History of the Language Sciences

The history of the language sciences has expanded considerably in recent years, moving to consider broader disciplinary constellations, global developments, extra-intellectual dynamics, and non-elite actors. This group builds upon that energy, seeking to underscore the centrality of linguistic knowledge to the history and historiography of science. It provides a forum where those with interests in all varieties of linguistic research can come together to share work in progress, engage in “slow reading,” and build community through discussion.

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Consortium Respectful Behavior Policy

Participants at Consortium activities will treat each other with respect and consideration to create a collegial, inclusive, and professional environment that is free from any form of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation.

Participants will avoid any inappropriate actions or statements based on individual characteristics such as age, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, nationality, political affiliation, ability status, educational background, or any other characteristic protected by law. Disruptive or harassing behavior of any kind will not be tolerated. Harassment includes but is not limited to inappropriate or intimidating behavior and language, unwelcome jokes or comments, unwanted touching or attention, offensive images, photography without permission, and stalking.

Participants may send reports or concerns about violations of this policy to conduct@chstm.org.

Upcoming Meetings

  • Tuesday, May 28, 2024 9:00 am to 10:30 am EDT

    Chen-Pang Yeang, "Information, Cryptography, and Noise" 
    This talk, which draws on the attached chapter, focuses on the roles of noise in Claude Shannon's development of information theory in the 1940s. It explains how Shannon formed his core concepts of generic noise through his wartime cryptographic work, how such concepts of noise configured his so-called "channel Coding Theorem," and how he came up with various visual representations of noise as modeling of uncertainty at large. While the content of this presentation is not about linguistics in its narrow sense, Shannon's information theory did have profound influences on the studies of languages in the mid-20th century. His talk about redundancy, entropy, and coding became well-known intellectual resources among linguists at the time.

Past Meetings

  • March 12, 2024

    Stella Gevorgyan-Ninness and Ian Stewart, "Informal Networks and Official Surveys: Language Collecting in the Nineteenth Century"
    This session features two papers about 19th collection practices, which should provide rich opportunities for comparative analysis (!).
    Stella Gevorgyan-Ninness, "Creating Language Expertise: Informal Transnational Networks in the Nineteenth Century"  
    This presentation offers some preliminary results from a chapter in my manuscript on the acquisition of linguistic knowledge among Armenian, German, and Russian scholars in the nineteenth century. It deals with the contribution of informal networks to scholarship. Using my circulation of knowledge research, it is possible to observe from the end of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century, for example, missionaries and lay people from different countries were interested in Slavic languages and Native American languages. 
    This cooperation led to changes in two areas: firstly, missionaries and lay people helped advance language science, and secondly, their disagreement but also agreement about how language science should be written helped to place language expertise in institutions and begin the work of writing a nation’s language history. This professionalization of language science separated many loosely connected interests in ethnographic research, travel literature, the study of society into separate disciplines. These developments provide a bridge for understanding the European comparative historical linguistics of Franz Bopp, August Schleicher, and Jacob Grimm from the early to the mid-nineteenth century which created a new system of language classification. This research would not have been possible without the work of missionaries and lay scholars including women. My paper will provide a few examples of these informal transnational networks devoted to Slavic and Native American languages.
    Ian Stewart, "The First Linguistic Survey of India, c. 1806-c. 1811"
    This article recovers the history of the first systematic British attempts to survey the languages of India. Long before George Abraham Grierson proposed his monumental survey of Indian languages, the Scottish judge James Mackintosh suggested a similar undertaking to the Literary Society of Bombay in 1806. This article follows those who pursued the project over the next five years. Their efforts stretched across India, the northwest frontier into Afghanistan, east into Burma, as far north as Nepal and all the way south into Ceylon. Almost all of those involved in these efforts were Scots educated at the University of Edinburgh, and so as well as reconstructing a forgotten chapter in the history of British imperialism, this article supplements our pictures of the histories of imperial knowledge production and Scottish orientalism.

  • February 13, 2024

    Kristine Palmieri, "Grand Visions of Alterthumswissenschaft: Classical Philology as Language Science in early Nineteenth-Century Germany"
    This chapter examines three grand visions of classical philology that were articulated in the period 1805–1807. This analysis focuses especially on the vision of George Friedrich Creuzer (1771–1858), professor of philology and ancient history at the University of Heidelberg, and on his statement that, “the science of antiquity presents two sides for consideration, the historical and the exemplary.” Creuzer’s views are compared first with those of Johann Heinrich Voß (1751–1826), the famous translator of Homer and devout philhellene, who was radically opposed to Creuzer’s approach to classical philology. This chapter then turns to the programmatic statement on classical philology, “Description of the Science of Antiquity” (Darstellung der Alterthumswissenschaft) (1807) written by Friedrich August Wolf (1759–1824). The comparison of these three views both illuminates the relationship between philology and pedagogy, which emphasizes the important role that the classical philology played in the development of cultural philhellenism, and highlights the unique status of the philology seminar as a space in which classical philology was taught as an independent field of scientific research.

