Call for Book Chapters: Reconfiguring Linguistic Hierarchies in Late Medieval and Early Modern Literature

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Maren Daniel/ Rutgers University
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From the appearance of Dante’s "De Vulgari eloquentia" in the early fourteenth century to the publication of the first monolingual dictionaries in the late seventeenth century, vernacular languages across Europe gain status and prestige. As these languages take over functions previously reserved to Latin (i.e., law, literature, religion, education ), the linguistic hierarchies of the Middle Ages become undone. Standard versions gradually emerge out of various medieval dialects, solidifying the establishment of new linguistic hierarchies. This book will take the position that no king or royal policy was effective in the emergence of these standards and language shift toward their more wide-spread usage. Linguistic hierarchies, this book will argue, feed the needs of more members of society than just the ruling class.

Literature of the “early modern” period thus provides us with an opportunity to question the notion of standard language. Twentieth- and twenty-first-century linguists have shown that the standard is a dialect or variety (the preferred term) like any other. Using descriptive methods (descriptive grammar as opposed to prescriptive grammar), modern linguistics has demonstrated that all varieties of human language are rule-governed systems that serve communicative and literary purposes equally well. As Max Weinrich is believed to have said, “A language is a dialect with an army.” The implication here is that standard language is only perceived as such because it has the backing of those in power. While this book will take the stance that standard varieties are indeed only perceived as superior to others (and therefore not actually any clearer, purer, or more beautiful), it will argue that such perceptions arise from a deeper human need more so that they do from the use of force (military or cultural). Its goal will be to examine that need.

During this same period in which Europe’s linguistic hierarchies reconfigure themselves, several events and currents in thought give writers the occasion to explore the emotions that language incites. Renaissance humanism, the encounter with the Americas, and Orientalism (re) introduce ancient and exotic languages into the European imagination. Thus, questions arise about our reaction to foreign, usually incomprehensible, languages. Furthermore, lack of comprehension and its resulting emotions occur in the native tongue as well. Flowery and overly persuasive rhetoric – often used in official contexts – behaves in a similar fashion to foreign language, appealing to emotion rather than reason. The signifier separates from the signified, takes on erotic qualities, and appeals to a person’s irrational side. The religious turmoil of the sixteenth century illustrates the ability of language-induced emotions to captivate, as the stipulated use of a particular language often accompanies participation in a religious sect (as is the case with Catholicism and Protestantism). Despite its claim to ultimate clarity, even the standardized mother tongue can function in this way.

Writers often portray this early modern upheaval of linguistic hierarchies and its accompanying emotions in scenes containing macaronic Latin, a poliphilesque style, the encounter of mutually unintelligible varieties, or the juxtaposition of mutually intelligible varieties. As a part of its attempt to understand more deeply the roots of standard language and linguistic hierarchies, this book will look specifically at the tone such scenes create. It will also take advantage of the emergence of modern literary genres that occurs toward the end of this time period (secular theater, the essay, the shift from romance to the modern novel) to ask what scenes of multilingualism contribute to genre. Where, the conclusion will try to answer, do these scenes fall on the continuum from comedy to tragedy? Are they serious or satirical? Are they most common in verse or in prose? Do they tend to appear in poetry? Do they have a theatrical effect? How appropriate are they to “interior” genres meant for private consumption (the essay, the novel)? What about pamphlets and religious literature? Finally, what do the tone and genre used reveal about the role of standard language in social life and the emotions present?

Finished chapters will follow the following format:

• Be 20-25 pages long
• Begin with an analysis of multi-lingual or multi-dialectal scenes in one or several works by the same author (this monographic approach will allow for close readings of particular scenes)
• Make an extension to the author’s work as a whole
• Discuss how the previous analysis relates to the history of the language, the emergent literary canon of the nation in question, and/or the larger historical context
• Relate the previous discussion to questions of tone and genre
• Help prepare a conclusion chapter addressing the role of standard language and the mechanisms (both psychological and sociological) that break down and ultimately rebuild linguistic hierarchies

Please send 1-2 page chapter abstracts to Maren Daniel by June 30, 2014.

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