Language versus dialect: A new exegetical tool for early modern theologians?

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The Bible, as the late Vivien Law rightly remarks, refrains from dealing with the theme of language at great length. The verses that do dwell on the topic are highly enigmatic and leave ample room for discussion.

Needless to say, their interpretation became a source of disagreement from antiquity onward. Especially the Genesis passages dealing with linguistic origin and diversity-principally the confusion of tongues at the Tower of Babel, before which there was linguistic unity-provoked much debate.

In the 16th century, philologists developed a new conceptual pair to approach such questions of linguistic origin and diversity, namely language vs. dialect. Suddenly, theologians were offered new interpretive possibilities that would lead them to new theological and linguistic hypotheses.

The impact of this new language-dialect dichotomy on early modern exegesis has not yet been studied at length, a lacuna which I will try to start filling with my presentation. How is the conceptual pair understood and put to use in interpreting biblical passages referring to language? Also, the Bible occasionally refers to specific instances of dialectal variation, i.e. the shibboleth incident and the recognition of St Peter by means of his distinctive Galilean accent, and to a language of unknown status: the so-called Lycaonian tongue. What is the place of the language-dialect pair in explaining these passages? Furthermore, are the twin concepts considered relevant for the episode of the "speaking in tongues" at Pentecost and, if so, how and for what reason(s)?

Raf Van Rooy will argue that the language-dialect dichotomy resulted in more exegetical problems than it offered solutions, thus prefiguring later debates on the language-or-dialect status of speech varieties, which were, however, not so much of theological inspiration as they were politically fuelled.

Speaker Bios

Raf Van Rooy (PhD KU Leuven, 2017) is Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow at the University of Oslo (Norway), working on the project “Between migration and linguistics: Greeks in Western Europe and the emergence of contrastive grammar in the Renaissance (c.1390–1600)” (2021–23) under the auspices of Han Lamers and Unn Falkeid. Van Rooy previously was PhD fellow (2013–17) and postdoctoral fellow (2017–21) of the Research Foundation—Flanders (FWO) at KU Leuven (Flanders, Belgium). Van Rooy holds degrees in Classics, General Linguistics, and Early Modern History from KU Leuven, UCLouvain (Louvain-la-Neuve), and Ghent University, and specializes in the premodern history of linguistics and Greek studies. In 2020, he became editor of the peer-reviewed journal Language & History and published two books: Language or Dialect? The History of a Conceptual Pair (Oxford University Press) and Greece’s Labyrinth of Language: A Study in the Early Modern Discovery of Dialect Diversity (Language Science Press). He is currently supervising the development of DaLeT, the Database of the Leuven Trilingue, and preparing a new volume for the series Brill Research Perspectives in Latinity and Classical Reception in the Early Modern Period, focusing on Neo-Latin and New Ancient Greek. He is also working together with Alexander Maxwell (Victoria University of Wellington) on different topics related to the history of the language-dialect distinction.

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For more information contact: Valerie Wallace