Distant and neglected voices: outside Europe…

by Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett and Dr Helena Sanson

26 May 2016


Women’s contribution to language codification across the ages extends well beyond Europe. Since many traditional histories of linguistics focus primarily on the western tradition, the contribution of women outside Europe is even less well known.

And so the detective work began. When we first started to approach colleagues to see whether they would like to contribute to our project, initial reactions were often enthusiastic but uncertain. The response of our colleague who works on the history of the Chinese language was typical; she wrote: ‘this is certainly a very interesting topic, and – as far as I can see – a completely unexplored one’. A first reaction might be to focus on the reasons why women apparently contributed so little to the history of linguistics. But, painstaking research in archives and libraries, looking at manuscripts and printed sources, gradually unearthed evidence of women’s contribution in a number of interesting ways.

Success crucially depends on keeping an open mind and a flexible approach, since women’s presence in this field has to be sought at times in less conventional places and, notably, outside of institutional or academic contexts. To return to the example of China, Chinese has one of the world’s most ancient and impressive traditions of philological studies, above all in the fields of lexicography, glossography, graphic etymology and phonology. All of these, explains Mariarosaria Gianninoto of the Université Grenoble Alpes, were strictly connected with the constitution of the Confucian canon and with the imperial examination system, which entailed knowledge and exegesis of canonical texts. Deeply rooted prejudices and, as a result, very limited access to instruction, meant that women could not participate in the imperial examinations and therefore are almost completely absent from the landscape of Chinese philology. But, remarks Gianninoto, there are examples of learned women, and their linguistic and Sinographic education should be taken into account. A case in point is Bān Zhāo班昭 (44-116 CE), respectively the daughter and the sister of the Han dynasty historians Bān Biāo班彪 (3-54 CE) and Bān Gù 班固 (32-92 CE). After the death of her brother, she was ordered to complete the compilation of the Book of the Han (Hànshū漢書), destined to become the model for all future dynastic histories in China. Bān Zhāo is also believed to be the author of an annotated version of the Biographies of Eminent Women by Liú Xiàng劉向 (79–8 BCE), a critical edition unfortunately now lost to us, but which represents a rare example of women’s contribution to glossography, an important field of Chinese philology.

Several centuries later, on the other side of the world, another female figure offered a different and very practical linguistic contribution, at the time when the colonial settlers were coming into contact with the native populations in North America. The name of Pocahontas immediately evokes the beautiful character brought by Disney to the big screen in its successful movie of 1995. Hers is a legendary figure in American history, variously portrayed by playwrights, painters, and sculptors since her likeness was first captured by the Dutch engraver Simon van de Passe during her stay in England in 1616. The daughter of a powerful Native American figure, Pocahontas (c. 1595–1617) was a Powhatan ‘princess’ in tidewater Virginia where the English were struggling to establish an outpost at Jamestown. Although there is little extant information about the specific, concrete linguistic role Pocahontas played as an intermediary between Powhatan and English speakers, there are nonetheless multiple records, Margaret Thomas of Boston College tells us, of her communicating across the two cultures.

Adopting an open-minded and flexible approach leads us to thinking about women who assisted male members of their families, or male colleagues, in their work as linguists. Lucy Catherine Lloyd (1834-1914), for example, was the sister-in-law of the German linguist Wilhelm Bleek (1827-1875), whom she assisted in his work, for 13 years, becoming his most important collaborator. Together with Bleek, Lucy Lloyd was the creator of the 19th-century archive of ǀXam and !Kung texts (later called the Bleek and Lloyd collection, today the Digital Bleek and Lloyd), which is an invaluable resource for linguists working on Khoisan languages.

During their missionary work women also conducted linguistic research and surveys in Africa. Helma Pasch of the University of Cologne cites the case of Gertrud von Massenbach (1883-1975) who joined the Sudan Pioneer Mission in 1909, when she was sent, as a teacher of mathematics, to Aswan in Nubian territory, where Arabic and Nubian were the main languages. Her linguistic interests led her to publish first a dictionary with a grammatical introduction of Kunûzi Nubian (Wörterbuch des nubischen Kunûzi-Dialektes mit einer grammatischen Einleitung, 1933) and then a collection of Nubian texts (Nubische Texte im Dialekt der Kunuzi und der Dongolawi, 1962). When Cinie Louw (1872-1935) followed her husband Andrew Louw to South Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) to work on the Morgenster Mission, she learned the local language, Karanga, a Shona dialect, and became a fluent speaker. Their translation of the Bible into Karanga, published in 1919, was a joint effort, which was preceded, just a few years earlier, in 1915, by her 397-page Manual of the Chikaranga Language. This text, according to the leading Banthu languages specialist of the day, Clement Martyn Doke, comprised ‘the best grammatical sketch of any Mashonaland language’ published up to that point.

Evangelical missions in Africa, as well as on other continents, offered women the opportunity to conduct first-hand research on little-studied languages. Women thus leave their mark on the history of linguistic codification, albeit often in less academic or scholarly contexts than men.

Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett is Professor of French Philology and Linguistics at the University of Cambridge. She works on the history of the French language and the history of linguistic thought, particularly in 17th-century France. Her major research interests include questions of standardisation and codification, linguistic ideology and policy, and variation and change, from the 16th century to the present day.

Dr Helena Sanson is Reader in Italian Language, Literature and Culture at the University of Cambridge. She works on the history of linguistic thought and the history of women in Italy, particularly between the Renaissance and the post-Unification period. Among her research interests are women’s role in the Questione della lingua debates across the centuries, their contribution to language codification and translation, as well as questions of linguistic prescriptivism in the rich production of conduct literature for and about women.

A conference on Distant and Neglected Voices: Women in the History of Linguistics, was convened by Wendy Ayres-Bennett and Helena Sanson at the British Academy in June 2016.

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