The Rise and Fall of Monolingualism (GSA Seminar 2015)

German Studies Association Seminar, co-convened by David Gramling and Bethany Wiggin (Washington, DC, September 2015)

At this global moment, nation and language can hardly be presumed to coincide (if indeed they ever did). Yet this Herderian, and also deeply Romantic, conception of language as a prepossession of the nation would appear to have a long afterlife in research methodology and disciplinary reconstitution. It continues to provide the ballast for a range of institutional structures: from the primacy of the native speaker in language instruction to the study of nation-based literatures. Monolingualism thus remains, in Elizabeth Ellis’s often-cited phrase, “the unmarked case.”

In an era when English has become a dominant world language of commerce and scholarship, we are perhaps more easily able to recognize monolingualism in all its contingency and historical contours. In his magisterial survey of another world language, Latin, Jürgen Leonhardt for instance suggested that modern monolingualism may be regarded as a historical aberration. It is the contention of this seminar’s conveners that monolingualism urgently needs marking through historical, textual and theoretical interrogation. Does monolingualism even hold up as an (onto)logical category? What are its histories and its local ecologies? Does monolingualism embolden some forms of cultural practice (perhaps those of the nation and literature), while generating resistance to / within others (perhaps empire and network culture)? Is monolingualism indeed a by-gone paradigm, and are our contemporary experiences therefore indelibly imprinted with a post-monolingual condition (Yasemin Yildiz)? Or are certain structures and intensities of monolingualism actually on the rise in the twenty-first century?

Confronted with complex global flows and processes, humanities and social sciences scholarship today is increasingly divesting from the explanatory chronotope of the nation, turning its attention to longue durée and deep-time phenomena. German Studies in North America, however, often maintains an exclusive procedural allegiance to German-language frames of reference—often, paradoxically, in order to promote a progressive and pan-ethnic politics of recognition toward multicultural literature in German among immigrants and post-migrants. Here too this seminar is poised to propose methodological recalibrations.

The seminar’s focus on this single keyword “monolingualism” requires a spectrum of participants whose work spans a wide historical and disciplinary range. We invite proposals from scholars at all career stages and in all disciplines whose work considers any of these questions:

  • Was the medieval always already multilingual? How might we best understand the coinage of the term “Muttersprache” in 1522, in relation to modernist and poststructural preconceptions about monolingualism and nativism?
  • To what ends might we analyze monolingualism alongside other such unmarked positionalities as whiteness, the natural, the metropole, the global North, class and gender hierarchies, and other identarian norms?
  • How can scholarship go beyond merely dismissing monolingualism as benighted or reactionary, and instead offer accounts that carefully enumerate its forms, intensions, and implications?
  • How has monolingualism—as an organizing logic and historical development—facilitated other heuristic and disciplinary categories, such as multilingualism, translation, comparative literature, linguistic purism, linguistic nationalism, World Literature, civil rights, and citizenship?
  • How do encounters with these (and other) historical moments and questions help us think language ecology differently in the present?
  • If we consider ecology without nature (Timothy Morton), might we also think about language without nature or nativeness? Are there ever natural languages, and what is at stake in disarticulating language from embodiment? What work has the term Natursprache accomplished, and in what contexts? What is its relationship to Muttersprache?

The questions this seminar poses also have significant bearing on neighboring conversations, for instance on the theory and practice of translation, including the translator’s invisibility (Lawrence Venuti), the status of untranslatablity (Barbara Cassin et al), the politics and ideologies of World Literature, the aesthetics of multilingualism, and the language of nature / nature of language. Scholars working in various spheres of German, Austrian, Swiss, Germanophone, and multilingual contexts, from the medieval to the posthumanist, are welcome to join this conversation. Historians, anthropologists, political scientists, literature and film scholars, music and art historians, applied linguists, pedagogy / SLA / DaF scholars, translators and translation studies scholars, and representatives of other disciplines are equally encouraged to contribute. Empirical and theoretical explorations, as well as reflections on methodology, are welcome.

All participants will prepare a 10-page paper, to be circulated in advance. Our meetings each day will offer a workshop setting for the papers, as well as a broad, participatory, and substantive discussion. Publication of select papers is planned. There will be no silent auditors for this seminar.

About livelongday

Associate Professor of German Studies, Director of Graduate Studies Co-Editor of Critical Multilingualism Studies | Co-Investigator, Researching Multilingually at the Borders of Language, the Body, Law, and the State (2014–2017)
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.