Coquebert de Montbret and the birth of linguistic geography in France. A conversation with Sven Ködel

Sven Ködel was the first person I thought about when I decided to organise a seminar series on the history and methods of linguistic geography, having read about his fascinating research on the diplomat and savant Charles-Étienne Coquebert de Montbret (1751-1831), who carried out groundbreaking work on France’s linguistic geography during the early 19th century. Sven, now deputy director of the library at the German Historical Institute in Paris, will present his research during our next seminar session on Friday 26 March (2PM CET), alongside Guylaine Brun-Trigaud and Mathieu Avanzi.


Can you introduce yourself in a few words?

I am fom Germany but moved to France after completing a Master in Romance Studies at the universities of Bamberg, Paris and Urbino. Before starting a PhD, I participated in the Franco-German exchange programm for parliamentary interships, then decided to stay right in Paris in order to engage in a binational doctorate between the universities of Bamberg and Paris-Diderot which allowed me at the same time to give a interdisciplinary framework to my project, combining linguistics and history. Towards the end of my PhD project, I started working at the library of the German Historical Institute in Paris where I had been before as a trainee and then again as a doctoral fellow. After my PhD, I continued with a Master in Library and Information Science at the Humboldt University of Berlin, alongside my work as librarian at the GHI. Today I am deputy head of the institute’s library.


What is your current research topic? How does it relate to language geography or cartography?

My interests evolved along my activities. I am still loyal to Coquebert de Montbret’s research, namely in the field of linguistics, but looking more on his private library from the point of view from the history of science and the history of collections, trying to understand the library’s role as a research place and tool for historical, geographical and linguistic or philological work around the 1800s, with a focus on the multilingual dimension of the collection and its sub-collections covering the regional languages and dialects of France. Nonetheless geography and cartography form an important part of this library, as main interests of Charles-Étienne Coquebert de Montbret, whereas his son Eugène was drawn more to linguistics and philology. Today’s Fonds Montbret held at the library of Rouen still reserves a lot of surprises: it is not yet fully catalogued, and a few hundred maps were “rediscovered” only 20 years ago. I still maintain hope to find Coquebert de Montbret’s manuscript map of the languages spoken in France that was lost somewhat around the 1830s.



What initially lead you to develop an interest in Coquebert de Montbret ?

My Master theses was about the connection beween language policies and national identity in France during the revolutionary period. Coquebert de Montbret’s linguistic survey is often briefly adressed within this context, but most publications focus on a particular language or dialect covered by the survey. I therefore knew that there would be a lot of manuscript material that was still unexploited. My aim however was to understand the methodological approach of Coquebert de Montbret and the scope of the survey as a whole. This replaced the enquête more in the history of linguistics and dialectology – and of linguistic geography of course – than in the social history of France’s regional idioms.



[Heinrich Berghaus, “Sprachkarte von Frankreich”, 1848, via Gallica]



What sources do you use? To which extent do you rely on fieldwork or archives, and materials by other scholars

For my doctoral thesis, I depended nearly exclusively on archival material: manuscript notes, correspondencies, maps, dialect samples… The documentation of the execution as well as the results of the survey are very complete but scattered over several archives and libraries. Some scholars cited passages or individual letters and language samples from this rich documentation, but it has never been entirely edited. This is still a project to come. As for the Coquebert de Montbrets’ private library, I am regularly in Rouen since a stage d’élève conservateur a few years ago to work with the physical book copies containing their annotations, markings on book provenance and so on. Isabelle Laboulais, who wrote her thesis on Charles-Étienne Coquebert de Montbret’s scientific biography, is the only scholar so far to have studied his book and map collection.


According to you, what can an historical approach bring to the study of linguistic geography?

As a student, my first encounter with linguistic geography was simply as a means of representation of language variation in space. I would therefore mention the necessary reflection on the concepts and tools we use, i.e. the context in which they originated, to what purpose they were developed and how they evolved over time. Beyond the use of historical data for the diachronic study of the geography of languages, this opens up questions on how the geographical and cartographical representation of language modified the perception of linguistic diversity and what consequences this might have brought, like political or ideological instrumentalizations or how maps as tools of knowledge influenced the work of linguists.


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

As my topic falls in the period when geography and cartography were just being established as proper scientific disciplines, I would recommend three books on the history of French geography and their interconnection with humanities and social sciences:

Anne Marie Claire Godlewska, Geography Unbound: French Geographic Science from Cassini to Humboldt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Hélène Blais, Isabelle Laboulais, Charles W. J. Withers, Dominique Margairaz, Isabelle Surun, Géographies plurielles: Les sciences géographiques au moment de l’émergence des sciences humaines. Paris, France: L’Harmattan, 2006.

Jean-Marc Besse, Hélène Blais, Isabelle Surun (ed.), Naissances de la géographie moderne (1760-1860). Lieux, pratiques et formation des savoirs de l’espace, Paris, ENS Éditions, 2010.



See also :

Guylaine Brun Trigaud, “Les enquêtes dialectologiques sur les parlers du Croissant : corpus et témoins”, Langue française, n°93, 1992, “Enquête, corpus et témoin”, sous la direction de Gabriel Bergounioux”, en particulier p.26 et suivantes, URL:

Isabelle Laboulais-Lesage, Lectures et pratiques de l’espace. L’itinéraire de Coquebert de Montbret, savant et grand commis d’État (1755‑1831), Paris: Honoré Champion, 1999

Workshop and conference – Language contact in Francophone African countries [online]

Colleagues at the linguistic department in Grenoble have put up an online workshop that might be of interest for researchers with a focus on language contact or the linguistic geography of several African countries.Le 19 mars 202110h-11h. See information in French below and here.

“Dans le cadre des Journées de la francophonie, la communauté doctorante du LIDILEM (Laboratoire de Linguistique et Didactique des Langues Étrangères et Maternelles)  organise une matinée scientifique sur la thématique des francophonies africaines.
Cette matinée s’ouvrira sur une conférence plénière animée par le professeur Denis Creissels, professeur émérite en linguistique : «Dynamique des contacts de langues dans les pays francophones d’Afrique».
Cette conférence introduira la thématique au grand public en mettant en avant les spécificités des langues africaines (différences structurelles, situations sociolinguistiques) et leurs niveaux de contact avec le français.

À distance
ID de réunion : 810 8754 8135
Code secret : 123″

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