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 ›

Posted in Announcements, Conferences and workshops

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

Recent publications in the history and philosophy of linguistics, July-September 2018

Below is a list of some monographs and collected volumes in the history and philosophy of linguistics that have appeared recently.

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Posted in Uncategorized

In the Shadow of the Standard – a workshop

Olivia Walsh
University of Nottingham

On Saturday 22 September 2018, I organized a workshop, ‘In the Shadow of the Standard’, at the University of Nottingham. The aim of the workshop was two-fold: firstly, to explore new perspectives on how attitudes towards standard languages interact with, and influence, attitudes towards other language varieties or usages; secondly, to afford an opportunity for Early Career Scholars to network.

When we study or talk about language, we reflect particular language ideologies, that is, beliefs about language or about the relationship between language and society, which are often then used to justify or rationalize particular language uses (Silverstein 1979: 193). One of these beliefs is that ‘language homogeneity’ is a ‘natural state’ (Kroskrity 2000: 26) and that one particular form of language, the ‘standard’ language, is superior to others. This is standard language ideology (SLI, see Lippi-Green 2012), and it feeds directly into attitudes towards and about language, affecting attitudes towards both ‘non-standard’ usages (that is, deviations from the norm as codified/prescribed in grammars and dictionaries) and also towards language varieties which are viewed as ‘non-standard’ (for example, regional or minority varieties). Read more ›

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Posted in Article, Europe, History, Linguistics, Sociolinguistics

L’histoire des sciences du langage à l’épreuve des approches historiographique et épistémologique, Leysin (Suisse), 27–29.09.2018

Programme doctoral CUSO en sciences du langage
Leysin (Suisse), Hôtel de la Tour d’Aï, 27–29.09.2018

L’histoire des sciences du langage à l’épreuve des approches historiographique et épistémologique

Journées organisées par Ekaterina Velmezova et Malika Jara-Bouimarine (logistique)


– 10h00 Accueil des participants et présentation de l’école doctorale par Ekaterina VELMEZOVA (Lausanne)
– 10h15 Savina RAYNAUD (Milan) How to Work in the History of Language Sciences and Why
– 11h15 Pause
– 11h45 Savina RAYNAUD (Milan) Semiotics and Linguistics in Karl Bühler’s View and Project
– 12h45 Repas et promenade
– 14h30 Malika JARA-BOUIMARINE (Lausanne) Le russe à travers le corpus d’exemples présents dans les écrits de Charles Bally
– 15h00 Émilie WYSS (Lausanne) Les prémices de la traduction automatique en URSS: de Petr Petrovič Trojanskij à Dmitrij Jur’evič Panov
– 15h30 Alessandro CHIDICHIMO (Genève) Refresh Saussure. Réorganiser des manuscrits saussuriens grâce à des textes inconnus
– 16h00 Pause
– 16h30 Sébastien MORET (Lausanne) 1918-2018, cent ans après: Les langues dans l’Europe nouvelle d’Antoine Meillet
– 17h00 Patrick FLACK (Genève) Structuralisme et phénoménologie: entre antagonismes historiographiques et histoire partagée
– 17h30 Michail MAIATSKY (Lausanne) La théorie de l’argumentation face à la linguistique: esquisse méthodologique et institutionnelle

– 9h00 Paul COBLEY (London) The Historical Situatedness of Definitions of Language (part 1)
– 10h00 Pause
– 10h30 Paul COBLEY (London) The Historical Situatedness of Definitions of Language (part 2)
– 11h30 Kalevi KULL (Tartu) The Limits of Linguistics: On the History of Debates about Interpretation and Code
– 12h00 Repas et promenade
– 14h00 Ljubov KISSELEVA (Tartu) History of the Tartu Semiotic School
– 15h30 Pause
– 16h00 Daria ZALESSKAYA (Lausanne) Les idées et les conceptions linguistiques présentes dans les manuels de russe pour francophones publiés dans les pays francophones (1917- 1991)
– 16h30 Yuliya MAYILO (Lausanne) L’épistémologie de certains concepts de Larysa Masenko dans le discours contemporain sur la langue ukrainienne
– 17h00 Mallory FAVRE (Lausanne) Sur la réception de l’analyse du discours en Russie au début des années 2000: l’histoire d’un échec?
– 17h30 Elena SIMONATO (Lausanne) La «dialectologie coloniale» en URSS dans les années 1930-1960

