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Medieval Languages for Polyliteracy

Dear Professor Arguelles,

I have a question regarding multiple language acquisition in the context of comparative literature. I am a native English speaker, but have attained accelerated fluency in German, and am currently pursuing my Bachelor’s in German, after which I plan to apply to Graduate school. I am strongly considering moving into the Comparative Literature field, and am ready to begin learning a new language. As a former Comparative Literature student yourself, are there any pairings of modern literary languages that are especially valuable to know–specifically with German in mind–that you know of or could recommend? I am primarily focused in medieval vernacular texts, and fiction from the 18th and 19th centuries. I am unfortunately rather new to this field, and thus unaware of any current trends or interests in particular languages that are studied in parallel. I would be extremely grateful for a few suggestions as to what languages would be best studied along with German in a literary context.

Hopefully there are some other Comparative Literature folks out there who are also looking for advice!

Many Thanks,

Alex Sorenson

16 January 2009

My reply:

Dear Mr. Sorenson,

Thank you for your letter. I am always pleased to have more discussion of the literary side of language learning.

You should know that, although the field of comparative literature provides more room for breadth than most other academic disciplines allow, nonetheless the more advanced you become in your training, the more narrowly specialized you will be pushed to become.

As far as languages are concerned, while you may think that you should be allowed to do several, in point of fact the comparison is generally limited to two, or three at most, and one of these is generally your native English. Thus, in order to even be allowed to learn another one as part of some MA/doctoral track programs, you may need to argue a strong case either in your application essay or in a petition of some sort in your first graduate years.

Likewise, as far as time periods are concerned, you are going to have to choose between the Middle Ages and a more focused period in the early modern or post-industrial eras.

Finally, presuming that you can choose a third language, it will not be enough to say that you are simply interested in German, English, and X, but rather you will have to find some common element to compare in terms of thematic presentations, cultural influence, social trends, or stylistic traits of individual authors.

At any rate, I cannot think of any particular languages that would form a most valuable pairing with German in the 18th or 19th centuries. Keeping the above in mind, you could probably make a successful argument for many if not most other European languages. If you go this route, look ahead to the fact that you will most likely need to write your dissertation on the works of two specific authors and think in terms of who they might be.

As for medieval vernacular literature, this would mean first and foremost working with Middle High German and not modern literary German (I assume you are well aware of this and am simply stating so for clarity). Here, there are indeed a number of quite logical pairings:

1.     In terms of preservation and presentation of common Germanic heritage: Old Norse.

2.     In terms of development from a common Germanic past and into a more pan-“European” vehicle: Middle Dutch or Middle English.

3.     In terms of parallel presentations and direct influence of the dominant Arthurian themes: Old French.

4.     In terms of ultimate origins and transformations of the Celtic source traditions: Middle Welsh or Old Irish.

5.     In terms of poetic form and Bardic practice (Minnesänger, Troubadors, Trouvères): Provençal or Old French.

6.     In terms of hitherto unsuspected influences in terms of form and/or material from a dominant external culture: Arabic (find the links and listen to the series in a thread I recently wrote about Raoul Schrott).

7.     Likewise more exotically, in terms of reworking the images and symbols of a common Indo-European past in the guise of a new cultural overlay: Persian.

It is probably just my own bias, but I certainly start to get excited when I think of all the possibilities that the Medieval field offers you!

I hope this has answered your questions sufficiently?

Wishing you the best of success in your studies,

Alexander Arguelles

20 January 2009

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My name is Alexander Arguelles. I have pursued foreign languages and literatures with a passion all my life. My goal is to share the knowledge and experience I have gained with others who would like to do the same. Find out more →

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