With a collection spanning dozens of tongues and more than twenty centuries, Houghton is the perfect place to study human language. A paradise for the historical linguist, the library also contains more than enough material about other areas of linguistics—especially semantics, which is often explored in conjunction with philosophy.
The illustrious items in Houghton’s linguistics collection are illustrious indeed. The library holds Noam Chomsky’s 1955-1970 linguistics papers (MS Am 2633, 011577941), useful for any student of modern linguistic theory, and letters between Chomsky and philosopher and Harvard professor W. V. Quine (MS Am 2587 , 008937558). The Quine papers also include academic papers related to some of Chomsky’s most important theories, such as P. L. Peterson’s Do Significant Cultural Universals Exist? (2073) and Douglas Frank Stalker’s Deep Structure (2233). The library also owns the papers of Ferdinand de Saussure (MS Fr 266, 000601978), a precursor of modern linguistics who developed concepts such as the arbitraire du signe.
Houghton’s greatest linguistic strength, however, is its collection’s temporal breadth. From ostraca and papyri to 20th century letters in multiple languages, to explore the Houghton archive is to explore the history of human language. The opportunities the library gives to historical linguists are unparalleled, especially the chance to do original comparative work with items in the same language but from different time periods.
Students can compare, for instance, a 1480 Dutch Book of Hours (MS Typ 253, 009616976) with Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, a 1705 entomology treatise written, in the vernacular, by Maria Sibylla Merian (Typ 732.05.567, 002860975). The many Latin manuscripts trace the language’s history from the Classical world through the Middle Ages and into the early modern world as an ecclesiastical and scientific tool. Comparing earlier items to works such as the Nuremberg Chronicle (WKR 10.2.7, 001527048) can also yield interesting historical linguistic comparisons.
Houghton is also the perfect place to pursue research in the Romance languages. With almost 1,300 manuscripts in French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish—as well as countless books in those languages—dating from the Middle Ages to the present, it is more than possible to trace linguistic changes in those tongues through the centuries. Tracts such as eighteenth-century Itinerario da Terra Santa, e Suas Particularidades (Asia 1417.32, 004039016), a Portuguese account of the Holy Land, can be compared to twentieth-century article Confederação Luso-Brasileira (MS Port 39 , 010100868), a proposed project of a political union between the Brazilian and Portuguese republics.
The library also provides its visitors with significant materials about American linguistics. A Massachuset Bible printed in Cambridge in 1685 (AC6.El452.663mb, 004443936) and a 1666 Indian Grammar (AC6.El452.666i, 004208359), both by John Eliot, are useful to understand the mechanics of Algonquian and provide a basis of comparison to other tongues spoken in the continent before the European arrival. However, they also display a deliberate effort to alphabetize and supposedly standardize a previously oral language. The relation between language, writing, and proper grammar is a polemical one, and Houghton has plenty of material to support research into that field. Moreover, the library owns a richly decorated 1901 edition of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Candle-Lightin’ Time (Typ 970 01.3417, 003009490), which can be used by students to research Black English Vernacular in the late nineteenth century.