  • January 9, 2024

    Paul Michael Kurtz, "Knowledge Infrastructure ca. 1900: The Case of Assyriology at the British Museum" 
    Stripping himself in excitement at the British Museum, George Smith stated, in 1872, “I am the first man to read that after more than two thousand years of oblivion.” What he read both shocked and awed: an account of the Deluge – yet from a still more ancient age and in a different language than Genesis. Controversy ensued, of biblical proportions. But how did that clay fragment make its way to London, from Iraq, and how could that now famous text become visible in the first place, buried not only under earth but also beneath crystalline deposits?

    This paper presents an initial foray into the history of infrastructure in Semitic philology during the nineteenth century. Focusing on the transport of cuneiform tablets from Iraq, on the one hand, and their storage, organization, and processing at the British Museum, on the other, it examines material problems and material solutions at the bedrock of philology. It considers the affordances essential to making, transmitting, and inculcating textual and linguistic knowledge. Along the way, this exploration examines processes of experimentation and boundaries between experts and technicians and addresses larger questions of epistemic objects, actor-networks, and cooked data.

    E.A. Wallis Budge, The Rise & Progress of Assyriology (London: Hopkinson, 1925), 143–74. Available digitally on Archive.org.

  • December 12, 2023

    Gregory Radick (University of Leeds), "Language, Darwinism and the Human/Non-Human Boundary"
    Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871) includes a famous passage on moral progress as due to human reason continuously expanding the range of beings to whom – and, eventually, to which – human sympathies extend.  This chapter tracks the fortunes of this passage across the last century and a half of public Darwinism, dwelling in particular on three instances: first, its debut in Darwin’s Descent; second, its return in the 1950 UNESCO Statement on the “Race Question,” as the sole quotation from a scientific author; third, its return again in the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker’s 2011 bestseller The Better Angels of Our Nature, as an epigraph to the concluding chapter.  Against any impression that this lineage might convey of a consensus stably enduring from Darwin’s day to ours, I aim to show on the contrary that beneath the surface continuity is a remarkable discontinuity, located in the years around 1900.  Once we recognize this discontinuity, we can better understand how Darwinian theory came to be used in the twentieth century first to underwrite the concept of human rights biologically and then to undermine that concept.

  • November 14, 2023

    Michael E. Lynch (Cornell University), "Harvey Sacks and the 'Linguistics Turn' in the Analysis of Conversation" 
    Harvey Sacks (1935–1975) is generally acknowledged as the founder of conversation analysis, which originated as part of the sociological subfield of ethnomethodology. Although he died at the age of 40 in an automobile accident nearly 50 years ago, there has been renewed interest in his work, in part because the field of Conversation Analysis (CA), which became established in the social and behavioral sciences in the decades following his death, appears to some of us to have drifted from Sacks’ radical treatment of conversation as a social production. This presentation is part of an effort based on readings and online discussions of Sacks’ transcribed lectures and some preliminary research at the Sacks’ archive. The focus of this presentation will be on the ‘linguistics turn’ in Conversation Analysis (not to be confused with, the linguistic turn in mid-20 th century Anglo-American philosophy). This ‘turn’ from ethnomethodology (the investigation of elementary features of human actions) to subfields of linguistics (psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, pragmatics) has broadened interest in CA, but calls for a reminder of Sacks’ use of linguistic resources in his investigations. The talk will focus on how Sacks, in his transcribed lectures and writings, invokes grammatical features of sentences as resources that parties to a conversation to compose and coordinate social actions. Sacks’ turn is from linguistic order to orders of coordinated action. In recent years, the professional ‘turn’ in CA has gone from a focus on social action to analysis of particulars of language and psychology.

