Historiography of linguistics

Historiography of science

The historiography of any science – that is the study, review and critical appraisal of its history – can be undertaken with manifold objectives and epistemological aims. These comprise, to name but a few

  • the very tangible intention of (re-)introducing the scientific community to individual texts and materials that had hitherto lain dormant,
  • the production of biographicaphical studies of authors of the past, the analysis of the connections between these authors, the critical evaluation of their work and the potential impact it may or may not have had on the field,
  • the investigation of the scientific affiliation of theoretical terms, constructs and ideas that are being employed up to the present,
  • the analysis of the methodology used in former times to reach hypotheses,
  • the placement of the discipline or parts of it into the wider context of general and scientific thought of the time.

Taken together, topics such as these form the basis for the more expansive purpose of providing an in-depth knowledge base for a science's development over time. This may not only serve to provide students with "a thorough grounding in the heritage that informs current research acitivity" (Koerner 1999:5) but may also help identify and, in some cases, understand some of said science's present problems and issues, for example when it comes to verifying "exaggerated claims in terms of novelty, originality, breakthrough and revolution" (Koerner 1999:8).

Linguistic historiography

As concerns the language sciences, the work of times (long) past has held an interest for linguists from antiquity onwards and flourished, for example, during the 19th century within the newly developing field of historical-comparative linguistics. The reasons for dealing with such work were quite varied, ranging from the wish to preserve and maintain (and appeal to) what was perceived as authoritative scientific thought to the attempts at pinpointing the exact progress the discipline has made over time.

As a subfield of linguistics and professional research program, i.e. obeying scientific standards concerning theory building and methodology, linguistic historiography came into its own right from the 1960s to the 1970s onward and has, by now, evolved into a fully-fledged scientific discipline, bringing forth an expertise that by far exceeds the mere chronology of scientific thought and ideas (cf, for example, Schmitters 2003).

Historiography and colonial linguistics

During the times of German colonial rule in parts of Africa, China, Papua New Guinea and Micronesia (approximately 1884 - 1918) a vast body of language-related work was produced for a subset of the equally vast number of languages encountered by linguists and linguistic laypersons alike – grammars, text-books, comparative studies, analyses of specific, seemingly 'exotic' linguistic features, comprehensive attempts at a linguistic typology of the languages in the respective areas etc. These materials have been somewhat sidelined within linguistic historiography, that is, a systematic linguistic reappraisal has so far not been undertaken. This seems a regrettable oversight for a number of reasons.

  • To begin with, part of this work is still being used in modern linguistics, for example a number of reference grammars produced during colonial times. Of what value are these grammars and how do they compare to modern approaches? Do the seemingly familiar terms and categories used for language description, i.e. constructs such as noun and verb, subject and object stand for the same concepts as they do in modern linguistics (where, on a side note, their meaning is anything but consensually defined)? How did the early grammarians deal with linguistic phenomena they had not encountered previously and can the claim be substantiated that the grammatical tradition from Greek and Latin grammars had been – more or less awkwardly – imposed on languages exhibiting completely different linguistic structures and features (cf, for example, Henning 2009).
  • In what way did concepts such as 'superiority' or 'primitiveness' (of languages and peoples) impinge on linguistic descriptions and to what degree where structural features of languages instrumentalised in order to uphold a status quo of alleged cultural supremacy? Answers to these questions may in turn help clarify the interplay between linguistic theory and ideology during colonial times, surely an important desideratum considering the fact that some of the work published can be seen as providing the cornerstone for what was later to develop into the field of Afrikanistik (African Studies) in Germany (cf, for example, Cyffer 2011).
  • The work is also relevant for it was produced on the eve of a major scientific turn within linguistics, namely the advent of structuralism. This raises a number of questions, for example concerning the relationship between the linguistic work on languages encountered in the colonies and works by authors such as Steinthal, Delbrück, Brugmann, Müller or Wundt, i.e. by authors that are considered to have been instrumental in shaping certain schools of general linguistic thought. To what degree was the description and analysis of African, Micronesian etc. languages influcenced by current linguistic theory and methodology, and did in turn the description and discovery of novel linguistic features in said languages exert an influence on general linguistic theory of the time?
  • In this context, another interesting point in need of clarification would be the question to what extent the work on languages in the colonies was part of the foundation for the highly ideoligised, racist pseudo-science that German linguistics, ignoring the above mentioned developments in European and American linguistics, turned into during the Nazi era (cf, for example, Roemer 1985).

These questions form a major part of the historiographic interest of our research group.

S. Hackmack | 20 February 2012


Koerner, Konrad: 1999 Linguistic historiography: projects & prospects. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins.

Hennig, Mathilde: 2009 Zum deutschen Blick auf grammatische Eigenschaften von Kolonialsprachen. In: Ingo H. Warnke (Hg): Deutsche Sprache und Kolonialismus. Aspekte der nationalen Kommunikation 1884 – 1919. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009. 119 – 144.

Römer, Ruth: 1985 Sprachwissenschaft und Rassenideologie in Deutschland. München: Fink.

Schmitters, Peter: 2003 Historiographie und Narration. Metahistoriographische Aspekte der Wissenschaftsgeschichtsschreibung der Linguistik. Tübingen: Gunter Narr.

Cyffer, Norbert: 2011 Gibt es primitive Sprachen – oder ist Deutsch auch primitiv? In: Stolz, Thomas, Barbara Dewein & Christina Vossmann (Hg.): Kolonialzeitliche Sprachforschung. Die Beschreibung afrikanischer und ozeanischer Sprachen zur Zeit der deutschen Kolonialherrschaft. Berlin: Akademie Verlag. 55–74.