Linguistic geography and ethnolinguistics in the long 19th century. A conversation with Floris Solleveld


This post initiates a Q&A series with scholars from various disciplines whose research relates to linguistic geography, its history, methods and contemporary challenges. First up is Floris Solleveld, from KU Leuven, who recently studied the linguistic works of Julius Klaproth, Richard Lepsius, Wilhelm von Humboldt and George Grey.


Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

I am currently a Postdoc at KU Leuven funded by the Flemish Research Council and living in Brussels – but I will spend all of 2021 at Leiden University as a guest researcher and move back to Amsterdam, which is where I grew up.

What is your research topic? 

My PhD was about transformations in the humanities from the mid-18th to mid-19th century. Currently, I am working on a project about ethnolinguistics, language materials, and language atlases in the long 19th century.

What initially lead you to develop an interest for linguistic geography and maps in particular?

I first came across a copy of Wilhelm Schmidt’s atlas of Sprachfamilien und Sprachenkreisen der Erde (1926)while helping liquidate a library that was stored in a bomb-proof cellar underneath the building where I had my student job. At that point I was a philosophy student with a side interest in the history of linguistics, which increased as I moved from philosophy to history. Then ten years later, while I was a Stipendiat at Research Centre Gotha in the final phase of my PhD and frantically writing postdoc applications, it dawned on me that I could do something with ethnolinguistics and language materials.


Die Sprachfamilien und Sprachenkreisen der Erde (1926), by Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954)



What sources do you use? What strikes you most about those documents? 

I mainly work with 19th-century collections of language materials, like Humboldt’s in Berlin, or George Grey’s and Wilhelm Bleek’s in Cape Town and Auckland. What I am interested in is the trajectories of these materials, and how they are rewritten and reformulated into linguistic data. For instance, you see Humboldt and Bleek literally rewriting missionary grammars to meet their own scientific standards. One of my prize finds in Cape Town was a correspondence between Australian poet George Gordon McCrae and Bleek’s sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd, in which McCrae encloses essays on Australian Aboriginal myths and rituals and Lloyd draws comparisons with Bushman folklore that she collected.


Wilhelm Bleek (1827-1875)



According to you, what can your discipline and approach bring to the study of linguistic geography? 

Making it part of the global history of knowledge. Tracing the sources of 19th-century ethnolinguistics leads you into ethnological collections, colonial archives, and unsavoury racial theories, and shows you that disciplines are always defined in interrelation.

Can you name a few books about linguistic geography that you would recommend?

Well, there aren’t that many historical books about the subject! The most complete and perceptive analysis of linguistic geography is in Javed Majeed’s two books about the Linguistic Survey of India (Colonialism and Knowledge, 2019; Nation and Region, 2019). I am currently reading Native Tongues (2015) by Sean Harvey which discusses the language maps of Albert Gallatin, Horatio Hale, and John Wesley Powell. Then there are worthwhile chapters about Julius Klaproth’s language atlas of Asia and about Johann Schmeller’s mapping of Bavarian dialects in Tuska Benes’ In Babel’s Shadow (2008). I’m surprised that nobody has written a book about Klaproth yet, he was quite a picturesque figure.


Julius Klaproth’s ‘Asia Polyglotta’ map, from Asia Polyglotta (1823)




Floris Solleveld’s latest publications:

“Expanding the Comparative View: Humboldt’s Über die Kawi-Sprache and its Language Materials”, Historiographia Linguistica 47.1: 49-78

“Lepsius as a Linguist: Fieldwork, Philology, Phonetics, and the ‘Hamitic Hypothesis’”, Language & History 63.3 [prepublished online]

For other publications, see Floris’ page:



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