Separation of Linguistics and Philology, 1910–45

Separation of Linguistics and Philology, 1910–45: Identity, Formation and Practices of Discipline

Ku-ming Chang


Giving sound a visible existence: Wilhelm Heinitz and his Kymograph.

Scholars in different countries campaigned for the independence of linguistics in the first few decades of the twentieth century. For its independence, they fired at philology. Ironically, most of them were trained in philology, almost always in Germany, and had professorial positions in that field. In Germany, which celebrated a glorious tradition of philology, Sprachwissenschaft (science of languages) already developed as a subfield of philology, though assigned a place subordinate to philology. The subordinate position was no longer acceptable, the early advocates of linguistics asserted. With a different object and different methods, linguistics depended on philology no more. It wanted to break away as an independent discipline.

The breakaway of linguistics has gone almost unnoticed in the history of linguistics and of philology. Simplistic versions of the history of linguistics often assume that linguistics just grew out of comparative philology or Sprachwissenschaft, the branch of philology that studied phonological and morphological changes. Sophisticated versions register the disciplinary “revolution” over comparative philology that the Saussurean paradigm brought about, or the shift from historical linguistic to descriptive linguistic in the early twentieth century. The general histories of philology, simplistic or sophisticated, almost all have missed the early linguists’ non-German alliance for the independence of linguistics, which Ku-ming Chang began to investigate in a paper "Philology or Linguistics? Transcontinental Responses" (in World Philology, ed. Sheldon Pollock, Benjamin A. Elman, and Ku-ming Chang; Harvard University Press, 2015). Chang's Humboldt project extended his investigation in that article to analyze the early linguists’ justification for their identity and their collective efforts to institutionalize it. The project also examined the practice of language studies in the early decades of linguistics, the philological communities’ reactions, and the consequent redrawing of disciplinary contours.

  • Chang, K. (2015). Philology or Linguistics? Transcontinental Responses. In S. Pollock, B. A. Elman & K. K. Chang (Eds.), World Philology (pp. 311-31). Harvard University Press.
  • Chang, K. (2014). Tasks for Future Philology. The Visual-Heavy Language in Scientific Literature and its Discursive Functions. Geschichte der Germanistik 45(46), 107-27.

Funding Institutions

Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Academia Sinica Taiwan