Georg von der Gabelentz
- James McElvennyJames McElvennyInstitut für Romanistik, Universitaet Potsdam
The German sinologist and general linguist Georg von der Gabelentz (1840–1893) occupies an interesting place at the intersection of several streams of linguistic scholarship at the end of the 19th century. As Professor of East Asian languages at the University of Leipzig from 1878 to 1889 and then Professor for Sinology and General Linguistics at the University of Berlin from 1889 until his death, Gabelentz was present at some of the main centers of linguistics at the time. He was, however, generally critical of mainstream historical-comparative linguistics as propagated by the neogrammarians, and instead emphasized approaches to language inspired by a line of researchers including Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), H. Steinthal (1823–1899), and his own father, Hans Conon von der Gabelentz (1807–1874).
Today Gabelentz is chiefly remembered for several theoretical and methodological innovations which continue to play a role in linguistics. Most significant among these are his contributions to cross-linguistic syntactic comparison and typology, grammar-writing, and grammaticalization. His earliest linguistic work emphasized the importance of syntax as a core part of grammar and sought to establish a framework for the cross-linguistic description of word order, as had already been attempted for morphology by other scholars. The importance he attached to syntax was motivated by his engagement with Classical Chinese, a language almost devoid of morphology and highly reliant on syntax. In describing this language in his 1881 Chinesische Grammatik, Gabelentz elaborated and implemented the complementary “analytic” and “synthetic” systems of grammar, an approach to grammar-writing that continues to serve as a point of reference up to the present day. In his summary of contemporary thought on the nature of grammatical change in language, he became one of the first linguists to formulate the principles of grammaticalization in essentially the form that this phenomenon is studied today, although he did not use the current term. One key term of modern linguistics that he did employ, however, is “typology,” a term that he in fact coined. Gabelentz’s typology was a development on various contemporary strands of thought, including his own comparative syntax, and is widely acknowledged as a direct precursor of the present-day field.
Gabelentz is a significant transitional figure from the 19th to the 20th century. On the one hand, his work seems very modern. Beyond his contributions to grammaticalization avant la lettre and his christening of typology, his conception of language prefigures the structuralist revolution of the early 20th century in important respects. On the other hand, he continues to entertain several preoccupations of the 19th century—in particular the judgment of the relative value of different languages—which were progressively banished from linguistics in the first decades of the 20th century.