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Why Are We Told Which Language Was Spoken? Performative Strategies and Languages in Christian Narratives of Late Antiquity

Yuliya Minets

Choice of language is one of the most important aspects of oral performance that is closely related to the issues of social differentiation, power and control in the society. Language was an instrument that created the special relationship between the speaker, the audience, and the message in the multilingual culture of Late Antiquity. The goal of this study is to investigate the meaning and purpose of the remarks that a particular language was used by characters of the early Christian narratives, and the correspondence of these remarks to the context of the performance.

We examine a selection of the Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic texts from the 4th to the 6th century which belong to different genres: hagiography, homiletics, travelogues, epistles, and missionary narratives.

We are able to define several strategies beyond the references to a particular spoken language in these narratives. When the author emphasized the difference between the language of the text characters and that of its readers, or indicated the need for interpreters, he created the alienation effect that helped to construct a mental distance between the events narrated, the text as a medium, and the audience (Athanasius's Life of Antony 16.1; Palladius's Lausiac History 21.15, Theodoret, Religious History 13.7). On contrary, the instances when the obvious linguistic barriers were ignored in the text underplayed the presence of the ‘other’ and highlighted the integrity of the Christian universe (Egeria's Travelling, where she almost never mentioned the language she communicated with local people, with the only exception of ch.47). The command of foreign languages was represented as a sign of God's grace (The History of the Egyptian monks 6.3, 8.61-62); even unsuccessful attempts of a monastic leader to learn a foreign language could be considered praiseworthy since they had been undertaken to comfort a disciple, who was a speaker of another tongue (The Bohairic Life of Pachomius 89). Moreover, the deficient knowledge of a foreign language (Theodoret, Religious History 8.2), or the lack of such knowledge (John Chrysostom, On the Statues 19, Baptismal instructions 8) were effective characteristics in the descriptions of the genuine Christians, since the pious way of life was considered more important than eloquence and rhetorical skills. The gift of xenoglossia, or the miraculous ability to speak in foreign languages, helped to construct the image of a holy man (Ephrem the Syrian and Basil the Great in the Syriac Life of Ephrem); however, in the different context, unexpected ability to speak in a foreign language was reported as a sign of possession by the demonic powers (Jerome, Life of Hilarion 22). The linguistic barriers were important to protect one’s privacy, particularly, to keep in secret something discovered by God's revelation (The History of the Egyptian monks 10.25).

The analysis of the narratives which describe real or imaginary situations of interactions of people speaking in different languages contributes to the better understanding of the symbolic and contextual meaning of languages in Late Antiquity, and the performative strategies beyond these situations.

Session/Panel Title

The Role of “Performance” in Late Antiquity

Session/Paper Number


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