The Project in Detail

The Project in Detail

In the Middle Ages, texts were provided with notes and commentaries, which served the purposes of explanation, education, elaboration and exhibition of knowledge and authority. Early Medieval Ireland, which was a European focal point of intellectual culture at the time, has a particularly rich corpus of texts, both in the Irish language and in Latin, and an astonishing variety of textual commentaries. A well-known feature of these sources is that they were bilingual, with scribes easily switching from one language to the other, often in the same text or same sentence. The exact conditions under which this switch occurred and the reasons why it occurs where and when it does are obscure: the bilingualism in these texts has never been the subject of an analysis.
Glosses are defined by Gumbert (2005: 35) as material subsidiary to a text,whether they are notes and short comments or a longer commentary, paraphrasis or translation. Such glosses often reflect a user’s critical attitude to the text, for example in a commentary on the 10th century Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley. Having transcribed the tale, a scribe inserted a comment in Latin claiming some of the events are more historical while are others are more fabulous (Ó Néill, 1999: 269). This note in Latin is a remarkable criticism by an Irish scribe on a text written in his native language. The scribe apparently felt that he should use Latin in order to express this criticism. McCone (1989: 76) states that virtually all medieval Irish literary genres were to a large extent bilingual. Difficult Latin words are glossed in Irish and vice versa and sentences switch from one language to the other. Although such facts are well-known within the field of Celtic Studies, they have yet failed to make an impact on Medieval Studies and Literary Studies, and the mechanisms behind the bilingualism remain wholly unexplored, but are governed by sociolinguistic setting, considerations of style, the nature of the text and its function, and it is as yet unknown which criterion played which role. The project proposes to provide answers by focusing on two extremes in the corpus of texts:

(1) the Homilies of the Leabhar Breac
(2) the Old Irish and Latin commentaries on the Martyrology of Oengus (Félire Óengusso), a calendar of saints’ feasts.

Together these two texts are representative of the spectrum of medieval Irish bilingualism and code-switching. The aim of the overall project is to describe and explain the extent of Latin-Irish bilingualism in the linguistic and cultural setting of early medieval Ireland.

Theoretical framework

Contemporary studies on bilingualism take the perspective of spoken rather than written language (e.g. Romaine, 1989). As such, bilingualism in recent research revolves mostly around socio-linguistics (Myers-Scotton, 2006; Heller, 2007). To study the phenomenon in a historical setting, as set out in 9.2 above, we are dependent on written sources. Despite the limitations they impose on the research, it is possible to apply modern theories on bilingualism and code-switching to historical material (cf. Adams, 2002 and 2003 on the Roman Empire). In this project the theories developed in the domain of contemporary Bilingualism Studies will be applied to early medieval Irish material, focusing on the process of code-switching (Muysken, 2000).
Code-switching is the ‘use of material from two (or more) languages by a single speaker with the same people in the same conversation’ (Thomason, 2001: 262). Several factors determine why people switch from one language to another. At first glance, what might appear as a completely random pot-pourri of languages conveys important signals to other speakers that are just as effective as monolingual utterances: ‘it is a verbal strategy, used in much the same way that a skilful writer might switch styles in a short story’ (Grosjean, 1982: 152).
Although the circumstances for modern, spoken switches may be very different from medieval written compilations, both processes can be explained as language contact. Therefore, theories on code-switching and bilingualism in a spoken setting may be applied to medieval written sources, leaning on and expanding Adams (2002, 2003). These theories will be further developed with the setting up of new definitions and categories that will aim to fully understand and describe the mechanism behind bilingualism and code-switching in medieval Ireland.

History of research

Little research has been carried out specifically on bilingualism and code-switching in medieval Irish sources apart from the articles of Müller (1999) and Bisagni and Warntjes (2007). The one-year postdoctoral project on Latin/Old Irish bilingualism in early medieval Ireland by Bisagni (2011) though on a small scale, is a start in this direction. Regarding the didactic nature of bilingual glosses, articles by Draak (1957; 1967) are of relevance. Important for comparison is also the study of glosses in Anglo- Saxon by Wieland (1985). A more recent approach to glosses as representatives of multiple layers of textual accretion is found in Zetzel (2005). Ongoing investigation into marginal scholarship in early medieval Europe is Teeuwen (2011-2015).  Other Old Irish glosses are being researched by Griffith (2007-). Bergmann et al. (2001) addresses the question of both the medieval glosses in Irish as well as those in other vernaculars. It contains relevant articles on Irish glosses by Ó Néill and Ó Cróinín and will allow a comparative approach towards glossing practices outside of Ireland. The most recent work on Félire Óengusso is that of Ó Riain (2006).


Bilingualism, code-switching and their sociolinguistic background are at the centre of scholarship, but theories that have been developed to cater for a modern, spoken setting have rarely been applied to historical, written corpora, so that it is unclear whether they are adequate for dealing with those sources. The project aims to test this on a large corpus of early medieval Irish sources. In terms of history of ideas, the elite setting of medieval Irish-Latin bilingualism shares features with Latin-Greek bilingualism in Ancient Rome but it was not a continuation or adaptation of the latter, for Latin-Greek bilingualism was all but lost in the early medieval West. Given the fact that Irish bilingual clerics brought Christianity to much of north-western Europe and helped to shape elite culture from monastic centres in Britain and the continent, the project aims to provide an answer to the question how and why early western societies actively promoted bilingualism amongst their elites. The early linguistic awareness of medieval Irish monks, who had already come into contact with Norse, English and likely French, may well have been a model for later bilingualism in Britain and the continent.

Beside these general advances of knowledge, specific products contribute to research in medieval studies:
• by determining the function of textual comments in a large corpus, we will contribute to reception studies in the early Middle Ages;
• the project will provide an up-to-date edition of the commentary on the Martyrology of Oengus, including variants and their interrelation;

Innovation and originality

This is the first project that analyses bilingualism and code-switching in a large corpus of medieval texts. It integrates linguistics (bilingualism and its sociolinguistic background), literary studies (textual commentary, reception) and cultural studies (bilingualism as a mindset of the medieval Irish elite) in order to arrive at an integrated view of early Irish bilingualism. In view of the major Irish contribution to early medieval Christian culture in Western Europe, the project should spark off further studies on the relationship of other vernaculars and Latin.

Social and cultural relevance

The research project addresses an issue that remains underexposed in present-day debates about multilingualism, identity and cultural integration: what induced the Irish in the Middle Ages to decide, at a time when most of Western Europe wrote in Latin, that their language was on a par with Latin?