the area covering Hudson Bay in the north, the St. Lawrence River in the east, and the Great Lakes in the west of North America – produced several documents dealing with the native languages they encountered to advance their proselytizing efforts.

Pierre-Philippe Potier (1708-1781), born in Blandain in present-day Belgium, was one of the Jesuits who left France, where he had studied and taught, for New France to perform missionary work. Potier arrived in Quebec in October 1743, and, in September 1744, he joined the Huron mission of father Armand de La Richardie at l’Île aux Bois-Blancs, near Detroit. In 1747, La Richardie established a new mission post in Pointe de Montréal, which is where Potier erected a church in 1749, and founded the first parish of Ontario in 1767, Notre-Dame de l’Assomption. He continued to minister to the Huron population in his new parish until his death in 1781.

During his missionary work, Pierre-Philippe Potier dedicated much of his time to assembling texts, some of which recorded information about the Huron language. A couple of Huron manuscripts in Potier’s handwriting have survived to this day, making his works a particularly interesting part of the early modern missionary linguistics in New France. Moreover, with the Jesuit order’s suppression in France in the 1760s greatly influencing missionary work in the Americas, Potier is considered one of the last known early modern French Jesuits to have written material in Huron (Hanzeli 1969, 29–30). This blogpost explores how his extant linguistic documentation adds to our understanding of the circulation of missionary linguistic knowledge in New France. Read more ›

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Posted in 18th century, America, Article, History, Missionary Linguistics

CfP: Panel on Unusual Grammars

I am hoping to organize a panel at the Henry Sweet Society Colloquium 2019 on grammars that are based on models that are or might seem unusual, at least from our modern vantage point. An example might be John Palsgrave’s Lesclarcissement de la langue francoyse (1530), modeled on Theodore Gaza’s Greek grammar, on which I aim to present a paper as part of the panel. Read more ›

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CfP: Panel on Political Conceptualization of Linguistic Thought, HSS 2019

We are hoping to organize a panel of papers on the political conceptualization of linguistic thought at the 2019 colloquium of the Henry Sweet Society and would like to hear from other researchers interested in presenting a paper, with 20 minutes’ speaking time and 10 minutes for questions. If you are interested in participating or would like to discuss this further, please contact Ji Ma ( We will need to receive a provisional title and a short (no longer than 250-word) abstract of your contribution by 15 February 2019. Read more ›

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CfP: HoLLT panels HSS Colloquium in Edinburgh, 4-7 September 2019

Here are two separate calls for expressions of interest in presenting a paper in a HoLLT-themed panel at the Annual Colloquium of the Henry Sweet Society for the History of Linguistic Ideas, University of Edinburgh, 4–­­7 September 2019. Please contact the named panel organizer if you are
interested: Read more ›

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Recent publications in the history and philosophy of linguistics, October-November 2018

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Towards a history of concept list compilation in historical linguistics

Johann-Mattis List
Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena

A large proportion of lexical data of the world’s languages is presented in the form of word lists in which a set of concepts was translated into the language varieties of a specific language family or geographic region. The basis of these word lists are concept lists, that is, questionnaires of comparative concepts (in the sense of Haspelmath 2010), which scholars used to elicit the respective translations in their field work. Thus, a concept list is in the end not much more than a bunch of elicitation glosses, often (but not necessarily) based on English as an elicitation language, and a typical concept list may look like the following one, quoted from Swadesh (1950: 161):

I, thou, he, we, ye, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, hundred, all, animal, ashes, back, bad, bark, belly, big, […] this, tongue, tooth, tree, warm, water, what, where, white, who, wife, wind, woman, year, yellow.

But scholars may also present their concept list in tabular form, adding additional information in additional columns, numbering and ranking items, providing exemplary translations into other languages, or marking specific items as obsolete.

The compilation of concept lists for the purpose of historical language comparison has a long tradition in historical linguistics, dating back at least to the 18th century (Leibniz 1768, Pallas 1786), if not even earlier (see Kaplan 2017). But concept lists were not solely compiled for the purpose of historical language comparison. If we employ the rough criterion by which any list of comparison concepts that was compiled for some scientific purpose can be seen as a concept list, we can find many more examples in the linguistic and scientific literature, including typological surveys (Brinton 1891), attempts to establish a language for global communication (Ogden 1930), or naming tests in clinical and psychological studies (Nicholas et al. 1989).

One of the most popular usage examples of concept lists in historical linguistics is Swadesh’s theory of glottochronology (Swadesh 1952; Swadesh 1955), which stated that language splits can be dated due to the regular decay of words in the basic vocabulary of languages. Although this idea was heavily criticized soon after it was first proposed, even more concept lists have been compiled since then, and scholars have not given up the idea that a list of universal and stable concepts expressed in all languages of the world could indeed be found (Brown et al. 2008; Dolgopolsky 1964; Shevoroshkin and Manaster Ramer 1991). Read more ›

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Posted in 18th century, 19th century, 20th century, Article, historical linguistics, Lexicography, Linguistics

Call for Papers: Henry Sweet Society Colloquium 2019


The next annual colloquium of the Henry Sweet Society for the History of Linguistic Ideas will be held at the University of Edinburgh, 4–7 September 2019. Read more ›

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Triangulating the history of science communication: Faraday, Marcet and Smart

Brigitte Nerlich
University of Nottingham

The 19th century was a time of monumental change in science, industry and also communication. In this blog post I shall poke around in one very small corner of all the revolutionary things that happened during that century. I shall focus on the overlapping lives and works of three people, Michael Faraday (1801-1867), scientist and science communicator, Jane Marcet (1769-1858), author of popular books on science and economics, and Benjamin Humphrey Smart (1786?–1872), elocutionist, grammarian and philosopher of language.

Marcet knew Faraday, Faraday knew Smart, but Smart and Marcet didn’t know each other, as far as I can make out. However, looking at what they did, together and apart, affords us some interesting insights into the history of early science communication and possibly some lessons for future science communication.

Michael Faraday giving a Christmas lecture

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Posted in 19th century, History