Saturday, October 22, 2011

History of the Language for Undergraduates

"Sometimes the alphabet gets screwed up," the student working at the circulation desk said to me, by way of explaining why my interlibrary loan book did not seem to be on the shelf waiting to be picked up. Yeah, I thought to myself. Sometimes it does. And that was exactly what I was hoping to demonstrate to my students with the book that had somehow drowned in the library's alphabet soup.

Amadís de Gaula.

The book of chivalry that drove Don Quixote mad would be the first text that my introductory students would encounter. Because it is so tangential to what I find compelling from this period, I hate the fact that my students' first introduction to medieval/early modern literature involved someone named Urganda la Desconocida (Urganda the Unknown) could easily spawn references in discussion to movies starring Vanessa Redgrave and possibly a good, rousing chorus of < music > "Camelot! Camelot! The winter is forbidden'till December...". < / music > Give them an astrolabe first, or a fabulous wordlist, or a work of philosophy or poetics or adab, with its own particular set of courtly values, or a great heroic epic; and let them find the books of chivalry and the daydreams of the novelesque later. I want them to understand that not only that there was science and rationalism back then (after all, watery broads handing out swords is a terrible basis for government even if it took Monty Python to point out the fact) but also that that there is an almost scientific, and certainly a logical and rational, way to approach these texts that will seem so foreign to them, in content but also in language.

Part of this is motivated by my own experience as an undergraduate in the still not-too-distant past. I don't fit neatly into a modern academic disciplinary structure. In concrete terms, it was never a sure thing what kind of department I would enter to pursue graduate study. The literature of Muslims in Spain. Does that fall under the purview of a Spanish department? Near Eastern Studies? Religious Studies? Something else? The answer is that it depends on the shades of meaning, on the narrow sub-interests and, critically, on the ideas of different departments and universities. And when I was applying to graduate school having taken hard-nosed philological text seminars in Arabic and interesting and valuable but less hard-nosed seminars in Spanish literature, that made all the difference in making my decision. It was doubtless a fault on my part, a failure to pay attention or to read between the lines or to nose around enough in the library, but I felt like in some ways, I didn't know how to read a Spanish text. In general, we were told that if we came up against a difficulty in a medieval Castilian text, that we should read it aloud and see what it sounded like. It's not bad advice, and it's part of what I included in my brief introduction to how to read an early modern text. But it didn't seem sufficient to me. What if that didn't work? On the other hand, Arabic, with its glorious tradition of poetics and lexicography and grammatical study practically inherent in the literature provided a very clear way forward. I knew where to look for answers when I (very frequently) got stuck in an Arabic text; not so much in Spanish ones. Not until I took history of the language in the last semester of my senior year, when the decision had already been made, did I realize that with Spanish there could be a there there, too.

I don't for a minute regret my decision to pursue a PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies rather than in Spanish. I'm confident that even if I'd had history of the language earlier on in my education, I would have made the same decision. (That wasn't, after all, the only factor that went into making my decision.) But I don't want to leave students in the position of thinking that muddling through is the only option where medieval Ibero-Romance texts are concerned.

In terms of actually presenting this information and material to my students, I had thought about doing a Semitics-style text seminar, in which students would read, translate, and comment on the language, and where understanding what's on the page is the most supreme concern, at least for the first pass. I decided to hold that off until they read excerpts from the Libro de Alexandre at the end of the semester, though. For a variety of reasons, though (including the fact that the Amadís wasn't actually the central concern of that week's work) I decided simply to give them a a brief overview of some principles of language change, both orally and in handout form, and let the ones who are interested it it pursue it further on their own or, again, just know that the possibility is out there.

I made a very simple handout with some very basic guidelines. (I'm dead chuffed with it, too.)

(Click on the images to enlarge them to a readable size.)

Edited on 10/28/11 to add: A friend whose judgment about my work I trust completely (a trust forged in the crucible of us both finishing our dissertations simultaneously this past summer) offered me some useful feedback about the handout off-blog, and I just wanted to acknowledge and address her most serious concern here, namely the way I have described the consolidation of Castilian as the national language. Of the many oversimplifications that one necessarily and unhappily makes in an intro class, this was the wrong place to oversimplify  because it feeds into a variety of pernicious modern myths about the unity of Spain. The version of this handout that I use in the spring will explain this differently. Another change that the next version of the handout will incorporate is more precision in describing what was happening in the language and relating it to how the students themselves will see it.) That said, in spite of a sort of lapsus calami here, we (this is a co-taught course) are giving our students a very good panorama of all the varieties of Ibero-Romance, as well as (perhaps especially) of the other languages that come into play for the times and places we are talking about. For example, Tuesday's lecture was all about aljamiado literature, we talked to them earlier in the semester about gallego-portugués and I'm going to pick the dialect question back up when I introduce them to the Libro de Alexandre at the end of term. There's actually a lot more to say related to this, specifically about introducing students to the idea that Arabic and Latin are legitimately Spanish languages, but that should be its own post. And just one final note: Next time I post a handout, I'll give it a little more context for how I used it, but for now, suffice it to say that the Amadís and Quijote quotes actually wouldn't have seemed as random as they must here to people who had been in attendance in the related lecture and recitation.

On the one hand, I hate presenting "watch out for words that start with the letters F and H" as history of the language and leaving it at that. But on the other hand, I don't care if they will ever be able to explain the collapse Castilian of the sibilant set (or even know what the term "sibilant set" refers to — I certainly didn't even use that term with them) or ever identify the Latinizng sense of a lexical item. What I want them to know is that they could do those things if they decide that they are important and that there is a way beyond pure guesswork and reading aloud for the music of a text to ascertain very precise meaning. (Although I'd be lying if I didn't admit to being really thrilled that one of my students decided to write his research paper on phonetic change as reflected in 16th and 17th century Inquisition testimony.)

I know that we're not supposed to think of our younger selves when we're designing lessons because we are the dorks who think that the collapse of the sibilant set and its implications for writing in Aljamiado-Morisco, for example, is fascinating on the face of it. But I also don't think that we should neglect our younger selves and the current students who might either be like us or even the ones who just have a little bit of an inner dork. In fact, one of my students who isn't planning to go on to graduate study in literature said to me after class, "This is so cool because it makes Spanish just like what I love about math." I didn't design this lesson with a math or science student in mind, but I'm glad I was able to make the material appeal to him by teaching it in a way that he had never thought about it before. In a lot of cases, students will rise to meet higher expectations or be served in very unexpected ways by an unusual presentation of the material

My biggest hope for my students is that the middle ages should be full of possibility. My job, at least at first, is just to give them the tools to recognize that, even when it's the medioeve itself that has done something as basic as having screwed up the alphabet to the point where they need some help making their way through it.

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