Wilhelm Von Humboldt and North American Ethnolinguistics
Boas (1894) to hymes (1961)
Noam Chomsky’s frequent references to the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt during the 1960s produced a considerable revival of interest in this 19th-century scholar in North America. This paper demonstrates that there has been a long-standing influence of Humboldt’s ideas on American linguistics and that no ‘rediscovery’ was required. Although Humboldt’s first contacts with North-American scholars goes back to 1803, the present paper is confined to the posthumous phase of his influence which begins with the work of Heymann Steinthal (1823–1899) from about 1850 onwards. This was also a time when many young Americans went to Germany to complete their education; for instance William Dwight Whitney (1827–1894) spent several years at the universities of Tübingen and Berlin (1850–1854), and in his writings on general linguistics one can trace Humboldtian ideas. In 1885 Daniel G. Brinton (1837–1899) published an English translation of a manuscript by Humboldt on the structure of the verb in Amerindian languages. A year later Franz Boas (1858–1942) arrived from Berlin soon to establish himself as the foremost anthropologist with a strong interest in native language and culture. From then on we encounter Humboldtian ideas in the work of a number of North American anthropological linguists, most notably in the work of Edward Sapir (1884–1939). This is not only true with regard to matters of language classification and typology but also with regard to the philosophy of language, specifically, the relationship between a particular language structure and the kind of thinking it reflects or determines on the part of its speakers. Humboldtian ideas of ‘linguistic relativity’, enunciated in the writings of Whitney, Brinton, Boas, and others, were subsequently developed further by Sapir’s student Benjamin Lee Whorf (1897–1941). The transmission of the so-called Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis – which still today is attracting interest among cultural anthropologists and social psychologists, not only in North America – is the focus of the remainder of the paper. A general Humboldtian approach to language and culture, it is argued, is still present in the work of Dell Hymes and several of his students.