  • October 10, 2023

    James McElvenny and Floris Solleveld, "Australian Languages and Cultures: Histories of Documentation" 
    This session features two papers about the study of Australian Aboriginal languages in the 19th century, how the cultural and natural environment was entailed in that study, and the colonial/missionary/scientific networks of which it was part.
    Colonial science between Kleinstaaterei and the Word of God: The 1838 Lutheran mission to South Australia
    James McElvenny (University of Siegen)
    In this talk, I present a case study of the first Lutheran mission to South Australia and look at the entanglements it reveals between scientific data collection in the colonial field, Protestant missionary efforts, and the political jockeying and pursuit of prestige among the German states of the nineteenth century. The focus lies on Christian Gottlob Teichelmann (1807–1888) and Clamor Wilhelm Schürmann (1815–1893), sent in 1838 by the Dresden Missionary Society to proselytize the Aboriginal inhabitants of Adelaide. Their ordination in the small central German duchy of Altenburg led them into an association with the local Naturforschende Gesellschaft des Osterlandes and the nobleman Hans Conon von der Gabelentz (1807–1874), senior government official in the duchy and renowned gentleman scholar. Through this association, Teichelmann and Schürmann sent back to Altenburg natural scientific specimens and linguistic and ethnographic documentation from South Australia. I will examine how typical this arrangement was in the scientific landscape of the time and the place of the data and specimens collected by the missionaries in the circulation of knowledge between the colonial field and European metropole.
    Holy Echidnas: The McCrae-Lloyd correspondence on Aboriginal and San language and culture
    Floris Solleveld (University of Bristol)
    In May 1875, Australian poet George Gordon McCrae sent a letter to German philologist Wilhelm Bleek in Cape Town, responding to a request for information about Aboriginal languages and cultures in Australian newspapers. By the time McCrae’s letter arrived in November, Bleek was dead. However, Bleek’s sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd, with whom he had been working in his final years to record a massive corpus of San [Bushman] oral literature from |Xam narrators, kept up the correspondence.
    With the ensuing letters, McCrae sent Lloyd a collection of essays on shamanism and food taboos among the Kulin Aboriginal people of Port Philip Bay (near Melbourne) as well as several vocabularies. One essay, about the food taboos regarding the holy parts of the ‘porcupine ant eater’ (echidna), inspired Lloyd to draw comparisons with a |Xam tale about a man who turned into a porcupine and talked to the rain but said something wrong that made the rain turn to hail. This correspondence has only recently come to light and narrowly escaped destruction in the 2021 fire at UCT libraries. I will discuss it against the background of colonial-age cultural and linguistic comparisons, and in relation to the theories of Wilhelm Bleek about the origin of language and grammatical gender in particular.

  • September 12, 2023

    Introductions, "Epistemic Transfer"
    For this first meeting, we invite all participants to bring an image, slide, excerpt, artifact, or recording to share and discuss. We hope that these will help us introduce our interests  to one another and, ideally, to frame the theme of epistemic transfer, which will guide our readings and presentations this year. With this thematic focus, our goal is to highlight historical interactions between the language sciences and other knowledge traditions, so we heartily welcome objects for show-and-tell that come from outside mainstream linguistics. Participants are encouraged to think about instances where transfers (e.g., of methods, concepts, tools, and norms) have been embraced, mediated, resisted, or even refused. To inform our discussion and analysis of these objects, we ask everyone to please read the essay "History of Science and History of Philologies" by Lorraine Daston and Glenn Most before coming to the meeting.

Group Conveners

  • kmkchang's picture

    Kevin Chang

    Kevin Chang works at Taiwan’s national academy, Academia Sinica in Taipei. He received his PhD at the University of Chicago and started as a historian of science and medicine in early modern Europe. He has since expanded his research areas to the global history of higher education, media studies, the comparative history of philology and language sciences. He co-edited World Philology (Havard UP, 2015) with Sheldon Pollock and Benjamin Elman, Impagination: Materiality and Layout of Writing and Publication (De Gruyter, 2021) with Anthony Grafton and Glenn Most, and A Global History of Research Education (Oxford UP, 2021) with Alan Rocke. He has completed a manuscript on the global history of the dissertation as a genre of academic writing.


  • JudithRHKaplan's picture

    Judy Kaplan

    Judy Kaplan is a cultural and intellectual historian of the human sciences with a focus on nineteenth- and twentieth-century linguistic research. She has published widely on subjects from orientalism to sound studies and is currently working on a new project that unravels histories of research on language universals. She is the NSF Fellow in Residence at the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine.


  • FlorisSolleveld's picture

    Floris Solleveld

    Floris Solleveld is a research associate at the University of Bristol working on 19th-century missionary translation networks. His Ph.D. thesis (Radboud University Nijmegen, 2018) analyzed transformations in the humanities around 1800; as FWO Postdoctoral Fellow at KU Leuven (2018-2022) he studied the imperial-era “mapping” of the world’s languages and peoples. Other research interests include the Republic of Letters and the history of historiography.


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