DRIFTING APART?: LINGUISTICS, LITERARY STUDIES AND ENGLISH PHILOLOGY


Two weeks ago I gave the inaugural lecture for the four-year BA in English Studies at the Universidad de Murcia. Actually, my lecture was intended to represent the Literature and Culture segment of the degree, and a colleague from the Universidad de Zaragoza, Dr. Iraide Ibarretxe Antuñano, offered a second inaugural lecture on Linguistics. She asked the students present how many had chosen the BA because of an interest in Linguistics and only a few raised their hands. She asked then the rest whether they were interested in Literature but, again, only a few hands were raised. The immense majority, then, had either no particular inclination or had not made their mind up yet. Or were confused–and no wonder!

Now bear with me


Dr. Ibarretxe, though a graduate in English Studies has a Doctorate in Linguistics and works for the ‘Departamento de LingĂŒĂ­stica General e HispĂĄnica’ (not to be confused with ‘FilologĂ­a Española’). This is an interesting name for, as happens, in my university we have no Linguistics Department and, indeed, the Spanish Department–familiarly known as ‘HispĂĄnicas’–is the home not of this language speciality but of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature. Linguistics belongs, so to speak, to the Catalan Department–at least, they are the ones in charge of the first-year compulsory course common to all language-based BAs. At the Universitat de Lleida, in contrast, Linguistics belongs to English Studies, and the corresponding unit is the ‘Departament d’AnglĂšs i de LingĂŒĂ­stica’.

Still with me?

Many Departments in Spanish universities which, back in 2009 or thereabouts started offering degrees called ‘English Studies’ (‘Estudios Ingleses’) or similar are, however, still called ‘Departamento de FilologĂ­a Inglesa’. My university has Departments of ‘Filologia Anglesa’, ‘Filologia HispĂ nica’, ‘Filologia Catalana’ and ‘Filologia Francesa i RomĂ nica’ even though the BAs are, apart from the above mentioned ‘English Studies’, ‘Spanish Language and Literature’, ‘Catalan Language and Literature’ and ‘French Studies’. The old degree in ‘Classical Languages’ (‘Filologia ClĂ ssica’) has been integrated into a new BA called ‘CiĂšncies de l’Antiguitat’ (‘Sciences of Antiquity’). This BA mixes classical philology, history and archaeology and is offered by the ‘Departament de CiĂšncies de l’Antiguitat i de l’Edat Mitjana’. At the Universitat de Barcelona, in contrast, they have a ‘Departament de Filologia ClĂ ssica, RomĂ nica i SemĂ­tica’. And English is part of the ‘Departament de LlengĂŒes i Literatures Modernes i d’Estudis Anglesos’–not ‘Filologia’.

‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, Juliet Capulet once said, trying to convince herself that Romeo Montague’s surname was of no significance. Her argument makes sense for the flower but not for her lover, as we know and she learned tragically, whereas we need to wonder what this confusing nomenclature signifies in relation to what we teach and who we are. I myself identify as a ‘filĂČloga anglesa’ because I have an official document from the Spanish State guaranteeing that I possess degrees (‘Licenciatura’, ‘Doctorado’) in ‘FilologĂ­a Inglesa’ but, even so, I call myself a ‘cultural critic’ rather than a ‘philologist’ (a job description I connect with the analysis and edition of non-contemporary texts). For many in the anglophone world a ‘philologist’ is a sort of historical linguist, so see how confusing things can get.

In the tradition we come from, the study of a language and its Literature within a single degree is justified on the grounds that a language is the expression of a culture and its Literature the highest artistic manifestation in that tongue. Thus, the reasoning goes, if you want to know all about English you’re bound to learn how each anglophone community contributes to the common language and how Literature expresses its most sophisticated uses. This is, however, a very old framework, established back in the early 19th century in Romantic Germany, which is why the two main areas of knowledge under the yoke of ‘philology’ as it is known is Spain are pulling away from each other. In Literature we have been gravitating towards Cultural Studies, and thus expanding the number and variety of texts in English available for study. In Linguistics, though I’m not sure I am using the word correctly, they tend towards a kind of ambitious theorization in which the English language is just one element of the general entity known as language (funny how the difference between ‘idioma’ and ‘lenguaje’ helps in Spanish but is lost in English!). Properly speaking, then, there are very few ‘philologists’ among us, English Studies specialists.

