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

Program September-December 2016

Updated: 27 November 2016

The Chilean Academy of the Spanish Language: the institutionalization of a discourse community.
Darío Rojas
University of Chile
Ludwig Noiré and the Debate on Language Origins in the 19th Century
Jacopo D’Alonzo
Sorbonne Nouvelle & Sapienza Università di Roma
Missionary linguistics in Central Australia 1890-1910
David Moore
University of Western Australia
Mapping Language: linguistic cartography as a topic for the history of science
Jan David Braun
University of Vienna
Posted in Programs

Call for Papers: VI Simpósio Mundial de Estudos da Língua Portuguesa, 24-28 October 2017

The VI Simpósio Mundial de Estudos da Língua Portuguesa (VI SIMELP) will take place in Escola Superior de Educação do Instituto Politécnico de Santarém (Portugal) from the 24th to 28th of October 2017. The theme of the conference is “Teoria linguística e abordagens didáticas na história da gramática portuguesa”. Please see the call for papers in Portuguese for more information.

Proposals (for 15 minute talks in Portuguese and Galician) should be sent by the 15th of November to Rogelio Ponce de León (rromeo@letras.up.pt) and to Sónia Duarte (sonia.duarte@esdjgfa.org).

Teoria linguística e abordagens didáticas na história da gramática portuguesa

Posted in Programs, Uncategorized

The utility of constructed languages

A.W. Carus
Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy, LMU, Munich

The question how language, a sequence of events in spacetime, can have meaning — which seems not to be in spacetime — has puzzled philosophers since antiquity, though it only came to dominate philosophy explicitly over a century or so of wide-ranging developments that culminated, provisionally, in the work of the later Wittgenstein. Philosophers continue to discuss these questions, and to read Wittgenstein, but they also seem largely unaware that their central questions about the nature and possibility of meaning, which they approach in the abstract, as conceptual questions, have also become a thriving subject of empirical research. This post briefly explores some consequences of this new research for philosophical questions about meaning.

One relevant context for such questions has always been the puzzle of how to coordinate two aspects of language, its subjective or cultural aspect (“meaning” in the sense of what a sentence, or any other object or action, “means to me”) and its computational aspect (“meaning” in the sense of generative linguistics or in the sense of a computer program, in which a syntactic structure built up from atomic components is endowed – or not – with an analogously compositional semantics). The subjective aspect is inherently more salient with respect to natural languages, while the computational aspect is more in the foreground where constructed languages are concerned, especially axiomatically constructed (or otherwise clearly defined) languages of mathematics or computation. What they gain in precision, though, such languages sacrifice in rhetorical power and suggestiveness; there would appear to be a trade-off between the cultural and the computational aspects of language. However, while this Janus-faced property of language has been apparent to all major theorists of language from Locke to Frege and Saussure, their interest in language has usually focussed mainly on only one of the two aspects at the expense of the other, and theories of the coordination between these two aspects have remained quite superficial. The few attempts at bringing these aspects into some sort of relation to each other have usually tried to reduce one of them to the other. The later Wittgenstein (followed in this respect by ordinary language philosophers) tried to bring logic and constructed languages more generally within the scope of social practices and the natural languages mediating them, while Chomsky tried to bring ordinary language within the scope of the combinatorial.

The empirical research of recent decades on these subjects has mostly avoided this kind of reductionism. It does usually focus on only one of these aspects or kinds of language — naturally enough, because you have to start somewhere, and where you start generally influences which kinds or aspects of language you consider. But there is on the whole, in most of this research, a recognition that both aspects (and both kinds of language) exist, but there is little explicit discussion of the relation between them. Read more ›

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Posted in Constructed languages, Linguistics, Philosophy, Pragmatics

Anforderungen an eine serielle Untersuchung des Pariser Wettbewerbs von 1797/99 zum Einfluss der Zeichen auf das Denken

Kerstin Ohligschlaeger-Lim
Universität Potsdam

Im folgenden soll die Untersuchung des Pariser Wettbewerbs zum Einfluss der Zeichen auf das Denken (1797/99) vorgestellt werden. Dieser Wettbewerb gliedert sich in epistemologische und semiotische Diskurse des ausgehenden 18. Jahrhunderts in Frankreich ein, in denen die Übertragbarkeit der wissenschaftlichen Terminologie nach dem Vorbild der Naturwissenschaften auf die nicht-exakten Wissenschaften diskutiert wurde.

