In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Georg von der Gabelentz

  • Introduction
  • Biographies
  • Bibliographies
  • Overviews of Gabelentz’s Work

Linguistics Georg von der Gabelentz
Els Elffers
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0257


Hans Georg Conon von der Gabelentz (b. 1840–d. 1893) was a versatile and productive German linguist. He did not belong to the group of historical-comparative linguistics that dominated the field during the 19th century. Instead, from the very beginning of his linguistic career, his descriptive focus was on non-Indo-European languages, which could not be approached by the historical-comparative method. In this respect he followed the example of Wilhelm von Humboldt (b. 1767–d. 1835). Gabelentz developed a strictly synchronic method to describe languages “from within,” also paying attention to language-related cultural characteristics of speakers, in line with the approach of Völkerpsychologie (ethnopsychology) as developed by Heymann Steinthal (b. 1823–d. 1899). Gabelentz was born in Poschwitz (near Altenburg) at the estate of his old aristocratic family. His father, Hans Conon von der Gabelentz (b. 1807–d. 1874), was a renowned government minister, but also a passionate language scholar. His library contained a multitude of documents about languages from all over the world. In this environment, Georg’s interest in “exotic” languages developed very early. Like his father, he studied law and administration, but Georg also studied linguistics in Jena. He entered civil service, but he simultaneously continued his linguistic studies in Leipzig. In 1876 he received a PhD from Dresden for a translation of a philosophical Chinese text. In 1878 Gabelentz acquired a professorship of East Asian languages at the University of Leipzig and resigned his civil service post. His first magnum opus was published in 1881: Chinesische Grammatik (Chinese grammar), which is still regarded as a standard work today. Gabelentz became a professor of sinology and general linguistics at the University of Berlin in 1889. In 1891 his second magnum opus, Die Sprachwissenschaft (The science of language) was published, providing a comprehensive overview of the content and methods of general linguistics, which was a relatively new academic discipline at the time. Alongside these two important books, Gabelentz mainly published numerous articles, some of which became relatively well known, such as his two articles about comparative syntax, published in 1869 and 1875, and his programmatic article about language typology, which appeared posthumously in 1894. Unlike his orientalist work, Gabelentz’s general linguistic work fell into oblivion rather soon after his early death. Its neglect was mainly due to his Humboldtian approach, which included the “evaluation” of languages (Sprachwürderung), a project that was rapidly declining from the turn of the century onward. Gabelentz’s position in earlier linguistic historiography used to be a modest one. However, during the last few decades the importance and surprisingly innovative character of Gabelentz’s work has been more and more recognized. Nowadays, there is an increasing interest in Gabelentz, which has induced a growing number of publications about his work.


Many aspects of Gabelentz’s life are relevant for a better understanding of his work: his youth in a language-impregnated environment, his debts to—and also differences from—his polyglottic and linguistically educated father, his professional turn to linguistics, and his position in German academia as a non-mainstream linguist. Due to the earlier lack of general recognition of Gabelentz’s importance, many recent publications about his work contain some introductory biographical information. There are also publications that discuss Gabelentz’s life as their central theme—Vogel and McElvenny 2019 is a recent example. Gimm 2013 and Ezawa and Vogel 2013 both have Gabelentz’s life as their main focus. Kaden and Taube 2014 mentions further biographical texts about Gabelentz.

  • Ezawa, Kennosuke, and Annemete von Vogel, eds. 2013. Georg von der Gabelentz: Ein biographisches Lesebuch. Tübingen, Germany: Narr Verlag.

    Gabelentz is the only linguist to have been posthumously honored with a 345-page book like this, which is solely devoted to his biography, his distinguished family background, and his academic career. One of four substantial parts of the book focuses on a 2010 Gabelentz exhibition at Humboldt University in Berlin. The book is richly and beautifully illustrated with photographs, letters, family portraits, genealogical trees, and other memorabilia.

  • Gimm, Martin. 2013. Georg von der Gabelentz zum Gedenken: Materialien zu Leben und Werk. Sinologia Coloniensa 32. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harassowitz.

    The book contains a systematic chronological overview of Gabelentz’s biography of about seventy pages, divided into five parts, each devoted to an episode of his life. Places an emphasis on Gabelentz as sinologist. Contains an excessive number of (partially lengthy) footnotes.

  • Kaden, Klaus, and Manfred Taube. 2014. Bibliographie für Hans Georg Conon von der Gabelentz. In Beiträge zur Gabelentz-Forschung. Edited by Kennosuke Ezawa, Franz Hundsnurscher, and Annemete von Vogel, 113–126. Tübingen, Germany: Narr Verlag.

    In this Gabelentz bibliography, the authors include a section on biographical literature, consisting of fifteen texts, almost all in German. One part consists of early articles, including obituaries, another part consists of articles published later in the 20th century. Also published in Richter and Reichardt 1979 (cited under Overviews of Gabelentz’s Work).

  • Vogel, Annemete von, and James McElvenny. 2019. The Gabelentz family in their own words. In Gabelentz and the science of language. Edited by James McElvenny, 13–26. Amsterdam: Amsterdam Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvnp0j5z.4

    The most recent article on Gabelentz’s life. Mainly based upon correspondence and personal reminiscences preserved in the family archive, and on family lore passed orally to Annemete von Vogel, a great-granddaughter of Gabelentz’s sister. Pays special attention to Gabelentz’s development as a linguist during his pre-academic life, and in particular to his father’s influence.

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