Recent projects
Table of Contents

Antiquity and Middle Ages

Language Origins, Linguistic Change, and Language Functionality in Early Christian Latin Authors [2011-2015]

Researcher: Tim Denecker
Supervisors: Pierre Swiggers, Gert Partoens & Toon Van Hal

The project aims to offer a systematic, comparative study of the linguistic views found in the writings of early Christian Latin authors, concerning language functions, comparison of languages and linguistic classification, and language origins.
The documentary basis of the project consists of a well-defined corpus of source-texts, ranging from the works of Tertullian to the writings of S. Isidore of Seville. Within the corpus, special attention is given to authors who were crucial links in the chain of transmission of scholarly learning (e.g., Lactantius, S. Augustine and S. Isidore), authors who had a broad cultural experience as translators, philologists and historians (e.g., Rufinus and S. Jerome), and authors who experienced the fading of knowledge of classical Greek and Latin (e.g. Leo I, Gregory I, Sidonius Apollinaris, Gregory of Tours).
The systematic comparative analysis of the source texts is conducted on the basis of a flexible analytical grid, which includes the following parameters: (a) cultural insertion of linguistic views expressed; (b) range of languages known or discussed; (c) formulation and argumentation of views concerning: language origin, diversification, and change; historical and cultural relationships between languages/linguistic groups; type or ‘genius’ of language; relation between spoken and written language; translatability.

Further information:
T. Denecker, G. Partoens, P. Swiggers, T. Van Hal. 2012. “Language Origins, Language Diversity, and Language Classification in Early Christian Latin Authors”. Historiographia Linguistica 39. 429-439.
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Linguistic and Cultural Education in Western Christianity, from c. 380 until 735: A Study of the Content, Form, and Sociocultural Insertion of Latin Language Manuals [2016-2018]

Researcher: Tim Denecker

This postdoctoral research project aims to improve our understanding of the linguistic and cultural foundations for education in late antique and early medieval Western Christianity. In order to do so, it focuses on the corpus of Latin language manuals (grammatical, lexicographical and orthographical works) produced during the period between the manuals of Augustine (c. 380) and Bede (d. 735). The project is based on the hypothesis that manuals play a key role in shaping a body of general and propaedeutic knowledge for a particular historical period, and that the language manuals at hand can accordingly be approached as major sources in assessing the status and level of linguistic and cultural knowledge in late antique and early medieval Western Christianity. The project investigates (1) the conceptual basis and structure of the language manuals in their relation to earlier (pagan and Christian) representatives in the tradition; (2) the formal organization of the linguistic and cultural knowledge the manuals transmit, from the perspective of special language studies (‘Fachtexte’/‘Fachsprachen’); and (3) the sociocultural insertion of the manuals at issue: whom do they teach and in which linguistic and sociocultural contexts? From a sociolinguistic perspective, the project looks in particular at the attitudes the manuals exhibit towards (a) the evolution of ‘classical’ to ‘late’ Latin, and (b) the bi- and multilingual settings in which they were conceived and used.

Aristotle's View of Language as a Dynamic System [2017-2020]

Researcher: Ana Kotarcic

This interdisciplinary postdoctoral research project aims to demonstrate that, through the synergetic interaction between the various structural levels and through the contribution of the context of language use to linguistic meaning, language for Aristotle is a dynamic system. By examining Aristotle’s use of terminology and the ideas he develops throughout his works, this project shifts the focus from sign-internal properties to language as a dynamic system in Aristotle’s linguistic thought. In so doing, it complements extant studies of Aristotle’s thought and widens the scope of research by including syntax and pragmatics.

The Participle as a Part of Speech in Ancient and Early Medieval Grammatography [ongoing]

Full Title: Status and functional description of the participle as a part of speech in ancient and early medieval grammatography: a historiographical and methodological analysis
Researchers: Louise Visser & Valerie Van Elst
Supervisors: Pierre Swiggers & Alfons Wouters

In this research project, the chapters De participio of Latin grammatical texts from 400-900 AD in Western Europe will be analysed. In the first place, we will investigate how the descriptions of the participle of this period stand in relation to ancient and medieval theories on the word classes in general, on the Latin verbal system, and on the participle in particular. In the second place, our attention will go to the way in which these texts fit into the frame of education and science in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. The main issues here are the cycle of the artes liberales (the liberal arts), ancient and christian commentary traditions, theories of the definition, etc. Also is this the first period in history in which Latin grammars written for native speakers were used and adapted for other non-native speakers than Greeks. For the whole of this second perspective, the participle chapters serve as a ‘case study’.

