Multilingualism in Early Modern Europe

Dr Hilary Brown gave a talk on multilingualism in early modern Germany at the conference ‘“A host of tongues…”: Multilingualism, Lingua Franca and Translation in the Early Modern Period’, NOVA FCSH, Lisbon, 13-15 December 2018.

Why do people learn languages? In Europe today, it is recognised that knowledge of foreign languages brings huge cultural and economic benefits to individuals and societies; the EU’s aim is for every citizen to be able to speak at least two languages in addition to her or his mother tongue. Multilingualism in Europe has a long and rich history. During the early modern period the continent was characterised by extraordinary linguistic diversity, and the ability to speak more than one language was useful – and fashionable. Knowledge of languages could give you a certain status or open up opportunities and it was something to show off if you wanted to secure or advance your position in society. 

Multilingualism conference

Dr Brown’s talk suggested, though, that language-learning might not always have been empowering for women. She argued that noblewomen in seventeenth-century Germany were sometimes drilled in foreign languages and encouraged to display their skills through translation in order to enhance their value as marriageable commodities and thus to further the interests of their dynasty. If translation must then be seen as a tool for social control, this raises unsettling questions for the history of women’s writing (which prefers to emphasise women’s agency)  and the history of translation (which prefers to emphasise translations as acts of cultural transformation).

Dr Brown will also be presenting her ideas at a symposium at the University of Birmingham in January 2019 on ‘Multilingual Practices in Early Modern Literary Culture’, which is part of the AHRC OWRI project ‘Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies’.