Writing In Tongues


Writing in Tongues: Multilingual Books

Multilingual Books

What would you do if you met someone and it was important for you to interact with them, but you couldn’t understand what they were saying? Or, what if there was a book or story that was important for your culture or religious community, but you didn’t grow up speaking its language?

Encounters between different people often involve gaps in understanding due to differences in language and dialect, vocabulary and grammar. This is true of spoken encounters in everyday life as well as encounters with the people of past ages through written texts, and it has led many people to develop skills in multiple languages that would help them more easily navigate the world’s diverse linguistic landscape. This complex reality is reflected in historic books, many of which incorporate multiple languages for a wide variety of reasons. Explore this exhibition to see examples of both printed books and manuscripts from HMML’s collections and to discover some of the reasons why a book might communicate in more languages than one.

Teaching Texts

If you need to learn a new language, it will be much easier if you don’t have to decipher the entire language unassisted. You might be able to find another person with knowledge of both languages who can teach you, or you might find a book that lays out the grammar of the new language in a helpful way. The books in this section attempted to fulfill this need. Sometimes the books were made to help those learning a language for scholarly or religious reasons, or to help people who were trying to become an international diplomat or a successful participant in the business of international trade. In another example, a book was written for an immigrant community and their new neighbors who hoped to better understand each other.

Scholarly Exploration

Many books provide opportunities for scholars to explore other languages and their texts without being primarily focused on teaching readers to understand these languages. Bilingual and multilingual dictionaries provide resources for readers who have moved beyond the beginning stage of language learning. Editions and translations make texts available to scholars with varying levels of fluency in the texts’ original languages. So-called “polyglot” editions are a truly ambitious scholarly project that preserves a text in many of the languages in which it exists. Still other books seem to explore the diversity of the world’s languages simply for the sheer scholarly and aesthetic joy of it, bringing them together in a visual banquet that can help readers recognize them but provides little in-depth exploration of their grammatical structures. Books in this section fulfill all of these purposes.

Classical Languages

In many cultures, a certain language has taken on a central role as the language of scholarship, a role that we might describe as that of a “classical” language. These languages are used for scholarly writing long after they cease to be spoken, sometimes in regions where they were never spoken, in order to facilitate intellectual exchange across the borders of space and time. For much of the history of Western Europe, Latin fulfilled this role, allowing scholars to understand each other whether they spoke French, German, Catalan, or Czech in their daily lives. Arabic has functioned similarly in the Islamic world, and other classical languages, such as Syriac, have been used in other academic contexts. The books in this section are examples of the interaction between classical scholarly languages and modern vernaculars.

Multilingual Communities

For many people throughout history and today, multilingual communities have been the norm. In parts of the Ottoman Empire, for example, it would not have been unusual to hear Turkish, Arabic, Greek, Armenian, Syriac, and more, all from people who had grown up nearby. Some books reflect this rich history, bringing together passages by and for speakers of multiple vernacular languages, whether scholars or general readers. Others discuss in detail the interactions between multiple languages in the environment that produced them, or preserve anecdotes that testify to these interactions. These books encourage us to reflect on the multilingual nature of human societies and the complex linguistic interactions taking place all around us. Where do you encounter languages that are not your primary language around Minnesota, or wherever home may be? The people who produced these books knew the difficulty and richness of these interactions.

Sacred Languages

Many religious traditions use a language for liturgical rites and prayers that is different from the vernacular spoken language of many practitioners. This sacred language becomes an important vehicle by which the religion’s adherents experience their connection to the divine or to something beyond their everyday life. In Judaism the sacred language is generally Hebrew, in Islam it is Arabic. Christianity, on the other hand, has a variety of sacred languages depending on regional context and sectarian affiliation. Examples include Church Slavonic, Coptic, Greek, Latin, and Syriac, but others could be listed. There are examples here of Arabic as both a sacred language and a vernacular, showing how a single language may fulfill different functions for different people. Sacred languages often, but not always, become classical languages of scholarship as well, as can be seen by comparing the different sections of this exhibition.

Complex Histories

Sometimes multiple languages were not present in a book when it was originally created but are found now as a result of the book’s complex history. These books have been studied, collected, and used for various purposes over the course of centuries. A new language may have been added in a note from a later owner or by a reader who wanted to help others understand an unfamiliar text. Books or fragments of books may have been rebound together at a later date. In some cases, a book was reused by a later writer working in a different language or by an artist who had little interest in the written language of the book at all. Items in different languages may have fallen into the book or been stored there for safe keeping. Each situation gives us a unique window into the life of a book and its users.


Dr. Josh Mugler


Many thanks to Tim Ternes, Claire Kouri, and Hannah Weldon, who brought together the materials for the gallery and online exhibitions; to John Meyerhofer, without whose abilities the online exhibition would not be possible; to Margaret Bresnahan, who worked tirelessly to find the right format for the text; and to Matthew Heintzelman and Daniel Gullo, who helped find materials and provided feedback on items that were outside the curator’s expertise.

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