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“Leiden linguists play a key role in linguistics”

From 2 to 5 September 2015, Leiden served as the stage for one of the world’s largest linguistics conferences: the Societas Linguistica Europaea (SLE) 2015 Annual Meeting. Marianne Mithun, a professor at University of California, Santa Barbara and outgoing president of the SLE, is not surprised that Leiden was selected to host the conference. “Dutch linguists, particularly those in Leiden, have long played a key role in linguistics.” How did Leiden attain such a prominent position in linguistics? Arie Verhagen explains in the following interview.

Comparatively large

"If you want to understand the position of Leiden University, you have to look at the history,” says Arie Verhagen, Professor of Dutch Linguistics and chair of the SLE 2015 organising committee. “Dutch linguistics is quite large, comparatively speaking. There are few other countries that have as many academic linguists per 1,000 inhabitants as the Netherlands.” Why is it that the Netherlands has such a great interest in linguistics? Is it the Dutch mercantile spirit that elevated the knowledge of languages – and the science of language along with it – to such a significant, indispensable position?

Starting on neutral ground

That’s part of it, says Verhagen. But there is an additional factor, as well: “In 1928, the Netherlands was simply at the right place at the right time.” The moment Verhagen is referring to is the First International Congress of Linguists, which took place in The Hague in 1928. With World War I still fresh in people’s minds, European countries had been driven apart, and linguists from countries that had been at war no longer spoke with each other. 

A group of linguists who wanted to change this organised a conference to help overcome these communication problems. Verhagen explains: “Due to animosities, France, Germany and England were no option for the conference location, but the Netherlands had been neutral during the First World War. And that is how The Hague came to be chosen for the Congress of Linguists.”

The opening ceremony of the First International Congress of Linguists.

A breakthrough in the field

It now became apparent that linguistics was undergoing an important change during this conference. Verhagen elaborates: “The conference in 1928 marked a breakthrough for Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s way of thinking, which modern linguistics is largely based on. That turned out to be a very important junction for linguistics. Due to these developments, together with the fact that the conference took place in the Netherlands, linguistics became visible in the Dutch scientific world. The number of linguists increased considerably. The Netherlands has succeeded in maintaining this international reputation.”

A special role for Leiden

Within the Netherlands, Leiden was destined to play a special role in linguistics. Although Leiden University has always had a strong Humanities component, governmental budgetary cuts in the 1970s had the effect of concentrating many language programmes in Leiden, making Leiden the central point for studying non-European languages and a major learning centre for smaller languages. “This is one of the reasons that, from an international perspective, Leiden is now one of the most visible and interesting places where linguistics is studied,” Verhagen explains.

SLE 2015

This is the third time that the annual conference of the European language association Societas Linguistica Europaea has taken place in Leiden. Over a period of four days, talks, workshops and debates were held at the university dealing with linguistics in the broadest sense of the word. 560 linguists came to Leiden to attend the conference.

Linguists at the SLE conference in 2014
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