When I was effectively living in the Cabinn Odense, I experienced the mixing of languages first-hand on a nightly basis: as well as Danish guests there were a good number of German workers in the lobby who were staying there too. You can read more about the contemporary issues of language and identity this raises here and here.
I am interested in how such interaction between languages is related to the texts and artefacts that societies produce. Here’s a little example of that from the book on Lohengrin (my book!) whose proofs I’m correcting at the moment.
We’re not in the north of Europe any more, but in Italy, near Rome to be precise, in the aftermath of a Christian victory in which two mysterious knights clad in white played a crucial role. And the European royal elite is eager to learn who those two knights were.
The Emperor Henry, who knows their names, begins announcing them in der diutschen zunge (in the German tongue; 6405). But he stops in his tracks, troubled because mîn sprâche ist vremd dem künege von Lamparten (my language is foreign to the King of Lombardy; 6407). The Eastern Emperor suggests in response that his daughter could help out by interpreting – but a further language gap remains to be bridged after Henry’s speech, when Dem küenec von Francrîch mahte kunt / der von Lutringe die sache gæhes an der stunt (the Duke of Lotharingia explained the matter to the King of France at once; 6421–22).
This is more than just a noteworthy depiction of interpreting and the negotiation of linguistic differences in the Middle Ages. It’s also puzzling for several reasons. As you can see from the quotations, the whole scene is depicted in one language, Middle High German, so there is no effort to actually reproduce the various tongues being spoken. More than that, these same figures have been interacting without difficulty throughout the preceding events before, during, and after the battle. So how come they are suddenly unable to understand one another now?
Such apparent contradictions (‘apparent’, because medieval readers might not have read them in the way that we do) are what my book is about. I don’t want to give too much away here…but in brief, I suggest that the obsession with identity, with working out who people are, that runs through Lohengrin (just like the Wagner opera of the same name) has something to do with it: in order to make Henry’s revelation of who the two knights were that bit more protracted and difficult, our medieval poet introduced linguistic difficulties even though it meant ‘contradicting’ himself.
That’s just one example of why the interplay between multilingualism and poetics in medieval literature is so fascinating. Returning to the here and now—because there’s a gap in my usual evening routine due to NetDansk being on holiday—the question marks raised by the Stern review have made me wonder more than ever what sort of future this research will lead to for me. The past eleven months have seen a lot: the grim nights between languages in the Cabinn, the 24-hour round-trip commute to see my wife at weekends, a month’s salary spent relocating us both to Denmark. Such are the realities of early-career mobility; would that they be worth it.
Quotations are from Lohengrin, ed. by Thomas Cramer (Munich, 1971). The nineteenth-century edition of Lohengrin by Rückert is online (hosted by the UB Heidelberg), and is ‘good enough’ for informally getting to grips with the text.—The manuscript page is the section of text quoted from manuscript B, Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cpg 345, fol. 152r, reproduced under Creative Commons-Lizenz CC-BY-SA 3.0 DE.
And, as a reward for reading to the end, the answer! The two knights were Saints Peter and Paul.