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Linguistic Variability and Intellectual…

Linguistic Variability and Intellectual Development

by Wilhelm von Humboldt

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Wilhelm von Humboldt's classic study of human language was first published in 1836, as a general introduction to his three-volume treatise on the Kawi language of Java. It is the final statement of his lifelong study of the nature of language, exploring its universal structures and its relation to mind and culture. Empirically wide-ranging - Humboldt goes far beyond the Indo-European family of languages - it remains one of the most interesting and important attempts to draw philosophical conclusions from comparative linguistics. This 1999 volume presents a translation by Peter Heath, together with an introduction by Michael Losonsky that places Humboldt's work in its historical context and discusses its relevance to contemporary work in philosophy, linguistics, cognitive science, and psychology.… (more)



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Ha ha, my phone (where I take my notes when I don't have dead trees handy) autocorrects "Humboldt" to "Jumbo lady." He is kind of a jumbo lady--the jumbo lady of 19th century linguistics. He's important because he applied the comparative method on a massively larger scale than anything before seen, moved the field definitively into the realm of ethnographia for close to a century, and formalized what's still the basic way of classifying grammars, into inflected (come-->came), agglutinative (like if we said come-->comed, or like how we do say dance-d), and isolating (like if we said come + another word meaning IN THE PAST). He's unfortunate because he used that classification of grammars as the basis of an invidious ranking of peoples that believe it or not also persists into the present (I'm shocked--shocked!--how many "clever laypeople" or whatever want to ask me which language is the most logical or the most primitive or the easiest to learn, all of which are intrinsically meaningless notions), and perhaps in a larger sense because his whole way of looking at the world is suffused with an idealism that's somewhere between Herder's "spirits of nations" and Hegel's deterministic forces of history, but Humboldt talks about it in prose much more akin to the foggy mysticism of the latter than the plain dealing of the former. His work is more coherent than Hegel's--which doesn't make it right, or at least it's very often not right--but in terms of expression they are brothers, and that's a shame. He is a man of LEARNING, but also a man of WEIRD AND OBSCURE IDEAS--in short very GERMAN.

This book is generally referred to as the "Kawi introduction," that is, the intro to his massive three-volume study of the Kawi language of Java (never came to fruition). It's where he presents his basic concepts of what language is--its constitutive role in culture, its dependency on the mental endowment of peoples (your racism alarm should be sounding), its ultimate dependence on a force of Geisteskraft that underlies all agentive, creative, verbal acts or interactions on the part of individuals, making us creators of our own languageS in a small sense but dependent for language on the huge ever-growing pulsating brain that rules us from the centre of the Ultraworld, making human speech into an instantiation of an uncanny, inhuman force.

He's weird more than bad, though, do understand and believe that. His phonology is unsystematic but excellent, with a strong sense that sounds are not letters and that the sounds of other languages cannot be mapped over or expressed in terms of the sounds of German (a rare realization before him). He uses sound changes and grammatical forms to trace movements and encounters of peoples in a more than reasonable way, if not one that is completely borne out by our best current evidence--he sees the people of the Pacific Islands as all basically Malays, e.g. And there's this uncomfortable weirdness that breaks out: "it is still doubtful whether their language, at least, is quite alien to the negroid race." (He means that these primitive people--"negroid" or "negrito" in the parlance of the time signifies basically "Melanesian"--have a language which to his mind, since it is highly combinatory and inflected, is too good for their primitive brains and must have been borrowed from India. He thinks a people of brilliance, or individual genius (great men are the main vehicle of linguistic development, which is a bit odd--they have more geisteschrism than the rest of us, I guess?), can compensate for a language that does not foster powerful thinking, and people have used this to defend him from the racism charge, but it must be quite evident that this also means that a well-designed language can compensate for the mental deficiencies of its people. An example of the second case is Malay, as seen, and of the first, Chinese. And languages and mental development influence each other, so it's all utterly plausible and utterly confused and utterly problematic.)

In short, if language is the basis of the growth of man's mental powers and the rise and fall of his civilizations, hierarchy of languages and peoples is unavoidable. Humboldt, who was a progressive and cosmopolitan, quite wanted to get around this implication, hence contusions like above. And hence a lot of weird but kind of endearing talk about how for example the task of Chinese is to be the best damn Chinese it can be, and that an ideally bred and balanced isolating language is superior to a too-crudo or too-degenerated inflected language. (THO ITS NO SANSKRIT) But ultimately his loyalty is to Geisteskraft, the language spirit, and its historical unfolding. He could have learned so much more from Herder.

He does important descriptive work on many languages, though of course long ago superseded. His talk about the artistic use of language, like in poetry, and about semantics, is much more lateral and "each language has its own genius" than his syntax. His constant italics are annoying. It's a book with its own mix of good and evil, like any other. But you keep coming back to the racist stuff--Hans Aarsleff has been taken to task for using the word to describe Humboldt the man, but I will certainly apply it to his system. And I can see how if the fundamental goal is the gestalt-spirit, then language difference has to be a matter of the different endowments of peoples. But if he had been a bit more circumspect about that spirit, considered how people actually communicate and what drives them from inside, the book would have been richer and less strident. Language is an "energeia" not an "ergon" (work or product), that is his thing, but check it: language is also an "ergaleio" (a tool). He rejects the idea that having the structure of a language all described means we have its essence, seemingly scuttling at a move all Chomskyan attempts to claim him as an ancestor*--but then of course Chomsky would just say that Humboldt is really refuting Bloomfield and you don't just need a STRUCTURE, you need a GENERATIVE structure, and that this is the creative force meant, and it starts to seem so stupid to play the ancestors or fellow-travellers game unless we're all talking in the same terms.

And that's the thing, is that Humboldt's not there yet. David Crystal traces the development of the model of language from a two-branch thing (form and meaning) to a complex viny thing, but Humb is still at that first stage--a meaning or "innere Form" riding on a sound-form (Lautform). To him, language belongs to us but is also shared and in not being anyone's is no one's--again, prehuman. And so he says, trace the boundaries of freedom, but shun the fire at the centre. But why not pass your hand through it, scientist? Though I guess I should be careful what I wish for because that would have given us more groping. Science just isn't ready to talk about the brain in a legit, non-aprori way in 1836--so ethnography it is. It's untestable speculation brought on by remembering Newton getting hit on the head by an apple one morning and by being determined to solve human mysteries by applying your own sense of the best that has been thought and felt--not at all a spurious tool, but not good enough on its own. We cut things down into little empirical boxes instead and it leads to small ideas and small scientists--scholasticism. For Humboldt first principles are overpowering in their magnificence; for us they vanish. Probably it's the same in many sciences? You can finish this review with a sentence about the golden mean yourself.

*What he does have in common with transformative generative grammar is the idea that language is an organism, that it grows--but he thinks a SPECIFIC language grows, and that if you bring a French newborn to Germany and put it in a German family it will struggle mightily to learn at first. ( )
  MeditationesMartini | May 31, 2013 |
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