I am actually beginning to realize that, to be perfectly honest, I don’t know what our Language and Linguistics colleagues do. What we do in Literature and Culture Studies is far easier to explain for we are classified by geographical area and/or historical period. A course called ‘Scottish 18th century Poetry’ is self-explanatory but what do mysterious labels such as ‘Pragmatics’ or ‘Discourse Analysis’ really mean? Is ‘Historical Linguistics’ the same as ‘History of English’ or is it a more theoretical area? I’m even told that the yearly conference of AEDEAN (AsociaciĂłn Española de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos) is increasingly seen as a Literature/Culture event, for which there is some evidence (see the programme for CĂłrdoba this year), though not any intentionality. Linguists, I’m told, prefer meeting at the conference of AESLA, the AsosiaciĂłn Española de LingĂŒĂ­stica Aplicada (https://www.aesla.org.es/es), at least those inclined, logically, towards the applied aspects of Linguistics. This association, needless to say, goes far beyond English and you might well be a specialist in Mandarin Chinese and join it (after all, it’s about Linguistics not languages). In the same vein, ASETEL, the AsociaciĂłn Española de TeorĂ­a de la Literatura, welcomes all kinds of specialists but I don’t think it has much weight within English Studies.

The centrifugal forces at work means that in some universities like Seville there are two separate Departments called ‘Filología Inglesa’, one for ‘UK and US Literature’ and one for ‘English Language’. I know that other universities have considered this structure but splitting Departments goes now against the crazy fashion for grouping as many of them together as possible (for basic financial reasons). In my own Department, we have asked several times to be considered at least separate units, in the same way our colleagues in ‘Filologia Alemanya’ are a different section. However, the UAB tells us that as far as they’re concerned we are a single body, which affects negatively our chronically under-staffed Literature/Culture section. If you think about it, an interesting solution might be the reshuffling of the language and Literature Departments into two macro-units: a Department of Language and Linguistics and a Department of  Literature and Culture, but I can hear the groans already as a I write this. There is a sort of conviction, odd as this may sound, that each Department’s culture depends very much on the language named in our degrees and that, essentially, we  in English Studies are a sort of ‘foreign body’ in habits and methods wherever we can be found. At least, I always have that impression.

Now think what it is like for a newly arrived students, like the ones I addressed a while ago in Murcia. They have most likely chosen English Studies with a vague idea that they like this particular language (this is the same all over Spain) and with very little actual knowledge of what the degree really means, much less of its tradition, and even of the meaning of ‘filología’. Then, on the first day, they are given two examples of research in the field which could not be more different and unorthodox: Dr. Ibarretxe’s invitation to consider the whole field of human language, not just English, and my own invitation to shatter the literary canon and bring even television series and videogames into their BA. If any of them originally registered to, say, study Shakespeare and learn English grammar, they must be wondering what hit them
 And what hit them is, precisely, what I’m trying to pin down: the centrifugal forces of our study area.

At this point it is also necessary to raise the matter of how current ideas about science are also having an often unacknowledged impact in our midst. I have no doubt that Linguists are scientists and consider themselves so because they use method that can only be called scientific: data gathering, running experiments, and so on. Curiously, every time I tell a linguist that I’m not a scientist but a critic, s/he usually responds that I’m certainly a scientist, too, because I use a method. I do use a scholarly method of study, research and argumentation, which I also teach my students how to apply, and that is certainly based on gathering data (textual evidence from primary sources, ideas from secondary sources). I think, however, that there is an important difference: I don’t use labs, nor run experiments as scientists do and, above all, I celebrate full subjectivity, which is not welcome in science. I’m actually far more comfortable with the German concept of Wissenshaft,  which is practically impossible to translate but that I translate in my own style as ‘the cultivation of wisdom’, surely twisting the original word to suit my own ends. If you get the idea, I feel conceptually closer to Philosophy than to Linguistics and this a peculiar thought coming from a ‘philologist’.

Any kind of re-arrangement affecting knowledge as produced and transmitted by (Spanish) universities is costly and cumbersome. The school I work for is called ‘School of Philosophy and Letters’ which may have made sense back in 1968 when it was founded but is a really eccentric name today: Why is Philosophy foregrounded? What is the meaning of ‘Letters’, except a reminder that we have lost ‘Belle-lettres’ to the passage of time? When I asked whether we could possibly be renamed ‘School of Humanities’ I was reminded that many colleagues would possibly prefer ‘Human Sciences’ and that, anyway, the current name is convenient enough. As, I should add, ‘Departament de Filologia Anglesa’ is convenient enough but, then, no longer descriptive. Or, I think, accurate.

Perhaps, in the end, I just feel a bit envious that the language colleagues can call themselves ‘linguists’ and be done with the problem of what a ‘philologist’ should be called today. Those of us in Literature and Culture are not faring that well for if you call yourself a ‘literary critic’ people will think you’re a reviewer and I don’t think I know anyone calling themselves ‘literary theorist’ with the confidence others use the word ‘linguist’. Maybe I should give ‘literary scientist’ a chance
 and, yes, I’m kidding.  

And to the students in Murcia, and any other first-year students in language and Literature degrees: remember that scientists were once called ‘natural philosophers’ and don’t forget that we used to train you as ‘filólogos’. Yes, lovers of language in all its extension


I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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