– 9h00 John JOSEPH (Édimbourg) La simple histoire…
– 10h00 Pause
– 10h30 John JOSEPH (Édimbourg) …des résistances au structuralisme
– 11h30 Anna ISANINA (Lausanne) La traductologie soviétique: de la science vers l’idéologie
– 12h00 Ekaterina VELMEZOVA (Lausanne) L’histoire des idées linguistiques dans le miroir de l’Histoire (présentation des enjeux de l’école doctorale 2019 en histoire et épistémologie des sciences du langage)

Discussion générale Repas et fin de l’école doctorale

Program and abstracts :

Posted in Announcements, Conferences and workshops

CfP: The politics of classifying linguistic varieties

13-14 July 2019
Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand

With growing scholarly interest in the process of categorization, it is timely to situate linguistic categorization within the broader history of ideas. This conference invites case studies in the politics of linguistic classification that place linguistic debates within the broader context of political struggles. Selective reading of linguistic evidence can justify fanciful theories: what theories have caught the fancy of scholars? Since the politics of linguistic categorization has many dimensions, its study can be pursued on several levels. Read more ›

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Posted in Announcements, Conferences and workshops

Typology – a new task of linguistics

James McElvenny
University of Edinburgh

In lieu of an introduction

Hypologie – title pageBelow I offer an English translation of the last essay Georg von der Gabelentz (1840–1893) personally submitted for publication, “Hypologie [Typologie] der Sprachen, eine neue Aufgabe der Linguistik”.

This essay is interesting for a number of reasons, not least of all because it would seem to be the first published use of the term Typologie (typology) in a linguistic sense. The term is in fact rendered throughout the published article as Hypologie, but from other sources we can be certain that this is a typographical error, which Gabelentz was unable to correct because he passed away before the final proofs of the article reached him. That the editors of the journal did not notice the error attests to the novelty of Gabelentz’ term.

As in so many of his writings, the program Gabelentz outlines in this essay combines traditional, in many ways outmoded, concerns with innovative, hyper-modern proposals. On the one hand, Gabelentz revisits key themes from nineteenth-century language classification in a conceptual framework that appeals to notions of “race”. On the other hand, he seemingly anticipates ideas and methods that would only come to the fore in twentieth-century efforts at language typology. Read more ›

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Posted in 19th century, Article, Europe, History, Linguistics, Typology

SHLP6 – Program live

The 6th biennial meeting of the Society for the History of Linguistics in the Pacific will be held 12-14 December 2018 at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, in conjunction with the 2018 conference of the Australian Linguistics Society.

SHLP6 features an exciting program with speakers from Australia and Europe. Prof. Otto Zwartjes of Université Paris 7 Diderot will open the meeting with a masterclass on missionary linguistics. The full program can be found here at

Posted in Announcements, Conferences and workshops

Program September–December 2018

[Program updated 21 November 2018]

5 September Typology – a new task of linguistics
Georg von der Gabelentz & James McElvenny
University of Edinburgh
3 October Workshop report: In the shadow of the standard
Olivia Walsh
University of Nottingham
17 October Triangulating the history of science communication: Faraday, Marcet and Smart
Brigitte Nerlich
University of Nottingham
31 October Towards a history of concept list compilation in historical linguistics
Johann-Mattis List
MPI for the Science of Human History, Jena
28 November The Elementa grammaticae Huronicae (1745) of Pierre-Philippe Potier
Zanna Van Loon
KU Leuven
Posted in Programs