Early Modern Period

Language vs. Dialect in Early Modern Linguistic Thought [2013-2017]

Full title: "Language" and/vs. "dialect" in Early Modern linguistic thought: concept formation and empirical underpinnings, with special reference to the ancient Greek background
Researcher: Raf Van Rooy
Supervisors: Toon Van Hal & Pierre Swiggers

Most of us are aware of the fact that people have typical ‘accents’ and words according to their region. Such locally bound speech peculiarities are often called ‘dialects’; but where do the concept and term come from? The present project aims to reveal the Early Modern history of both the concept and the term ‘dialect’ as opposed to ‘language’ by investigating two main types of Early Modern texts relevant to this topic. The first group of texts consists of writings that consider the notions of ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ in general, whereas the second one comprises humanist dissertations on the Greek dialect situation in particular (traditionally divided into Attic, Ionic, Doric, Aeolic and koinè [‘common dialect/language’]). The reasons for this focus are evident. First, the Greek language is the source for our modern term ‘dialect’. Second, the Greek situation was the model for the Early Modern conceptualization of local speech varieties as opposed to ‘(standard) languages’. Since there does not exist a detailed analysis of Early Modern views on these twin concepts (‘dialect’/‘language’), which are still problematic in present-day linguistics, I intend to fill this gap through a systematic study, using a comprehensive interpretive grid. On the basis of such a historiographical study, I will be able to contextualize the divergent present-day uses of the concepts ‘dialect’ and ‘language’, which our modern society owes to Early Modern thought.

The main results of the project have been published in:
Van Rooy, Raf. 2020. Greece’s Labyrinth of Language: A Study in the Early Modern Discovery of Dialect Diversity. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences 2. Berlin: Language Science Press.
Van Rooy, Raf. 2020. Language or Dialect? The History of a Conceptual Pair. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Evolving Views on the World's Languages in a Globalizing World (1540-1840): Information Growth, Conceptual Shifts, Scholarly Networks in the Circulation of Linguistic Knowledge [2015-2020]

Researchers: Andy Peetermans, Zanna Van Loon & Marlon James Sales
Supervisors: Toon Van Hal, Pierre Swiggers, Werner Thomas, Lieve Behiels

The general goals of this project are the following:

The project will offer a comprehensive linguistic-historiographical and cultural-historical analysis of the context, the contents, and the impact of the study of exotic languages as an integrative component of the development of linguistic thinking and practice in Western Europe. The following research questions will be investigated:
(1) How did the circuits of information on languages in the Americas function?
(2) What are the recurrent models of language description?
(3) What was the empirical and theoretical impact of Early Modern Language descriptions?

The emphasis of this project is on the Americas.

For more information, click here.

In the frame of this project, all researchers involved are contributing to the realization of the open-access database RELiCTA, encompassing the metadata of Early Modern descriptions of American and Asian languages.

The Cross-Linguistic Application of Grammatical Categories: The Early Modern Genesis of a Contemporary Problem, with Specific Reference to the Relevance of 'Typically Ancient Greek' Categories (ca. 1470–1800) [2017-2020]

Researcher: Raf Van Rooy

Is it justified to describe different languages by means of the same grammatical categories? The cross-linguistic application of categories is still a thorny issue in current linguistics, the roots of which lie in the early modern period, when West-European scholars started to produce on a large scale grammars of languages other than Latin. Although the Latin tradition remained the main descriptive framework, the Renaissance rediscovery of Ancient Greek familiarized scholars with a number of categories difficult to apply to Latin: e.g., 'aorist', 'article', and 'optative'. They resorted to such categories when they sensed that traditional Latin categories were not adequate, a thought process important to current linguistics for two main reasons. On the one hand, the ways in which these 'typically Greek' categories were transposed to other languages betray ideas and assumptions about the cross-linguistic application of categories, since it was not as straightforward to resort to these categories as it was to adopt the categories of the familiar Latin model (itself an ancient narrowing of the Greek model). On the other hand, the transposition process resulted in the integration of new categories into the (early) modern general descriptive apparatus. No systematic investigation into the historical genesis of the problem of the cross-linguistic use of categories or the history of these ‘typically Greek’ categories has been pursued, a lacuna the present project attempts to fill.

