Podcast episode 8: Language as an institution – William Dwight Whitney

Table: Scale and Frequency of English Sounds

In this episode, we look first at the critiques of Schleicher’s “physical” and Steinthal’s “psychological” theory of language put forward by the American linguist William Dwight Whitney. We then turn to Whitney’s own conception of language as a “human institution” and its intellectual background.
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Posted in Podcast

Recent publications in the history and philosophy of the language sciences – August 2020

MĂ„rten SÖDERBLOM SAARELA. 2020. The Early Modern Travels of Manchu. A Script and Its Study in East Asia and Europe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ncounters with Asia.  288 p. ISBN 9780812252071
Publisher’s website


Manchu was a language first written down as part of the Qing state-building project in Northeast Asia in the early seventeenth century. After the Qing invasion of China in 1644, and for the next two and a half centuries, Manchu was the language of state in one of the early modern world’s great powers. Its prominence and novelty attracted the interest of not only Chinese literati but also foreign scholars. Read more ›

Posted in Publications, Uncategorized

CfP: History of language teaching research and theorization: 1945-2015

Tours, France, 2–4 June 2021 Read more ›

Posted in Announcements, Conferences and workshops

Recent publications in the history and philosophy of the language sciences – July 2020

Viggo Bank JENSEN & Giuseppe D’OTTAVI (ed). 2020. From the early years of Phonology. The Roman Jakobson – Eli Fisher-Jorgensen correspondence (1949-1982). Copenhagen: The Royal Danish Academy of Science and Letters, Scientia Danica, Series H, Humanistica, 8, vol. 20. 402 pp. ISBN : 978-87-7304-432-2
Publisher’s website

600For more than 30 years, from 1949 till 1982, the two influential linguists Roman Jakobson (1896-1982) and Eli Fischer-JĂžrgensen (1911-2010) regularly exchanged letters. Now, almost 40 years after the last letter of the correspondence was signed, The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters is publishing the entire collection of preserved letters in which we are introduced to two strong personalities: the Russian born linguist Roman Jakobson and the Danish phonetician and general linguist Eli Fischer-JĂžrgensen, both members of the Royal Academy, Eli being the first ever Danish woman elected a member. Read more ›

Posted in Publications, Uncategorized

New posts January-June 2020

At hiphilangsci.net, we’re now embarking on a brief break for the northern hemisphere summer. We’ll be back at the beginning of September with new posts and podcast episodes. In the meantime, be sure to catch up on all the great contributions we’ve had so far this year:

Has the LSA Been a Generativist-Dominated Organisation?
Fritz Newmeyer (UBC, Simon Fraser, U Washington)

Der Siegener Diskursmonitor – ein Onlineportal zur strategischen Kommunikation
Clemens Knobloch (Siegen)

Being critical: Elements of Critical Theory in the work of critical discourse analysts
Diego Romeo (Edinburgh)

What is Syriac and what is Aramaic according to Syriac grammarians (8th-16th cent.)
Margherita Farina (HTL, Paris)

Galant grammarians: Donneau de Visé’s Mercure galant
Doyle Calhoun (Yale)

Johann Christoph Adelung, a forerunner of modern bilingual lexicography
Jacques François (Caen-Normandy)

Lénine, Saussure et la théorie des hiéroglyphes
Patrick SĂ©riot (Lausanne)

Racialization, language science, and nineteenth century anthropometrics
Margaret Thomas (Boston College)

And be sure to have a listen to our History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences Podcast

Posted in Announcements

Podcast episode 7: Interview with Clara Stockigt on missionary grammars in Australia

Clara Stockigt

In this interview, we talk to Dr Clara Stockigt about missionary grammars in Australia and their links to the academic linguistic scholarship of the time.
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Posted in Podcast

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 AntĂ©nor 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. Read more ›

Posted in 19th century, 20th century, Article, History, Linguistics

Recent publications in the history and philosophy of the language sciences – June 2020

Émilie AUSSANT et AimĂ©e LAHAUSSOIS (dir.) 2019. Faits de Langues 50-2. “Grammaires Ă©tendues” et descriptions de morphologie verbale. Leiden: Brill. ISSN 1958-9514
Publisher’s website

