Wilhelm von Humboldt e le lingue del mondo

  • Jürgen Trabant
Keywords: Prussian Academy of Science, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, philosophy of language, linguistic comparativism


The Prussian Academy, founded by Leibniz in 1700, was one of Europe’s important centres for language studies in the 18th century. In the continuation of Leibniz’s proposal for the study of languages as testimonies of the “merveilleuse variété des opérations de notre esprit”, Wilhelm von Humboldt develops his program of an encyclopaedia of the languages of the world as a science of the human mind, since language is the formative organ of thought and languages in their diversity manifest the variety of human thought. Humboldt starts his descriptive work with Basque, then studies Amerindian languages, propagates Champollion’s discoveries in Germany, discusses Chinese with the French specialists, learns Sanskrit and becomes fascinated with the Indian religion, and finally writes a monumental comparative work on the Austronesian languages. The introduction to that work is the summa of his philosophy of language. Humboldt’s cognitive concept of language might be an antidote to destructive tendencies in actual language politics.