The Evolution of French Grammatical Thought (1400-1850) [ongoing]

Researcher: Pierre Swiggers
This study of the French grammatical thought between 1400 and 1850 includes : 1) a study of the development of French grammar-writing procedures and techniques. 2) a study of the relationships between linguistic description, language teaching and the analysis of French.

Dutch-French Bilingual Dictionaries in the Early Modern Period [ongoing]

Researcher: Elizaveta Zimont
Supervisor: Pierre Swiggers

This doctoral research project aims at a methodologically innovative contribution to the study of Dutch-French bilingual lexicography in the Early Modern Period. The checklist of primary sources, supplied with a number of key references, for this research project is published here on the CHL-website. In a joint article with Pierre Swiggers, published in Beiträge zur Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft, the reader will find an introduction to this field of study, as well as further bio-bibliographical information on the source authors and works.

'Ad fontes!' in the Classroom: Teaching Latin, Greek, and Hebrew Texts in the Early Modern Southern Low Countries [ongoing]

Researchers: Maxime Maleux & Xander Feys
Supervisors: Jan Papy, Toon Van Hal, Pierre Van Hecke & Raf Van Rooy

Whereas the spread of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew texts in the Renaissance has been extensively studied, the didactic praxis involved in teaching these languages and their literatures at European universities and institutes has not yet met with systematic and in-depth focused research. Studying the teaching practices used in the early modern auditoria is, however, quintessential to a correct understanding of the transmission of linguistic and literary knowledge, to university history, and the impact of the new linguistic education on intellectual history. In this project, the teaching of the three "sacred" languages is investigated through detailed case studies - starting from the Louvain Collegium Trilingue and from unique student notes in extant text books - and is framed in its broader European context. By relying on largely neglected primary sources and an innovative methodology it can be shown how revolutionary the humanist linguistic education, especially that at the renowned Collegium Trilingue, actually was.

Language Comparison and Emancipation: The Pivotal Role of Ancient Greek in Renaissance Language Studies (ca. 1390–1600) [ongoing]

Researcher: Raf Van Rooy

When did the comparative turn occur in language studies? Even though linguistic comparison has earlier precursors, it became common only in the early modern era. The period after 1600, in particular, has been regarded as a crucial turning point. This senior postdoctoral project of the Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO) will investigate the hypothesis that the roots of the comparative approach should be dated earlier, in the Renaissance (ca. 1390–1600). The rediscovery of Greek grammar played a pivotal role in this development, as many humanists tied their native vernaculars to the Greek tongue when composing grammars of both Greek and the vernaculars. This endeavor led them to compare these languages to various degrees of intensity, in various ways, and with regard to various features. This project will investigate whether and, if so, how this comparative reflex was related to the standardization of the vernaculars. More specifically, the project will systematically test for the first time the idea that the Greek language stimulated the emancipation of the vernaculars. Testing this second hypothesis is crucial, because it is often upheld in modern scholarship but barely supported with concrete evidence. The project will also explore the possibility of integrating the “comparative turn hypothesis” and the “emancipation hypothesis” into one overarching hypothesis. It will result in five scholarly articles and a database of Renaissance grammars of Greek (inspiration), provisionally entitled Anagennèsis.

Between Migration and Linguistics: Greeks in Western Europe and the Emergence of Contrastive Grammar in the Renaissance (c.1390–1600) [ongoing]

