James McElvenny is a linguist and historian of science whose research focuses on the history of modern linguistics. He is currently a researcher in the Special Collaborative Research Centre “Media of Co-operation” at the University of Siegen.
Typological questions have played an important role in language scholarship since at least the beginning of disciplinary linguistics in the early 19th century. The first use of the term “typology” in a specifically linguistic sense, however, would seem to have come at the end of that century, in a posthumous 1894 paper by the German linguist and sinologist Georg von der Gabelentz (1840–1893). Gabelentz’ paper represents a pivotal – and yet somewhat underappreciated – moment in the history of linguistics, which links traditional concerns of 19th-century language classification with innovative, hyper-modern proposals that seem to anticipate key features of later efforts in language typology from the early 20th century up to the present day. In this talk, I will examine Gabelentz’ proposals in historical context and see what lessons this history might offer to us as practising linguists today.