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HUMBOLDT, WILHELM von. - [THE PHILOSOPHY OF SPEECH - PMM 301]

Über die Verschiedenheit des menschlichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einsfluss auf die Geistige Entwickelung des Menschengeschlechts.

lyn49373

Berlin, 1836. 4to. Bound with the original patterned end-papers in a later red leather binding with raised bands and gilding to spine. First and last leaves with a bit of light brownspotting. XI, (1), 511 pp. ¶ First edition of this classic study of human language, which founded the metaphysics of language - Humboldt's philological testament that founded the theory of the structure of language as the expression of the character of the language-speakers. Up until Humboldt and his "On the Diversity of Human Language..." [i.e. the present work], language was viewed as a dead means of communication, as a mere thing. With the present work, a completely new approach to language is founded, one that forms the basis of modern linguistics and upon which linguistic thought and philosophy is now based: "Language is not a finished thing at rest, but something that at every moment emerges, comes into being, and perishes; it is not so much a dead product, but far more a continuously active production... Language is the forming organ of thought." (from the present work).

Humboldt died while preparing his magnum opus, on the ancient Kawi language of Java, which thus remained a fragment, but which was published the year after his death (1835), in 1836. The present work, the most important of his productions and the final statement of his lifelong study of language, served as a general introduction to this. This lengthy foreword was completed by Humboldt himself and after his death edited by his younger brother, the great traveler and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. It was published both as a separate treatise, as here, and as the introduction to the ancient Kawi language of Java.

"On the Diversity of Human Language…" remains one of the most important attempts at drawing philosophical conclusions from comparative linguistics. This founding work of philosophy of speech "... first clearly laid down that the character and structure of a language expresses the inner life and knowledge of its speakers, and that languages must differ from one another in the same way and to the same degree as those who use them. Sounds do not become words until a meaning has been put into them, and this meaning embodies the thought of a community. What Humboldt terms the inner form of a language is just that mode of denoting the relations between the parts of a sentence which reflects the manner in which a particular body of men regards the world about them. It is the task of the morphology of speech to distinguish the various ways in which languages differ from each other as regards their inner form, and to classify and arrange them accordingly." (Encycl. Britt.).

With this work, Humboldt founds a theory of language that becomes the basis of modern thought on the subject. The basis being the identification of human language as a rule-governed system (and not merely a collection of words and phrases paired with meaning). Chomsky's thory of language, for instance, is based on Humboldt's.
Humboldt has also been credited as an originator of other linguistic theories, such as the linguistic relativity hypothesis, and as the originator of the term "worldview".

As Alfred Dove points out [in "Portraits of Linguists", edt. by T.A. Sebeok], the philosophy of language that Humboldt presents in the present work should remind one of the main works by his master, Immanuel Kant, as they present a fundamental critique of the capabilities of language. Humboldt's purely organic theory of the origin and essence of language, of the way it lives and works, not only forms the basis of certain strands of modern linguistics, it fundamentally does away with the entire mechanic comprehension of purely philological doctrine, paving the way for a metaphysical and more complex understanding of language and human nature.
Dove compares the success and influence of the linguistic theory of the present work to what happens in the fundamental work "Kosmos" by Humboldt's younger brother, Alexander. Both had the ability to unite the bold sweep of the universal tendency of the 18th century with the prudent method of individual scientific investigation of the 19th century.

"In this, his philological testament, Humboldt attempts the classification of peoples according to language. More important than the classification itself was the corollary to it, which seemed to Humboldt to imply that the development of individual languages is affected by physiology, ethnography, history, geography, political and religious relationships, and that stages in the cultural development of peoples leave strongly marked traces in their languages. In the words of A.H. Sayce, a great philologist of our own day: "This essay first clearly laid down that the character and structure of a language expresses the inner life and knowledge of the speakers, and that languages must differ from one another in the same way and to the same degree as those who use them... What Humboldt terms the inner form of the language is just that mode of denoting the relations between the part of a sentence which reflects the manner in which a particular body of men regards the world about them.

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