Image: Li Jinxi, "Diagram Showing the Evolution of Chinese for the Last Four Millenniums" (1926)
The study of language contact lacked prestige in traditional Philology. European philologists partitioned the past into distinct languages and nations; Confucian philologists privileged the Chinese tradition alone. This talk asks why, during the twentieth-century internationalization of the discipline, the languages of the “Far East” became, for some, a paradigm-shifting exception. How, in colonial Asia (1900-1940s) and then during the anticolonial Afro-Asian movement (1950s-60s), did the last generation of philologists reimagine Oriental Philology for the study of the connected past? If Indo-European philology organized the world’s languages into genetic family trees, the study of ancient Indo-Chinese and Central Asian languages invoked the constitutive nature of contact. Contact philology here refers not to a future field but rather to the reparative effort to come to terms with Philology’s inconvenient past. At stake is how Philology’s predilection for dead languages and racial origins both constrained and enabled the study of historical contact across distinct disciplines, regions, and ideologies.