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date: 24 May 2017

Humboldtian Tradition in Language Study and Linguistics

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

Although often considered primarily a philosopher of language, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835) was also directly engaged in the empirical study of diverse languages. His work inspired several strands of linguistic research that persisted—with varying degrees of faithfulness to his original ideas—into the first half of the 20th century. Humboldtian linguistics sought to provide an empirically grounded account of the human language faculty (das menschliche Sprachvermögen), while at the same time examining each language as an individual “organism.” This approach, with its tension between the universal and the particular, was embedded in an idealist philosophy that understood languages as both the product and the continual cultivator of the shared mentality of their speakers.

Research in the Humboldtian tradition was dominated by three main concerns: capturing and describing the individual character of languages, exploring and classifying the limits of language variation, and investigating the forces at work in the historical evolution of languages. These concerns were pursued in different ways by several scholars in subsequent generations who explicitly claimed Humboldt’s legacy, such as H. Steinthal (1823–1899), August Friedrich Pott (1802–1887), August Schleicher (1821–1868), Georg von der Gabelentz (1840–1893), Karl Vossler (1872–1949), and Leo Weisgerber (1899–1985). Many of the themes continue up to the present day, with greater or lesser influence from the Humboldtian tradition, in such fields as grammatical theory, language documentation, and linguistics typology.