In an English-Italian phrasebook written in 1578, one character complained about the rudeness of the English towards foreigners, muttering that ‘fewe of these English men delight to haue their chyldren learne diuers languages, whiche thing displeaseth me’. He and his fellow-speakers discussed how best to learn languages, how fast it could be done, and whether it was worthwhile, with one speaker complaining that ‘I reade, write, and speake three or foure tongues, and yet I finde no profite’. Four centuries ago, the usefulness of language-learning was already up for debate.
Early modern England, like England today, was multilingual. It was a country where Latin (and Greek and Hebrew) was heard in schools and universities, where Law French and Latin were spoken in the courts, where Dutch and French were languages of London courtrooms and fenland towns. While English tourists polished their Italian at home and abroad, soldiers and sailors encountered languages from Swedish and Spanish to Ottoman Turkish or Akan. From Ireland to India and from the Americas to Japan, England’s global expansion was shaped by multilingual meetings.
Studying a language other than English can be of enormous value to historians. For students of early modern England, language skills can highlight new voices, new sources, and new perspectives on familiar histories. The UK – and the historical profession – seem to be facing a language crisis, so it couldn’t be more important to support our students in developing language skills or in putting ones they already have to use in their work as historians. From students who want to start a language from scratch to those who come to us with excellent Welsh, Polish, or Punjabi, as teachers we can always do more to show our students how their skills and interests can enrich their work as historians of all places and periods.
With this in mind, and partly prompted by Rebecca Rideal’s twitter discussion on the topic, I’ve put together some suggestions for students, researchers, and teachers who are interested in the rich and multilingual histories of early modern England and the early modern world (and hopefully many that will be of use beyond this period). Here are some resources that might be helpful to any early modernist seeking to learn a new language, or looking to brush up on one they’ve studied before: Continue reading