Throughout this Year of Conversions at the Institute for the Humanities, I have been working on a book-length project, titled A World of Words: Language, Globalization, and the English Renaissance. In it, I trace how stories about the relatedness and distinctiveness of human tongues provided the English-speaking world with a range of models for thinking about “globalization”—a term this project seeks to revivify by directing attention to Renaissance connections between ideas about linguistic evolution and evolutions in the earth’s history, what I characterize as ‘Renaissance geo-linguistics.’ A World of Words argues that Renaissance ideas about language – many of them emerging from the wide influence of the story of the Tower of Babel – powerfully linked ideas about the history of the globe to epistemologies of race and kind in early modern Europe. In its largest strokes, the book shows how many of the ideas that we have come to think of as having an effect on language history (the power of human migration to drive linguistic change, for instance; or, the conjectured causal connection between continental drift and linguistic drift) are themselves notions preconditioned upon stories about language that were both recovered and rewritten during the European Renaissance.
As the Norman Freehling Visiting Fellow, my research has been focused on the most literal, material sense of “the globe”: the history of the emerging science of geology in the Renaissance. More than 300 years before geologists proposed a scientific theory of continental drift, the Anglo-Dutch philologist and antiquarian Richard Verstegan hypothesized that land masses had long been in motion. From Verstegan’s point of view, the earth around him was telling a continuous story of conversion, one that could be revealed through a close attention to relics, fossils, and etymology alike. To take Verstegan seriously as a celebrated antiquarian of the Renaissance is to grapple with both how and why he moved between geological and etymological forms of evidence as he sought to put forward a new understanding of the racial and ethnic origins of Europeans, one that reached all the way back to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.
This year I have also taken part in the multi-university “Conversions Project.” In connection with this, I have traced the motifs of transformation and metamorphosis that appear frequently in early modern bi- and polyglot dictionaries, as lexicographers tried to communicate the scale, scope, and agenda of their projects to their readers. Playfully wrestling with the perils and promises of translation, these dictionary-makers turned with remarkable frequency to classical images of metamorphosis – including stories of sexual transformations from the work of Ovid – to give conceptual form to the work their dictionaries were doing, and the place of multivalent and multiple linguistic identities at the center of it. Dictionaries provide us with far more than an archive of language and its history; they also archive the stories through which early modern cultures were imagining the mutability of their own linguistic, cultural, racial, and sexual identities.
Marjorie Rubright is associate professor of English at the University of Toronto.