Fluent in One Language, Literate in Another: New Approaches to Multilingual Persian Vocabularies

Frontiers of Persian Learning Lecture by Walter Hakala (State University of New York at Buffalo)

Thursday, February 04, 2016
2:00 PM - 3:30 PM
10383 Bunche Hall

The study of pre-print genres of Persianate lexicography draws on various disciplines, including sociolinguistics, material history, philology, and especially literature to make sense of the kinds of terms that are included in these texts, the ways in which they are arranged, and the conditions of their production. I will discuss the challenges in interpreting lexical evidence in the study of the nisab genre of multilingual vocabularies in verse. Memorized by children across much of South Asia well into the nineteenth century, extant nisabs are numerous and occasionally ingenious in their local adaptations. I will explore the ways that words, either individually or collectively, might provide insights into the lives of the people who composed, memorized, and consulted these vocabularies. Case studies include the innocent mention of atishak (a term that would later come to denote syphilis) in a 13th-century children’s primer, strange pharmacological equivalences asserted in a versified Hindi-Persian vocabulary prepared by the emperor Babur's physician, and descriptions of the 1857 “Mutiny’” in an Urdu-English vocabulary. How, for example, might “surface reading” techniques be used to identify broader patterns in language use and material culture? How might we combine these emerging practices with more traditional literary approaches to help avoid the pitfalls of merely mining these texts for their content?

Walter N. Hakala is Assistant Professor of South Asian Languages and Literature in the Department of English at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. He has published work on Afghan sociolinguistics, 18th-century coffee connoisseurs in Delhi, medieval and early modern children’s vocabularies, and the First Anglo-Afghan War (1837-42).

Sponsor(s): Center for Near Eastern Studies, Center for India and South Asia, Program on Central Asia