December 20, 2003

The mother of all universities named after a linguist

On the topic of universities named after linguists, Elihu M. Gerson writes that "Humboldt University in Berlin is named after Wilhelm Humboldt".

He's right:

"Founded in 1810 according to the concept of Wilhelm von Humboldt, the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin was the 'Mother of all modern universities'".

As the wikipedia entry for Wilhelm von Humboldt explains, he wore many hats, including Prussian minister of education. Given the connotations of the word "Prussian", some may be surprised to learn the strength of von Humboldt's libertarian beliefs. Here are a few translated quotes from his 1791 work "The Limits of State Action":

"The very variety arising from the union of numbers of individuals is the highest good which social life can confer, and this variety is undoubtedly lost in proportion to the degree of State interference."

"If it were possible to make an accurate calculation of the evils which police regulations occasion, and of those which they prevent, the number of the former would, in all cases, exceed that of the latter."

'[W]hatever labour "does not spring from a man's free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very nature; he does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness"; when the labourer works under external control, "we may admire what he does, but we despise what he is."' [From an review]

It's a bit surprising that neither the original German nor any English translation of this work appears to be available in digital form.

With respect to von Humboldt's ideas about language, here is a selection of translated passages from the von Humbolt chapter of Lehmann's Reader in Nineteenth Century Historical Indo-European Linguistics. Let me add another one, from von Humboldt's posthumous essay On Language, which I've used as the basis for an exam question:

"The articulated sound, the foundation and essence of all speech, is extorted by man from his physical organs through an impulse of his soul; and the animal would be able to do likewise, if it were animated by the same urge."

I must confess that my most vivid personal association with von Humboldt is a feeling of dread. Shortly before I finished graduate school, a certain punctilious German language instructor at my PhD institution failed a native speaker of German on her German language exam, by requiring her to translate a passage from Uber die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues. Legend had it that he was a Humboldt fanatic, who cared deeply and personally about every nuance of von Humboldt's famously dense prose. I spent a discouraging couple of days trying to persuade myself that I might do better, after which I asked to take my second language exam in Latin rather than German. Morris Halle agreed, which is one of the smaller reasons for which which I'm indebted to him.

[Note: the wikipedia entry cited above says that "Humboldt is credited with being the first linguist to identify human language as a rule-governed system, rather than just a collection of words and phrases paired with meanings." This is (almost) a self-proving sentence, since it perfomatively assigns such credit to Humboldt at least by implication; but the credit is surely not due. Panini antedated Humboldt by more than two millennia, and many others had the same idea in the intervening time].

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 20, 2003 07:42 AM