University of Erfurt

Gotha Research Centre of the University of Erfurt

Projekt von Raf Van Rooy M.A.

"Language" and/vs. "dialect" in early modern linguistic thought: concept formation and empirical underpinnings, with special reference to the Ancient Greek background

It is widely known that there is no general agreement about the definitions of the twin concepts “language” and “dialect” in present day linguistics, to the point that a number of contemporary scholars refrain from using this distinction. Although the concepts’ origin harks back to Greek antiquity, it is the early modern period that constitutes a crucial stage for their history. During this era, scholars theorized on these concepts, often within the context of the Ancient Greek “dialects,” which are traditionally divided into Attic, Ionic, Aeolic, Doric, and κοινή (koine, “common [speech]”). Consequently, there is a close and complex interplay between these two aspects of early modern language study. For this reason, it is indispensable to explore and analyze how early modern scholars applied and related their views on the “language”–“dialect” distinction to the varieties of the Ancient Greek language.

In general terms, my project aims at a systematic, comparative history of the concepts of “language” and “dialect” in the early modern period, during which the foundations were laid for the modern concepts which are still used in contemporary linguistics as well as in everyday speech (however problematic their status). My historiographical-methodological study focuses on a large number of early modern texts dealing with (the distinction between) the concepts of “dialect” and “language” and/or with the Greek “dialects” and dating from the period 1478–1782. Many texts included in the investigation have thus far been neglected by historians of linguistics. Particular attention is paid to (1) the definitions the authors offered and (2) the criteria they invoked when determining whether a certain speech form should be considered a “dialect” or a “language.” In addition, the research includes a study of the terms used to designate these concepts (see, e.g., διάλεκτος and Latin dialectus, which gradually invaded the vernacular languages; patois; Mundart on the one hand and lingua and its vernacular reflexes; sermo; idioma; Sprache on the other), especially since this terminographical aspect has not yet received due attention. To conclude, the authors’ underlying assumptions are investigated (i.e. historical contextualization).

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