Cover Faits de LanguesCette livraison de Faits de Langues rassemble quelques-uns des travaux prĂ©sentĂ©s lors d’une journĂ©e d’étude consacrĂ©e aux “retombĂ©es” du phĂ©nomĂšne des “Grammaires Ă©tendues” en linguistique descriptive, organisĂ©e en novembre 2016 avec le soutien du LabEx EFL. Cet ensemble d’articles, rĂ©digĂ©s par des linguistes descriptivistes qui s’interrogent sur les modĂšles grammaticaux utilisĂ©s, au cours de l’histoire, pour la description des langues ou des aires sur lesquelles ils travaillent, est Ă©clairant Ă  – au moins – deux titres : il connecte les pratiques actuelles avec l’histoire des descriptions, faisant Ă©merger, pour une langue ou un sous-groupe de langues, l’Ă©volution des termes et reprĂ©sentations utilisĂ©s ; il montre, Ă  ceux qui travaillent “au prĂ©sent”, toute l’utilitĂ© des descriptions des langues rĂ©alisĂ©es par le passĂ©. Outre les donnĂ©es que ces descriptions rassemblent, qui intĂ©ressent les descripteurs pour la dimension diachronique qu’elles donnent Ă  voir, elles prouvent Ă  quel point le “bricolage” des prĂ©dĂ©cesseurs est riche d’enseignements, Ă  bien des Ă©gards. Read more ›

Posted in Announcements, Publications, Uncategorized

Podcast episode 6: Schleicher’s morphology and Steinthal’s Völkerpsychologie

Steinthal Charakteristik

In this episode, we look first at August Schleicher’s proposal for a linguistic “morphology” and its intellectual background in nineteenth-century biology. We then compare Schleicher’s approach to the scheme of language classification developed by H. Steinthal within Völkerpsychologie, or “psychology of peoples”.
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Posted in Podcast

LĂ©nine, Saussure et la thĂ©orie des hiĂ©roglyphes

Patrick SĂ©riot
Universités de Lausanne et de Saint-Pétersbourg


La rĂ©ception positive de Saussure est bien connue, elle est au fondement des manuels de linguistique gĂ©nĂ©rale dans la plupart des pays. Curieusement, on s’attarde beaucoup moins sur sa rĂ©ception nĂ©gative, sinon pour la rejeter dans l’enfer des erreurs comme Ă©tant aussi dĂ©pourvue de pertinence que l’histoire du phlogiston pour la chimie ou des esprits animaux pour la mĂ©decine.[1]

Il me semble cependant qu’il y a mieux Ă  faire que l’ignorance volontaire en ce domaine, et qu’une Ă©tude minutieuse de cette rĂ©ception nĂ©gative pourrait nous Ă©clairer sur certains aspects de la thĂ©orie et de la pratique saussuriennes.

Ainsi en va-t-il d’une accusation qui, en URSS des annĂ©es 1920-30-40 valait comme anathĂšme : Saussure serait le promoteur de la « thĂ©orie des hiĂ©roglyphes en linguistique », thĂšme extrĂȘmement mal documentĂ© dans la littĂ©rature linguistique en Occident. Or cette accusation soulĂšve, Ă  mon avis, un problĂšme Ă©pistĂ©mologique de premiĂšre importance.

Qu’est-ce que la thĂ©orie des hiĂ©roglyphes en linguistique ? Quel est le sens de cet anathĂšme ? Que peut-il nous apprendre 1) sur Saussure, 2) sur ses dĂ©tracteurs ?

L’association inĂ©dite de Saussure aux hiĂ©roglyphes est un tĂ©moignage du milieu culturel et intellectuel soviĂ©tique de l’époque tout autant que politico-idĂ©ologique. Le thĂšme plus gĂ©nĂ©ral de la rĂ©flexion sur le langage et le signe en Russie soulĂšve Ă  son tour une comparaison dans l’espace et le temps : la vie intellectuelle en Russie fait-elle partie de la « tradition occidentale » ? si oui, pourquoi en est-elle si souvent Ă©cartĂ©e ? si non, quelle en est la spĂ©cificité ? Et d’autre part, les parallĂšles avec une autre Ă©poque oĂč l’on s’interrogeait sur la nature et l’origine du langage, Ă  savoir les XVIIĂšme et XVIIIĂšme siĂšcles europĂ©ens, sont si nombreux qu’une comparaison s’impose.

De cette vaste sĂ©rie de questions on ne traitera ici qu’une infime partie : l’interprĂ©tation de la linguistique saussurienne comme une « thĂ©orie des hiĂ©roglyphes » en URSS jusqu’à l’extinction progressive de l’ùre stalinienne (milieu des annĂ©es 1950).

Il faudra dans un premier temps retracer les Ă©tapes terminologiques et conceptuelles de l’interprĂ©tation des hiĂ©roglyphes Ă©gyptiens, puis explorer le contexte idĂ©ologique et philosophique de l’emploi mĂ©taphorique de ce terme dans le marxisme soviĂ©tique ; et enfin examiner les arguments de la critique soviĂ©tique de Saussure Ă  travers cette notion de hiĂ©roglyphe. SĂ©miotique et philosophie du langage en tireront peut-ĂȘtre quelque nouvel Ă©clairage. Read more ›

Posted in Article