Professor explores Cosmopolitan languages of the medieval Mediterranean


University of Michigan professor Karla Mallette speaks during her lecture “Lives of the Great Languages: Cosmopolitan Language Systems in the Medieval Mediterranean” at the Phillip E. Austin Building on Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

University of Michigan professor Karla Mallette shared her research on global languages in the Mediterranean region during a lecture entitled “Lives of the Great Languages: Cosmopolitan Language Systems in the Medieval Mediterranean” on Monday afternoon at the Phillip E. Austin Building.

Mallette, who works as a professor of Italian and near Eastern studies at Michigan, began by posing a question: “How do you answer the baffling linguistic complexity of a place like the Mediterranean?” She then explained that the European Union currently recognizes 24 “official and working” languages, by the words of the Union themselves.

“It seems problematic to talk about languages without providing a global context,” Mallette said, before displaying two tables of data as part of her presentation. The first table showed the number of native speakers in each of the world’s top languages, with Chinese comfortably at the head of the pack with more than one billion speakers.

The second table, Mallette noted, “gave a different perspective.” It combined both native speakers and secondary speakers of each language to provide a more all-encompassing picture of the languages of the world. Chinese still held the lead on the second table, but a number of languages closed the gap considerably when secondary speakers were considered.

Mallette noted that the data was “very fuzzy,” but also that it “reveals something fascinating.” “Cosmopolitan languages seem to be making a comeback,” she noted, referring to the global languages that span and connect multiple regions of the world. She explained that the language of culture is both trans-regional and trans-historical.

“You may be surprised to hear this, but according to political scientists, we are living in an age of new medievalism,” Mallette said. New medievalism is characterized by overlapping and multiple authorities in the European region, which is similar to the original medieval age.

Mallette continued to help define new medievalism, using a quote from a 1999 book by Spanish medievalist Eduardo Moreno. “One of the essential features of the Medieval Euro landscape was its lack of cohesion and unity, its discontinuity and disorder character… the quest for homogenous realms in the medieval world is an attempt doomed to fail,” Moreno wrote.

The next step in Mallette’s research process was to help nail down a lingua franca that connected people during the medieval age. A lingua franca, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a language that is used among people who speak various different languages.”

Mallette pointed to the accounts of three witnesses from the 1700s that seem to confirm the existence of a lingua franca. She noted that these three “disagreed on what to call it,” but their information substantiates its existence. She went on to explain that the first recorded word was “amici,” which translates roughly to English as “friends.”

She noted that in early lingua franca, there are 305 words representing 115 different lexemes, which are basic units of language. “There is obviously a very paltry trail of evidence,” Mallette admitted. “We must rely on slivers of documented language spoke by very shifty characters.”

Mallette closed her lecture by returning to the two tables of data, and again highlighting their importance. “Cosmopolitan language allows us to talk and think about big history in a literary context,’ she said.

Tyler Keating is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at

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