Karla Mallette Lecture: "Lives of the Great Languages: Cosmopolitan languages in the pre-modern Mediterranean"
Before the emergence of the national language system in late medieval and early modern Europe, the language of culture typically bore only a tenuous relation to the spoken languages of everyday life. The cosmopolitan language—the lingua franca of literature and of culture—was no one’s mother tongue. Rather, it was a learned language that required years of study to master. And the project of absorbing the language of culture, and being trained in the husbandry of the literature that embodied the wealth of the language, was a transformative experience. The linguistic training undertaken in order to become literate ensured that the self whose experiences gave life to literature and the self who wrote were two distinct entities, each complete and self-sufficient, yet the one necessary to the other. This talk contrasts the cosmopolitan language dynamic to the European national languages, the literary media of European modernity, in order to reflect on what was lost when the cosmopolitan language system receded and to ask whether a new cosmopolitan language order is emerging in the twenty first century.
Karla Mallette studies communications between literary traditions in the medieval Mediterranean — especially Arabic and the Romance vernaculars — and the way that we remember that history today. Her first book, The Kingdom of Sicily, 1100-1250: A Literary History (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), traced the transition between Arabic and Italian literary traditions in medieval Sicily; her second, European Modernity and the Arab Mediterranean (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), focused on a southern European tradition of scholarship that identifies the origins of modernity in the contact between Islamic and Christian civilizations in the medieval Mediterranean. Her current project, tentatively titled “Lingua franca in the Mediterranean,” examines linguistic strategies used to communicate across the boundaries that language creates. She has published essays on medieval translations of Aristotelian philosophy, framed narratives, European Orientalism, and Mediterranean Studies, in addition to Italian literature.