Linguistics and Ideology in 19th and 20th Century Studies of Language

Konrad Koerner

Unlike other social scientists in physical anthropology (e.g., Dostal 1994), folklore (e.g., Dow & Lixfeld 1994), and archaeology (e.g. Arnold & Hassmann 1995), linguists have been rather slow in recognizing the uses and abuses their scholaraly work has been and is likely to be put to by persons (e.g., science popularizers, journalists, etc.) and organizations (e.g., particular interest groups, political organizations, etc.) outside the confines their own domain. It seems that most linguistic practitioners work under the illusion that their research is value-free and that the advancement of knowledge remains their sole goal. Histories of linguistics past and present reflect this naiveté that seems to be the norm among scholars; they tend to leave out the social, historical, and political contexts within which research is normally conducted, and present the development of the discipline as largely a linear progression of ideas and theories internal to the field. This state of affairs is deplorable not simply because of the lack of social consciousness and sense of intellectual responsibility which this attitude among scholars reveals, but also because linguists have been particularly prone to cater, consciously or not, to ideas and interests outside their discipline and, as history shows, allowed their findings to be used for purposes they were not necessarily intended. The misuse of ideas coming from linguists with serious academic credentials during the Third Reich (cf. most recently Hutton 1998) is usually mentioned as an aberration - and then passed over, with no participant being mentioned by name, thus leaving the impression that we had to do with a high jacking and distortion of scholarly findings by in fact unqualified but politically well connected people. For those actually studying the scholarship during 1933-1945 in Germany and Austria, it may come as a shock that the work published during these fateful years was not much different from what was done before, and that it did not take much to serve Nazi propaganda quite well. The present paper deals with only three areas of long-standing scholarly research, namely, 1) 'mother tongue' studies, 2) linguistic topology, and 3) the search for the original Indo-European homeland to illustrate that these subjects were hardly ever argued without an ideological subtext. No suggestion is implied that modern 'structural', including 'generative', linguistics was indeed free from any such dangers.


Arnold, Bettina & Hennig Hassmann. 1995. ÑArchaeology in Nazi Germany: The legacy of the Faustian bargain". Nationalism, Politics and the Practice of Archaeology ed. by Philip Kohl & Clare Fawcett, 70-81. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dostal, Walter. 1994. ÑSilence in the Darkness: German ethology during the National Socialist period". Social Anthropology 2.251-262.

Dow, James &Hannjost Lixfeld, eds. 1994. The Nazification of an Academic Discipline: Folklore in the Third Reich. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press.

Hutton, Christopher M. 1998. Linguistics and the Third Reich: Mother-tongue fascism, race and the science of language. London: Routledge.