Researcher: Raf Van Rooy

Migration and its societal impact have never been higher on the agenda than in our globalized world, which is why it features prominently in the Horizon 2020 Work Programme 13. It is a challenge that not only poses problems, but also offers opportunities in various ways. The possibility of a positive impact of migration often tends to be neglected in present-day debates. History, however, demonstrates that optimistic expectations should not necessarily remain unattainable. The crumbling apart of the Byzantine Greek empire in the late Middle Ages, for instance, engendered a steady influx of Greek migrants into Western Europe during the Renaissance. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 further stimulated this population movement, triggering a first major brain drain from the Greek world. This confronted Western Europeans not only with another culture, but also with another language boasting a rich cultural and grammatical tradition, the full impact of which remains to be investigated. The proposed MSCA project, funded by the Horizon 2020 program of the European Commission, aims to counter this state of affairs by studying an important linguistic dimension of this vast research lacuna: the way in which the Greek migrants contributed to transforming grammar from a monolingual, Latinocentric knowledge domain to a multilingual and flexible discipline. Indeed, their intensive teaching of the Greek language and its grammar was a key turning point in the history of linguistic thought, since it gave rise to a contrastive approach to language studies and education. It is this revolutionary development which the project intends to analyze by investigating Renaissance linguistic handbooks. In particular, it aims to study (A) how and why contrastive grammar emerged in the wake of Greek migration movements during the Renaissance, (B) how this related to the Greek migrants' teaching of Western European students, both male and female, and (C) what the impact of this new genre of language study was on later linguistic thought and praxis. More information will soon be available on the website of the University of Oslo, the host of this project.

Modern Period

A Fresh Look Backwards: Scholarly Forgetting in the History of Linguistics [2016-2017]

Researcher and co-applicant: Toon Van Hal

In the history of the humanities, the 19th century is commonly seen as an age of disciplinarization and institutionalization through which modern disciplines emerged and scholarly canons were established. There is, however, a long-neglected side to this: the processes of scholarly forgetting implied by any process of selection and reorganization. Knowledge that did not pass through the 19th-century bottleneck often vanished into obscurity. In this exploratory project, covering several important branches of the humanities, the role of scholarly amnesia for linguistics at a turning point in its history will be explored by T. Van Hal. More details on this project (whose prime host is the HU Berlin) are available on the website of the Volkswagenstiftung.

Languages Writing History: The Impact of Language Studies beyond Linguistics (1700–1860) [ongoing]

Researcher: Luz Van den Bruel
Supervisors: Floris Solleveld & Toon Van Hal

Before the study of language was institutionalized, and concentrated, in the discipline of linguistics in the 19th century, languages were central to understanding mankind and, therefore, to scholarship in the humanities. Once historical and linguistic knowledge came to be collected, systematized, categorized, codified, and transmitted in institutionalized disciplines, boundaries arose between the new disciplines. This project aims to focus precisely on the no man’s land between the boundaries of traditional disciplines, with a special focus on the interplay between history and linguistics. Apart from investigating how the transition from the instrumental status of language studies in the Early Modern period to its present autonomy was reflected in scholarly discourse, this project also aims to assess the impact which the broadening of the scope of linguistics had on the study of the humanities in general: to what extent did arguments of a linguistic nature become pivotal in historical and ethnological scholarship and how did they contribute to shaping a comparative mind-set as well as shaking traditional religious beliefs? Finally, the project will also examine what 'got lost' in the process of turning linguistics into a discipline. From a methodological perspective, the project will adopt some experimental approaches to "computational history", operationalizing techniques and insights from both linguistics and history.

Gathering Language: Language Atlases, Comparative Grammars, and Ethnolinguistic Classification in the Long 19th Century [ongoing]

Researcher: Floris Solleveld

In the 19th century, language became the object of a ‘science of language’, i.e. linguistics. This project is concerned with how the languages of the world were mapped and made part of that science. This was a process in which linguistic fieldwork and language classification overlapped with geography and ethnic (racial) classification, in an ethically problematic context. Much of that ‘fieldwork’ was initially done by missionaries, explorers, and colonial administrators, and the information they provided was used to fill gaps on the map as well as to impose Christian faiths and colonial rule. Meanwhile, as linguistics took shape as a discipline, the means of analysis became increasingly arcane – that is, disengaged from how speakers knew their own language, and inaccessible to those not initiated to professional philological training.

This research project focuses on a set of approx. twenty 19th-century and early 20th-century language atlases and comparative grammars which offered an overview of Siberian, African, American, South Indian, and Oceanic languages, and investigates how these overviews are structured and how they came into being. The first leading question is on what grammars, word lists, sample texts, manuscripts, and other ‘language material’ they were based, how this material, in turn, was gathered, and what kind of transformations it subsequently underwent. The second leading question is how this material was used to describe and classify not just languages but also the people who spoke them.

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