Gathering Language. Language atlases, comparative grammars, and ethnolinguistic classification in the long 19th century
In the 19th century, language became the object of a 'science of language', i.e. linguistics. My research is concerned with how the languages of the world were mapped and made part of that science. This requires an analysis of how linguistic fieldwork and language classification overlapped with geography and ethnic (racial) classification, in an ethically problematic context. Thus my research contributes to a global history of knowledge from a cross-disciplinary perspective, with a central role for the study of non-Indo-European languages and the complex interplay between first-hand knowledge and the emergence/varieties of professional expertise.
My project focuses on a set of approx. twenty 19th-century and early 20th-century language atlases and comparative grammars which offered an overview of Siberian, African, American, South Indian, and Oceanic languages, and investigates how these overviews are structured and how they came into being. The first leading question is on what grammars, word lists, sample texts, manuscripts, and other 'language material' they were based, and how this material, in turn, was gathered through exploring missions, by missionaries, and in colonial situations. The second leading question is how this material was used to describe and classify not just languages but also the people who spoke them.