It is almost a commonplace these days for us medievalists to point out that national literatures and national philologies have their roots in wider political developments in nineteenth-century Europe. Not that that makes the point any less valid, but the more often one hears it, the more obvious the need becomes to formulate constructively an alternative approach to the premodern texts. At the same time, uncritically restating the problematic legacy of early scholarship runs the risk of engendering a rather too comfortable sense of our own progressiveness. It would be a shame if this led to certain kinds of research being marginalized.

One field that strikes me as particularly vulnerable in this respect is comparative philology, precisely because so much of the groundwork was done from the late eighteenth-century onward and precisely because much of it was intertwined with the colonialism, orientalism, and nation-building that we’re trying to think beyond (Sir William Jones is one well-known example).

The trouble is that things just aren’t that simple. Yes, there is a pattern of thought that is common to working out what proto-languages looked like, to the Lachmannian reconstruction of textual archetypes, and to the need of growing national consciousnesses to identify origins. And yes, it’s easy to mock linguistic reconstruction as having hybristic aspirations to factual certainty (whether everyone who does it has such aspirations, is a different matter).

Yet it is not always just a case of building castles in the air. Here is one great example of that. In the nineteenth century, Ferdinand de Saussure observed that postulating a new group of sounds in Proto Indo-European (PIE) would explain nicely some puzzling verb irregularities. These sounds are now known as laryngeals because of their presumed origin at the back of the oral space (cf. ‘larynx’). Their existence was hypothetical for many, many years … until, after the ‘discovery’ of Hittite, it was noted – we’re now in the 1920s –by Jerzy Kuryłowicz that this language preserves a particular sound exactly where one would expect a laryngeal to have been in PIE.

The opposite is also possible, of course. Take the glottalic theory. Roman Jakobson essentially observed that the presumed PIE consonant system did not make linguistic sense. More plausible, it was later suggested, was that instead of b, for example, PIE had a p pronounced together with a glottal stop (the unwritten sound you get at the beginning of ‘Apfel’ in German). The jury is still out on this one, not least because languages have since been ‘discovered’ that have the very kind of consonant repertoire that Jakobson took issue with …

I hope these two examples show that those nineteenth-century types were not always wrong, that theories do change, and that historical linguists still disagree about things today. The names, by the way, also serve as a reminder that it would be unwise to identify this kind of research too closely with any particular national tradition of scholarship.


Having thus cleared the ground, I want to talk a bit about how comparative philology could be drawn back into comparative research projects that look beyond Europe as defined by modern national borders. My own interest in PIE over the past few years actually began as a pretty narrow linguistic one – I wanted to understand the evolution of the Old Norse I was learning, and to see better how it related to the German I already knew – but more and more I have found myself thinking about how it relates to much wider questions that me and my colleagues in Odense and York are asking. The ponderings below are ideas in an early stage of formulation, no more.

• Can the linguistic stories make our perspectives more rounded, more comprehensive? One of the books we’ve been discussing a lot is Sheldon Pollock’s Language of the Gods in the World of Men (my own copy is in the post), in particular the parallels it draws between Sanskrit and Latin. Does the fact that these languages are related affect how we think about such arguments? Should it? Do differently nuanced language relationships change how we conceive of the notion of a ‘vernacular’ in any particular case?

• How does recalling linguistic history affect the boundaries we are trying to realign? How might the simple fact that (for example) English, German, and Old Norse (not to mention Dutch, Gothic, and others) are related, create a frame, or even just an impetus, to bring together on an equal footing material that has not always been represented equally in the past (links between Old Norse and German literature or between Old Norse and English, for instance, are reasonably well known; but what about German and English? Think North Sea as guiding spatial concept…).

• And what about notions of Europe and the structuring of literary history? How might the comparative history of languages and the relationships between them – and remember this is not just ‘Europe’ in the modern sense we are talking about – shape new perspectives on considering the relevant literatures and cultures alongside one another?

You will note that this thinking aloud does not involve the intricacies of particular sound-laws, ablaut grades, and such like. But the point is that such detailed philological work is what the bigger picture rests on. One cannot really have one without the other.

The theories and examples I mentioned are introduced in most textbooks; a particularly good one is Benjamin W. Fortson IV’s Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction (2nd edn, 2009).