Vernacular Language and Identity

Patrick Geary Professor of Medieval History at UCLA, Los Angeles, CA, U.S.A.  


Since the eighteenth century, language has been seen the privileged location of national identity. From Étienne Bonnot de Condillac to Herder, to Fichte, the importance of language as marker of national identity took on increasing significance until they were viewed as inseparable. Not surprisingly, then, philologists turned to the discovery and examination of the earliest vernacular texts in order to discover the first records of national consciousness and identity. Prof. Geary's current research redirects the significance of these early diglossic texts from issues of national identity to the ideological and rhetorical contexts within which they were actually recorded. He intends to address the question of why scribes, who were accustomed to writing only Latin, would record such oaths in the language spoken rather than to translate them, without comment, into Latin.  

At the same time, however, Prof. Geary will examine the contexts of the discovery and early appreciation of these texts in order to see how they became misconstrued as essential elements in the construction of national identities based on language. He will explore these issues in a comparative perspective, concentrating on "sub-literary" texts and with particular attention to the tension between what we can now understand of the circumstances of textualization and the assumptions of their early discoverers and editors in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.