Saint Jerome Writing. Caravaggio, 1605–1606, Oil on canvas, 112 cm × 157 cm (44 in × 62 in), Galleria Borghese

Working Group (2016-2017)

Thinking in Many Tongues

This working group and reading seminar, running over two years in 2016–17, brought together around a dozen historians and philologists with diverse kinds of linguistic expertise to discuss the relation between plurilingualism and the creation and reception of monolingual and plurilingual texts in various Eurasian societies. The seminar was based on the collaborative work of a constant group of participants, occasionally joined by specially invited guests. The participants were not in residence at the Institute, but convened periodically. Through joint readings and translation, the seminar explored how the text is affected by its origin in a plurilingual society and, conversely, the effect plurilingualism has on reading practices and on a "polyglot’s" understanding of the text (its concepts and ideals).

In the past—as much as in the present—the majority of people in the world, and most probably most elite communities, were enmeshed in plurilingual practices. Plurilingualism was widespread and a common response to the phenomenon of great linguistic diversity, not necessarily in the sense of language mastery, but rather in the form of effective negotiation of the immediate exigencies of communication. Seeking to better understand this dynamic, the seminar investigated topics such as the impact of filtering information through varied languages; the interplay between declarative and procedural knowledge; methods and means of classification; covert translations and covert multilingualism in monolingual texts; and scholarly ideals regarding reading, writing, and linguistic media, be they purportedly perfect or original languages or newly minted would-be rational or universal languages.

This joint research developed into an edited volume entitled Plurilingualism in Traditional Eurasian Scholarship: Thinking in Many Tongues, Ancient Languages and Civilizations 3 (Leiden: Brill, 2023).

book cover: Most/ Schäfer et al: Plurilingualism in Traditional Eurasian Scholarship. Thinking in Many Tongues (2023)

Past Events

Thinking in Many Tongues: Etymology in Pre-Modern Traditions


Thinking in Many Tongues: Lexicography


Thinking in Many Tongues: Ethnographies of Languages