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Myths about Language in the Middle Ages

Myths can increase our knowledge of how medieval intellectuals sought to bolster the authority of their respective languages for higher cultural, literary, and administrative functions.

People holding a building up at the same time as they are building it. Painting.

Mural of Tower of Babel, Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe, early twelfth Century.

About the project

In medieval Europe, those who wished to defend the use of their native language often did so by presenting a myth about its origin. They argued that their particular language was the best of all that had been present at the Tower of Babel, or that the pagan gods had spoken their language, or that a particular Church Father had translated the Bible to their idiom. The importance of such narratives to the emergence of the vernaculars has, however, passed largely unnoticed in modern research. A study of medieval myths about language promises to enhance our understanding of the evolution which would eventually result in the full functional scope of the modern European languages. This is of particular importance since the Middle Ages was the formative period for developing the vernaculars languages into workable tools for all levels of discourse, a necessary prerequisite for our modern society.

Myths are promising sources for understanding how medieval authors themselves conceptualized what they were doing when they used their own language for literature and scholarship, something which we today take for granted but which was a controversial proposition at the time. The project Myths about Language in the Middle Ages will also address the issue of how myths can serve as explanations by presenting concrete narrative about the abstract entity of language. Based on perspectives developed within linguistics, a theoretical framework will be worked out which allows for a focused analysis of myths, but also of images, as a means to explain abstract entities in terms of concrete narrative or of pictorial motifs.


The primary objective of this project is to investigate how myths about languages were used in the Middle Ages in order to explain what individual languages were, what their place in history was, and how they could be used. These myths were an important element in the emergence of the vernaculars, and thus to the socio-linguistic makeup of modern society, but they have not yet been studied comprehensively. The project will address this gap in modern research, both through a full overview of the medieval evidence in collaboration with specialists worldwide and through a separate, focused study of Ireland and Iceland, conducted by the project leader.

The secondary objective is to develop a theoretical framework which can assist in the analysis of complex clusters of signifiers, and to test the theory against both narrative and pictorial sources. The basic theory is imported from linguistics, and will here be adapted to account for sources where many additional criteria are involved.

The project leader and research group will produce an ambitious anthology called Language Myths in the Middle Ages c. 400–1400. The project leader will write the monograph Insular Influence on Old Norse Literature c. 850–1200, as well as two articles. The PhD Fellow will produce a PhD thesis, and the Postdoctoral Fellow a monography or at least three major articles. Two conferences will be arranged at the University of Oslo, as well as panels on major medievalist Conferences.


August 2017 to July 2021.


The Research Council of Norway, Young Research Talents FRIPRO Scheme.


The project will study these developments in Europe at large, and the project leader will here collaborate with a team of 15 international specialists to cover the many languages and literatures involved. The project leader will himself conduct a focused study of Iceland and Ireland, where myths about language were used in particularly creative ways.


Published Feb. 17, 2017 9:24 AM - Last modified May 22, 2020 2:03 PM


Project leader

Mikael Males