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Wilhelm von Humboldt
Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand Baron von Humboldt (June 22 1767 - April 8 1835), government functionary, foreign diplomat, philosopher, founder of Humboldt Universitšt in Berlin, friend of Goethe and especially of Schiller, is especially remembered as a German linguist who introduced a knowledge of the Basque language to European intellectuals. His younger brother Alexander von Humboldt was equally famous in the natural sciences.
Humboldt is credited with being the first European linguist to identify human language as a rule-governed system, rather than just a collection of words and phrases paired with meanings. This idea is one of the foundations of Noam Chomsky's theory of language (transformational grammar). Chomsky frequently quotes Humboldt's description of language as a system which "makes infinite use of finite means", meaning that an infinite number of sentences can be created using a finite number of words.
The great work of his life, on the ancient Kawi language of Java, was interrupted by his death, but its introduction The Heterogeneity of Language and its Influence on the Intellectual Development of Mankind was published in 1836. This essay on the philosophy of speech "first clearly laid down that the character and structure of a language expresses the inner life and knowledge of its speakers, and that languages must differ from one another in the same way and to the same degree as those who use them. Sounds do not become words until a meaning has been put into them, and this meaning embodies the thought of a community. What Humboldt terms the inner form of a language is just that mode of denoting the relations between the parts of a sentence which reflects the manner in which a particular body of men regards the world about them. It is the task of the morphology of speech to distinguish the various ways in which languages differ from each other as regards their inner form, and to classify and arrange them accordingly." (1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica)
Humboldt was also a philosopher of note and published On the Limits of State Action in 1810, the boldest defence of the liberties of the Enlightenment. It anticipated John Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty by which von Humboldt's ideas became known in the English speaking world. As Prussia minister of education, he oversaw the system of Technische Hochschule and Gymnasia that made Prussia, and subsequently the German Reich, the strongest European power and the scientific and intellectual leader of the world.
As a successful diplomat between 1802 and 1819, Humboldt was Prussian minister plenipotentiary at Rome from 1802, ambassador at Vienna from 1812 during the closing struggles of the Napoleonic Wars, at the congress of Prague (1813) where he was instrumental in drawing Austria to ally with Prussia and Russia against France, a signer of the peace treaty at Paris and the treaty between Prussia and defeated Saxony (1815), at Frankfort settling post-Napoleonic Germany, and at the congress at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818. However, the increasingly reactionary policy of the Prussian government made him give up political life in 1819; and from that time forward he devoted himself solely to literature and study.
Humboldt was an adept linguist who translated Pindar and Aeschylus, but as a philologist his work in the Basque language has had the more extended life. The result of his visit to the Basque country was Researches into the Early Inhabitants of Spain by the help of the Basque language of 1821. In this work Humboldt endeavored to show, by an examination of geographical placenames, that a race or races speaking dialects allied to modern Basque once extended throughout Spain, southern France and the Balearic Islands; he identified these people with the "Iberians" of classical writers, and he further surmised that they had been allied with the Berbers of northern Africa. Though it has been superseded in its details by modern linguistics and archaeology, Humboldt's pioneering work is sometimes still uncritically followed even today.
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