LINGUIST List 5.1205

Mon 31 Oct 1994

Disc: Linguistics and Imperialism

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. benji wald, Ling and imperialism

Message 1: Ling and imperialism

Date: Mon, 24 Oct 94 16:54 PDT
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Ling and imperialism

I would venture to guess that not many people would want to reply to
Grosserhode's question about the relationship between linguistics and
imperialism (including the Roman Empire), but I think it could be made
interesting. First thing we have to decide is how far back we want to
trace linguistics -- and does that refer to all documented inquiries
into the multiplicity of languages. As far as I can remember (not
because Iwas there) the first documents which might be called linguistic
date back to bilingual Sumerian/Akkadian cuneiform tablets, where
extensive paradigms (crudely organised but painfully exhaustive) were
presented. Imperialism aside, apparently the motivation was that
Sumerian was still the written language of the empire(?) but Akkadian
had replaced it as the spoken language, necessitating training in
Sumerian for writing purposes (obviously Akkadian was also written at
that time, but Sumerian still had a position similar to Latin in
Europe up to the vernacularisation drives. I don't know enough about
the Sumerian/Akkadian society to know if and when it gathered enough
people of different linguistic backgrounds to be considered an "empire",
but it seems quite obvious that the larger the empire and the more
spoken languages contained in it, the more linguistic type work is
stimulated for practical reasons -- and people who are interested in
language and language diversity for its own sake (and I'm sure they
predate writing) jump on the opportunity. Writing, however, probably
plays a large role in making empires possible/manageable. Benji
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue