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Linguistics for Literary Criticism: An Interview with Jesse Lundquist

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Published Date

September 13, 2023


With the new academic year in full swing, we sat down with Prof. Jesse Lundquist, an expert in ancient linguistics and the latest addition to the faculty of Princeton Classics, to ask him about his work, the value of teaching, and how he came to learn so many languages:

You’ve just started your first week as a classics professor at Princeton. So why don’t we start with your professing—what is it you study?

Well, I study classics as you said, with special attention to language and linguistics. Latin and Greek, of course, but also Sanskrit (an ancient language of India), the Anatolian languages once spoken in today’s Turkey, as well as Old English and the history of English. Then within the classical languages, I focus on archaic Greek going back to its prehistory and its connections especially with Sanskrit (a particularly close relative) and the two languages’ shared poetic tradition. And similarly, the languages of ancient Italy, which was a much more linguistically diverse place than is usually appreciated. There was a whole Italic subfamily of languages—like Faliscan, Oscan, and Umbrian—few people even know exists! Not a few early Latin authors very likely spoke these as native languages. More broadly, I'm deeply interested in literature, the way language is used to create a poetic text, a strategy for thinking about a complex world.

That’s quite a list! Can I ask where that enthusiasm came from? Did you always have a gift for languages?

Oh, I definitely did not.


No, I know this department has many multilingual people, but I think in some ways my interest came because I wasn’t that. I wasn’t raised in a multilingual country like Switzerland but a monolingual suburb north of Boston. And so I was fascinated by how another language can promise so much, a different way to articulate the universe, express literary concepts, song and poetry, and that kind of thing. Like many people, I first encountered the classics in translation, in my high school, and almost despite myself. I didn't like the class (or school) at all but I kept reading the Odyssey compulsively—I just wanted to know what happened next! And eventually, I was drawn from that to authors who had engaged with the Odyssey, in particular James Joyce and Ulysses. And I realized that he had a much more profound appreciation of literature and other languages than I did and I tried to follow in his footsteps. I learned Latin. I thought Joyce knew Greek so I learned Greek. Then one of my early Latin teachers turned out to be a Sanskritist in disguise and told me that if I liked Latin and Greek, I should really learn Sanskrit. So I did—I thought that was just the normal thing to do! And from that point on, all I wanted to do was study Indo-European, to get at that what seemed to me like the heart of language, of languages in general. And at the heart of languages, the study of how they all work, what their differences are, and why those differences arise.

Clearly your teachers had a profound effect on you, and this semester you’re teaching Latin 101. Princeton’s pretty special in that we have language experts teach introductory classes—how have you found that so far?

I really like it so far. I enjoy undergrad teaching. And every single time I've taught, it's felt like I'm the student too. That might sound pat or cliché, but you’re always learning because people have a different way of coming at it than you do. And often with these introductory classes, you think they'll be easy because you're used to looking at nitty-gritty problems in obscure authors, something like the origins of the Latin perfect or an odd turn of phrase in Livius Andronicus, and that’s never going to be what you're expected to teach in Latin 101. But you will have to talk about the language from the ground up. You will have to talk about why languages have different ways of expressing syntax, for instance, or different ways of cutting up time or imagining future realities. Why do languages differ? That’s a very natural thing to ask in a year one class that you wouldn't necessarily think of once you've got years of Latin under your belt and you're teaching something supposedly more advanced. But that's actually a very hard question to answer: why does Latin or Greek or whatever say it that way and not the way I do in my native language? So I appreciate the first-year class, this time around Latin 101. I hope to do Greek 101, someday soon Sanskrit 101, Old English 101, and Anatolian 101. The vision of classics at Princeton is broadening out from the borders of Greece and Rome and I’m happy to engage in that effort. So I think that there's a lot of good in this teaching and I'm enjoying it so far. But then, it is only day two.

Right, we’ll ask again at the end of the semester. I’m fascinated by that answer, though, because you’re talking not only about linguistics but about the broader implications of learning these languages.

Exactly. For a lot of very good linguists, the study of the structure of language is the end to itself. But you can also take that study and use it as a practical tool to learn about languages that are endangered or have a relatively small written record. I like to use linguistics to clarify something in a text, using the background we gain from a comparative study to look at the most ancient texts we have and show how they work in a way you couldn't see without that background. I say this because this is not what most linguists do. For many, the goal of the study is to reconstruct the proto-language. For me, it's the opposite: the reconstructed language is the tool that lets you say something about problems in an actual text—the text is the goal. It has to come back to something you're trying to explain, some odd form, some odd shape that doesn't make sense to you otherwise, but where the historical background can shed a unique light. Linguistics as a tool for literary criticism. That's what I'm after.

So what linguistic piece of literary criticism are you working on at the moment?

My immediate book project is on Homeric words, how they were inherited from Proto-Indo-European, and especially how poets were forced to reshape words to match the meter. Because that’s not always easy to do as a poet. Sometimes they reshaped an old word to fit it into the hexameter (the meter of classical epic) but then that word fell out of use, so it's only preserved as an archaism within Homer, nowhere else in Greek. These are the words I love. I love investigating these words that you realize must have resonated as poetry, must have been part of this loftiest register of the literary language, kindling the imagination of the audience who clearly were wild about Homeric heroes and the vastness of the epic world. To get to touch that at all is a privilege, and to think that I get to spend a career doing that, you feel very lucky that that's your life.

That’s really inspiring to hear. I think we should end on how to get to that life. What advice would you give to an aspiring classical linguist?

Love words. Learn your languages well. I think that's the best thing you can do. Linguistics as a field may become ever more theoretical, ever more drawn towards the hard sciences, towards crunching data, and that’s fine. But you can't ever replace the love of language. That’s the kind of curiosity that will buoy you your whole lifetime, your whole career if you go into the field of classics. And there’s no substitute for the joy that will give you.