John – Language Learning in the Early Modern Period

My work focuses on language, and asks how speakers of English went about learning foreign languages in a period when travel, trade and exploration took them further than ever before and in greater numbers.

I am a graduate student in the Faculty of History and am lucky enough to receive a Derek Brewer PhD studentship at Emmanuel. I work on the early modern period: for historians, this stretches from some time in the fifteenth century through to the eighteenth, and is a time of great change and huge interest in world history.

My central questions are simple: how do we make ourselves understood in a language other than our mother tongue? What does it mean to be multilingual? How does the study of language allow us to learn more about the society, culture, religion and politics of a past era?

At the heart of my dissertation is the contention that language-learning was central to the experience of early modern travel. At a time when, as the sixteenth-century Anglo-Italian translator and language teacher John Florio said of English, ‘It is a language that wyl do you good in England, but passe Dover, it is woorth nothing’, it was crucial for Anglophones to learn other vernacular tongues. Amid the political and religious upheavals of the Reformation, the use of Latin as a European lingua franca was in sharp decline, while national languages became increasingly important both in day-to-day life and in scholarly discourse.

My research is interdisciplinary and draws on approaches to language from linguistics, anthropology and sociology in trying to tease out how language worked in differing social situations and how the process of language-learning was often less about grammar and syntax and more about understanding cultural and social norms. My research so far has taken me to archives and libraries throughout the UK and Ireland, and over the next year – with help from the College and Faculty – I hope to work in France and Italy too, to get an idea of how travellers and traders actually got by among other linguistic communities.

Drawing on letters, diaries, official documents and printed books of the period, my dissertation looks at language-learning in multiple forms and situations. It provides the first in-depth examination of early modern phrasebooks, an under-studied resource for accessing the language of the past. It traces the linguistic travails of English-speaking prisoners in Muslim North Africa, and the ways in which these men and women learnt Arabic or the lingua franca used between slaves and masters. Early modern travellers used language not just to make themselves understood but also to engage in disguise and subterfuge, to seduce and to spy. For sailors and traders, linguistic competence was the key to commercial success. Children of ambitious parents could be shipped off to France in what seems like an early language exchange programme, while those who undertook the Grand Tour used it as a chance to perfect their Italian. The linguistic variety and interest of the early modern world is almost infinite, and the challenge is, in part, to fit so much into a single PhD thesis.