Linguistic Selves: Language and Identity in the Premodern World


organizers: Andrew Ollett, Stefano Pellò

Language is a core constituent of identity in the modern world. It is widely thought of as a social “given,” something that a person is born with. Language indexes two forms of identity in particular in the modern world, nation and class, which are like language itself imagined to be inborn (everyone belongs to a nation or class, although no-one gets to choose which one he belong to) and objects of self-conscious identification (everyone knows what nation or class he belongs to).

How did language configure identity in the premodern world? With what forms of belonging was language associated? Through what kinds of languages—spoken, literary, scholarly, classical, vernacular—were those forms of belonging accessed? Was language thought of as a “given” or a “taken,” innate or chosen? Does the use of multiple languages betoken multiple identities? How does the constitution of the self through language differ across cultures?

The focus of this panel is not on premodernity, and even less on modernity, but on language. The invocation of premodernity in the title of this panel simply serves to direct our questions about the interaction between language and identity to a broader range of phenomena than they have previously been directed towards. We do not presume that there is a single “premodern” configuration of language and identity. Rather, we presume that these configurations will be very different in different times and places. Further, we insist on thinking comparatively about these different configurations in order to understand the full range of communities, identities, and solidarities that language has been involved in constructing.

We solicit papers that address the relationship of language and identity in any premodern culture, and particularly papers that do so in an explicitly comparative way. Participants are expected to contribute to a panel-wide discussion on substantive issues, comparative questions, and theoretical interventions.

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