Humboldtkolleg 2013

Invisible Languages in the Nineteenth Century

Humboldt-Kolleg, Sept 25-27, 2013, Clifton Hill House, University of Bristol

supported generously by the

Alexander-von-Humboldt Foundation (Bonn),

the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS, Bristol),

the Bristol Institute for Research in the Arts and Humanities (BIRTHA, Bristol), and

 the School of Modern Languages (Bristol)




Nils Langer, Anna Havinga


This workshop will bring together scholars from the fields of linguistics, history, and anthropology to discuss a topic which - somewhat surprisingly - has received very little attention in the academic literature: the historical sociolinguistics of minority or regional language during the great age of nationalism, the nineteenth century.

It is widely accepted today that minority and regional languages are an important part of the cultural and social makeup of the area or country in which they are used. Partly, this acceptance derives from the fact that the bigger, official or national languages of a particular country are so firmly established as the (only) language of official discourse, formal writing, education, and law, that an acknowledgement of the existence of other languages in a particular country is not seen as posing a challenge or threat. Consequently, many European countries happily signed the Council of Europe's Charter for the Protection of Regional or Minority languages (since the 1990s; though many never ratified it). However, a less cynical view can also be argued: in many places, the adjectives 'local' and 'small' are genuinely seen as carrying positive connotations, not just with regard to language but also food products, company sizes, or cultural assets. What does appear to be true, however, is that such positive connotations are relatively recent and their coincidence with critical discussions of globalisation is probably no accident. Importantly for our purposes, however, these issues are rarely addressed in from a historical perspective.

As socio-cultural historians of the nineteenth century, we are interested in how minority and regional languages were viewed then, the Age of Nationalism, when the notions of language, nation, and identity were linked up in an explosive way. In particular we are keen to find out whether smaller languages were subjected to aggressive or restrictive language policies, whether they were openly - or simply by implication - excluded from official linguistic domains, such as schooling or administration, and what role they played in the nationalising discourse of the time. Agents of such stigmatisations can be found in government agencies, intellectual circles, journalists, school teachers or amongst language users themselves, who often transmitted a perceived stigma by their own unwillingness to pass on their native language to their children.

These questions are currently being asked by the lead organiser of this workshop, Nils Langer, for the area of the former Duchy of Schleswig, as part of his Humboldt fellowship at the universities of Kiel and Flensburg. He identified a number of complex scenarios in this area, which suggest that the regional sociolinguistic history there can only be understood by distinguishing very carefully between the five present languages involved, the various agents - civil servants, poets, school teachers, governments - , and the different time periods (at least the following: before 1810, 1810-1848, 1848-1864, after 1864). Most strikingly is the fact that whilst the regions boasted and in many ways still boasts of three indigenous native languages (South Jutish, Frisian, Low German), the metalinguistic debates of the time almost exclusively discussed the two other, autochthonous languages High German and Standard Danish. These latter two were the exclusive languages in writing, in church sermons[1], court trials, or publications. Occasionally, we find references to the native, non-dominant languages, e.g. in life memoirs when the direct speech of a farmer is represented, sometimes in private letters (Langer 2012), and, in the later period also as occasional poetry in school textbooks (cf. Langer & Langhanke 2013). By and large, however, the native spoken languages of the populations remain invisible in the linguistic discourses of the time - with significant consequences for their historiographies. Consequently, we face a number of interesting research questions:

o   Was this invisibility deliberately or actively pursued (e.g. through language policy)?

o   Were these languages stigmatised as being the speech of a particular national (Danes, Germans, Frisians[2]) or social group (peasants, rural population)?

o   Is there any actual data of language use for these invisibilized languages, and if so, what type of texts do they belong to (letters, diaries)?

o   Are there any other invisible languages, e.g. immigrant languages?

All these questions are in addition to the very important methodological question of: how does one study languages, which by and large are not directly accessible because of an absence of surviving data.

The workshop will use these research questions as a point of departure in order to examine to what extent the developments witnessed in nineteenth-century Schleswig can also be found in other countries, be this in Europe or elsewhere. Crucially, we widen the scope of the project not just in terms of countries and languages examined but also, by hearing the views from scholars from outside the field of historical sociolinguistics, by extending the range of areas to those researched by historians and anthropologists, who will be able to offer valuable contextualisations. This is particularly welcome, even necessary, when we consider the problem of invisible languages: a stigma of, say, the Frisian language, may not be directly verifiable given a certain paucity of evidence, but a historian or an anthropologist of Frisian studies may be able to offer valuable insights into the specific stigmatisations of Frisian culture or political persuasions from a given time.

This workshop will thus offer at least the following:

o a detailed comparison of the historical sociolinguistics of smaller languages in the nineteenth century

o an interdisciplinary approach, combining insights from different philologies and research specialisms

o a critical assessment of the Language-Nation-Identity discourse in the nineteenth century

o a contrasting comparison of language use, language stigma, and language policy




[1] At least officially. Some accounts speak of pastors preaching in South Jutish, Low German, or Frisian, but in doing so, they broke with official recommendations.

[2] We are aware that by then already, most Frisians in the region considered themselves ethnically German. But the question is still worth asking.