Die Spezifik des Wettbewerbs von 1797/99 liegt nicht allein in der Fragestellung nach dem Einfluss der Zeichen auf das Denken, sondern vielmehr in ihrer sprachtheoretischen Begründung. Der enorme institutionelle Einfluss der Gruppe der Ideologen[1] und ihr Bestreben, ein auf dem Sensualismus beruhendes Wissenschaftsprogramm zu entwickeln, sowie die unmittelbar vorangegangene Erneuerung der wissenschaftlichen Terminologie in der Chemie durch Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-1794), die auf Etienne Bonnot de Condillacs (1714-1780) Annahme von Sprache als analytischer Methode beruht, stellen die inhaltliche Grundlage für die Ausschreibung des Wettbewerbs dar. Ausgeschrieben wurde der Wettbewerb von der zweiten Klasse des 1795 in Nachfolge der alten Akademien gegründeten Institut de France. Read more ›

Posted in 18th century, Europe, Philosophy

Diversity, linguistics and domination: how linguistic theory can feed a kind of politics most linguists would oppose

Nick Riemer
University of Sydney & HTL, Université Paris-Diderot

Riemer illustration 1

Antonio Gramsci, a co-founder of the Italian Communist Party and one of the twentieth century’s most prominent intellectuals. Gramsci studied linguistics and wrote about linguistic topics throughout his life. ‘Study, because we’ll need all your intelligence’.

What connections might linguists’ professional activities have to politics? Most recently, the question has been posed by the collective self-dismissal of the Lingua board and the journal’s metamorphosis into the open-access Glossa – a welcome attempt to break the monopoly of profiteering multinationals over the dissemination of research. Initiatives like Glossa or Language Science Press are much-needed, and all too rare, instances of scholarly activism against the widespread ‘enclosure’ of knowledge characteristic of our age (Riemer forthcoming). As such, they are compatible with the ‘vague form of liberal progressiveness’ that Hutton (2001: 295) has identified as the ethos of contemporary linguistics. But how might other aspects of linguistics as an institution fit, or not, into this frame? What can we say about how linguistics might relate to characteristic progressive priorities like support for diversity, opposition to discrimination and domination, commitment to democracy, and to the overall political contexts in which efforts to advance those priorities are situated?

There’s been little shortage of critical discussion of linguistics’ ideological and political valencies, though it has often come from sources other than linguists themselves.[1] Linguists have, in fact, on the whole been strikingly reluctant to direct against their own discipline the kinds of critique that swept over the rest of the humanities in the final third of the last century. Linguistics’ scientistic pretensions act as a strong brake on any attempt even to think in critical terms about the epistemic status of the discipline’s results, let alone to explore the field’s wider political effects or determinants.[2]

Reflection on both, however, is important, in the interests of disciplinary self-awareness at least. Not just that, though: linguists who identify with the ‘vague form of liberal progressiveness’ mentioned by Hutton, or whose political sympathies lie further to the left, have an interest in thinking not just about how social and political factors influence linguistics, but also about how what they do as linguists might feed back into the societies to which they belong. Like other academic corporations, linguists probably mostly have a strong sense of their own distinctness. But we are nevertheless a part of the body politic, and our professional activities influence it in various ways.
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Posted in Linguistics

The secret history of grammaticalization

James McElvenny
Universität Potsdam

Research into grammaticalization has an established pedigree, first certified by Lehmann (2015[1982]: 1-9) and confirmed, with various additions, by Heine et al (1991: 5-23) and Hopper & Traugott (2003[1993]: 19-38).[1] The standard genealogy records the birth of the term “grammaticalization” in more or less its present-day sense with Antoine Meillet (1866–1936), but recognises an intellectual lineage extending back at least to the Enlightenment. Among the immediate predecessors of Meillet, Georg von der Gabelentz (1840–1893) is accorded a significant place for proposing an account of the emergence of grammatical forms that prefigures Meillet’s in several key respects. The standard narrative is without doubt correct, but at the same time excessively sketchy, omitting important details. The place of Gabelentz, in particular, deserves greater attention.

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, Europe, History, Linguistics, Pragmatics, Semantics

Christian Karl Reisig as an upholder of philosophical linguistics in 19th century Germany

Jacques François
Université de Caen & CNRS

In his introduction (p.6-18) to the Vorlesungen über lateinische Sprachwissenschaft (Lectures on Latin Linguistics, 1839), Christian Karl Reisig offered a philosophically grounded account of the epistemology of language as a Prinzipienwissenschaft (“Science of Principles”, in Hermann Paul’s wording, 1880). There is a crucial difference however between these two endeavours, namely : Reisig – who gave his lectures in 1817, i.e. twelve years before their publication – was a successor both to Wilhelm von Humboldt (and indirectly to Johann Gottfried Herder) in terms of conflating language, people and nation (in his principles 2 and 5, see below) and to Immanuel Kant in terms of his application to language of the latter’s table of the categories of understanding (see principles 6-7). In constrast to Paul, the impact of comparative grammar is hardly perceptible (see principles 12-13), although Reisig was certainly aware of the works of Friedrich Schlegel (1808) and Franz Bopp (1816).[1]
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Posted in 19th century, Europe, Germany, History, Linguistics, Pragmatics, Semantics