The most obvious is the hardest to understand and nothing is more obvious to human life than language use. We live in a world of words; we think in a world of sentences. We act in a world of adverts, Internet web sites, translations, twitters and tracts; we live in a city of language that is a storehouse of culture, knowledge, ideology, morality, invention, myth. Language is a marker of human universals but also of the subtle and broad spectrum of human differences. It is the path to communication, bonding, negotiation, truth but also the place where power, inequality, violence, exclusion are articulated. Language is the good, the bad, and the ugly in human life, the sublime and the ridiculous.
It is for these reasons central to the humanities, almost a defining feature of the humanities that they study language, whatever else they do. Heritages of writing, thought, invention, ideology, myth, prose, poetry, philosophy, literary theory, criticism, biography, memoir, archives of document are the places where history, philosophy, literary studies, translation, critique, linguistic theory et al. find their object of study. Language demands a wide range of analysis from all quarters of the humanities, which have dedicated their various disciples and dimensions to the study of language, from linguistics to the study of prose, from argumentation to advertisement. An introduction to the multi-disciplinary, multi-faceted study of language is also an introduction to what the humanities are, and how they variously elaborate their approaches to the world.
The Institute for the Humanities is blessed to have, during the 2012 Theme Semester on Language, a wide variety of expert faculty fellows who are variously studying language use, and together our fellows shall mount a unique course which allows the sophomore introduction to the varieties of language use and study, also to cutting edge research by top humanities scholars on language. This course will allow the student to work week by week with our unique scholars, each of whom exemplifies a unique kind of approach to one dimension of human language use or another. By the end of the course students will have learned about things as different as translation, the politics of American buzzwords, the creolization of language under conditions of human displacement, exile and interaction, the fate of language in its internet twitter, the role of description in the study of visual art.
This course is an opportunity to work with a range of scholars who are seldom brought together into a single course, turning that course into a prism of language.
What will happen during the seven weeks:
Week One: Introduction to the course and Creoles and Pidgins.
Marlyse Baptista, Professor of Linguistics, Hunting Family Professor, Institute for the Humanities, will provide a linguistic, historical and cognitive overview of pidgins and creoles which happen through the collision of distinct linguistic groups brought together with local linguistic populations through exile, slavery, servitude or other reasons. Relying on her life work in the Cape Verde Islands, she will examine various theories of creole genesis and critically evaluate the role that European and African languages played in their development. She will also investigate the various cognitive processes involved in creole genesis and examine the linguistic properties of these languages.
Week Two: The Politics of Literacy.
Daniel Hack, Associate Professor, English, John Rich Professor, Institute for the Humanities, will present a seminar called “Literacy, Slavery, and the Power of Language.” At issue will be the role of literacy and language in the maintenance of, and challenges to, U.S. slavery. The kinds of questions addressed will include: why were slaves in many states forbidden to learn to read and write? What were the perceived practical consequences and symbolic implications of basic literacy—and of linguistic sophistication—on the part of African Americans? What kind of power was attributed to literacy and rhetorical skill, and what was the perceived relationship between such power and physical force? The primary text for this seminar will be Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.
Week Three: Translation and the Career of the War Horse.
Sean Silver, Assistant Professor, English, Helmut F. Stern Professor, Institute for the Humanities, will choose a short section from Homer and look at translations from George Chapman's magisterial fourteeners to Eric Alt's tongue-in-cheek tweets, with half-a-dozen or so other stops in between, the idea will be to capture a very rough story about the Western imagination, through the vehicle of a single idea or complex image as it travels through time and how the status of “war horse” comes to be attached to this constantly changing set of translations.
Week Four: Models of Translation.
David Porter, Professor of English, Helmut F. Stern Professor, Institute for the Humanities, will lead a session on the theory and practice of translation focusing on Chinese poetry. The session will introduce the dominant models and current debates in translation theory, with illustrative examples from the history of translations of well-known Chinese poems into English and perhaps a sidebar on the great modernist poet steeped in Chinese and its translation, Ezra Pound & the great art historian and museum collector, Fenollosa.
Week Five: How to Say what you See.
Joan Kee, Assistant Professor, History of Art and Helmut F. Stern Professor, Institute for the Humanities, will explore with the class: What does it mean to describe what we see? What language should be used and how? This seminar will deal with the relationship between visuality and language through the lens of contemporary Asian art, a field of inquiry crucially shaped by the transmission and reception of language, and in particular, translation. It will be divided into two parts, beginning with a rough overview of the relationship between text and visual art in East Asia, from the mid-18th century to the present. The second part will put into practice some of the skills in looking, speaking, and writing by examining a selected group of screen-based (including, but not limited to video, film, and Internet) artworks of recent provenance.
Week Six: The Politics of the American Buzzword.
Matt Lassiter, Associate Professor, History and Urban Planning, and John Rich Professor, Institute for the Humanities, will focus on how certain types of language like drug "pusher" and "peddler"
evolve over time in political and cultural discourse, and on the implications of this for public policy and racial double standards. The course will study the way buzzwords accumulate meanings and how this excess of meaning shifts with the contours of American culture. It will also range over the politics of profiling through language, relying on writing by George Lakoff, the linguist about how conservatives win policy debates through better framing devices (newer and livelier buzzwords and sound bites). And on how liberal thinking does the same: changing, as Frank Luntz has argued, "global warming" to "climate change," and the like.
Week Seven: Greek in the Usual, and also in Unexpected Places.
Artemis Leontis, Associate Professor, Classical Studies, Modern Greek, and Hunting Family Professor, Institute for the Humanities, will teach a seminar among the wide range of Greek roots and words in everything from English medical language to popular culture. The course is about the way root languages enter into the fabric of contemporary use without being noticed, but also as a specific way of dignifying certain kinds of language with their linguistic prestige.
Each faculty member will assign a moderate amount of reading. The course will allow for a creative kind of assignment due at the end, which might simply be a written paper or might be an internet presentation of some particular kind. Students will be encouraged to think out of the box.
The course earns the student one credit. It will happen over seven consecutive weeks in W'12, with one two hour session per week (a total of fourteen hours). Each week will be taught by a different fellow.
The course will be stage managed by Daniel Herwitz, Director, Institute for the Humanities, who will introduce it and speak briefly to the question of language today, at once flattened in Internet twitter use and subjected to innovation in the light of the communicative platforms and possibilities of digital technologies. He will also speak briefly to the domination of English, which has become lingua Franca without the franca.