Johannes Kabatek: Linguistics research

Until recently, Johannes Kabatek always considered Wilhelm von Humboldt – Alexander’s older brother by two years – to be the true star of the two siblings. Wilhelm is considered the founder of modern linguistics and is also known as an education reformer whose ideas still set standards to this day. Kabatek revised his views on the younger Humboldt, however, when getting closer to the subject for a commentary in the new edition of Alexander’s complete works*. Alexander von Humboldt was not just a natural scientist but also an excellent linguistics researcher who made important contributions to the field. He created a classification system for languages spanning from Greenland to Tierra del Fuego, for instance, and made important observations about the relationships between languages. “Alexander von Humboldt recognized the importance of language as the foundation of all science,” says Kabatek. “He viewed the world in a holistic manner.” At the same time, Alexander left the spotlight to his brother – whom he considered the preeminent linguist of their generation – and provided him with language materials that he had gathered on his travels. Kabatek sees Alexander von Humboldt as the ideal scholar: Someone who “tried to systematically capture the diversity of things with empirical precision.” A specialist in Ibero-Romance languages, Kabatek conducts fieldwork in Latin America to research unique properties of Spanish grammar, including in relation to indigenous languages. “In South America you encounter Humboldt wherever you go,” says Kabatek. He prefers to speak of the brothers together rather than separately: “For me, the Humboldtian way of thinking means having a boundless interest in everything.”

Stefan Stöcklin; English translation by Gena Olson