Does multilingualism need a history?

For the 2021 Einar Haugen Lecture, the eminent Aneta Pavlenko will be taking us on a journey in a linguistic time machine, from Ptolemaic Alexandria in 323 BC to the present day. 

An old book lying open with a pen and a pocket watch on top of it

Aneta Pavlenko is Research Professor at the Center for Multilingualism in Society across the Lifespan at the University of Oslo, Norway. The topic of her lecture is the history of multilingualism.

Does multilingualism need a history?


One of the many delightful surprises of Einar Haugen’s (1953) landmark study of Norwegian language in America is the fact that it begins in 1825, nearly a century before the author’s birth.

Using church documents, journalistic accounts, poetry and immigrant letters, Haugen recreates social and economic conditions and language attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic, linking the changes in language maintenance to World War I and the relentless Americanization in its wake. It is only in Volume 2 that we get to meet his informants and learn about his fieldwork. Today, such diachronic treatments are the prerogative of historical sociolinguists and historians. In studies of multilingualism, history gets short shrift.

In this lecture, I pay tribute to Haugen’s commitment to history by reexamining four tenets often used to justify this neglect:

  • Modern multilingualism presents a greater public challenge than ever before.
  • Modern language policies are more tolerant.
  • Modern multilingualism is quantitatively different: linguistic diversity at the population level is greater, more dense and dispersed than ever before.
  • Modern multilingualism is qualitatively different: globalization gave rise to ‘increasingly unbounded’ transidiomatic practices.

To judge the validity of the claims, we will take a tour in a time machine, starting out in Ptolemaic Alexandria in 323 BC and then making short stops in imperial Rome, Norman Palermo, medieval Toledo and London, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, imperial St Petersburg, colonial Philadelphia, and the capital of Habsburg Hungary Pressburg-Poszony.

The purpose of each stop is to take a quick look at the nature of the local ‘multilingual challenge’ and the state’s response in nine institutional domains: (1) administration; (2) courts of law; (3) currency, (4) army; (5) religion, (6) education, (7) libraries, (8) commerce and (9) public signage.

My hope is to surprise you, to entertain you, to celebrate linguistic diversity and to show that by neglecting history in the longue durée we get our own multilingualism wrong.

About Aneta Pavlenko

Portrait of Aneta Pavlenko, a white woman with mid-length brown hair and a bright green jacket
Aneta Pavlenko. Photo: Private

Aneta Pavlenko is Research Professor at the Center for Multilingualism in Society across the Lifespan at the University of Oslo, Norway. Her research examines the relationship between multilingualism, cognition, and emotions, including in historic and legal contexts.

She has lectured widely in North America, Europe and Asia and has authored more than a hundred articles and ten books, including The bilingual mind and what it tells us about language and thought (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

Pavlenko is Past President of the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) and winner of the 2006 BAAL Book of the Year award, the 2009 TESOL Award for Distinguished Research and the 2021 AAAL Research article award. At present she is working on two books, one is a monograph on the history of multilingual societies, the other is a volume on multilingualism and history, co-edited with Pia Lane and Alexandre Duchêne, to be published by Cambridge University Press.

The Einar Haugen Lecture

Black-and-white photo of Einar Haugen, an older white man with dark-rimmed glasses
The annual Einar Haugen Lecture pays tribute to this eminent Norwegian-American scholar and celebrates linguistic diversity. Photo: Unknown/NTB Scanpix

On September 26, the European Day of Languages, MultiLing honors Einar Haugen with the annual Einar Haugen Lecture. This year's lecture will be held on September 24.

Haugen was a Norwegian-American linguist and a Professor at Harvard University in the 1960-70s.

Haugen’s many influential works contributed to the then emerging field of sociolinguistics for which he is credited for having had an important impact, particularly in the domain of language policy. His pioneering work The Norwegian Language in America: A Study in Bilingual Behavior (1953) is a landmark study in the field of bilingualism. 

Published Sep. 9, 2021 2:03 PM - Last modified Oct. 1, 2021 9:57 AM