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Romanian in Oxford: Celebrating 10 Years of the Romanian Lectorate

Romanian in Oxford. An exhibition to mark ten years of the Romanian Lectorate. 15 May - 9 June 2023. Voltaire Room, Taylor Institution Library. Romanian in Oxford is an exhibition currently on display at the Taylor Institution Library from 15th May to 9th June 2023. It showcases the library collections and related research on Romanian language from the 19th century to the present day.

What is Romanian?

The clue is in the name. Romanian originates in the language of the Romans, namely Latin. It therefore is a Romance language, one that descends from the Latin of the Roman Empire, and this makes it a ‘sister’ of languages such as Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Occitan, French, Italian, Sardinian, and many other languages besides. Romanian is today the official language of Romania (and the mother tongue of 90% of its approximately 22 million inhabitants), and of Moldova, where it is the mother tongue of about three quarters of a population of 3.4 millions. Emigration has meant that it is also extensively spoken outside Romania.

Map of the Romance languages showing the geographical isolation of Romania.

Map of the Romance languages

This map of the Romance languages shows how geographically isolated Romanian is from its ‘sisters’. In fact, it has been isolated for well over a millennium. Unlike other Romance languages, Romanian has been subject to major influences from Slavonic, Hungarian, and Turkish, mainly in vocabulary. What has emerged is a language which is still demonstrably related to other Romance varieties, but whose sound system, grammar, and lexicon also display striking, sometimes mysterious, differences. We have relatively little evidence of the history of the language: the earliest documents in Romanian to have survived date only from around the turn of the sixteenth century. Moreover, Romanian was written in the Cyrillic, rather than Roman, alphabet until well into the nineteenth century.

Romanian is actually just the principal member of the ‘Daco-Romance’ branch of the Romance languages. This branch comprises four major sub- branches: the ‘Daco-Romanian’ dialects (to which standard Romanian belongs), and Aromanian, Megleno-Romanian, and Istro-Romanian.

Map of Romania and neighbouring countries.

Map of Romania and neighbouring countries, with linguistic areas marked in red.

Aromanian probably split of from the rest of Daco-Romance before the 11th century, whilst Istro-Romanian and Megleno-Romanian seem to have become detached no earlier than the 13th. Istro-Romanian—the object of one of our major research interests in Oxford—is spoken in the north-eastern Istrian peninsula (in Croatia). The Aromanians are widespread in the Balkan area, particularly Albania, central and northern Greece and south-western North Macedonia. Megleno-Romanian has a few thousand speakers, settled in villages in northern Greece, and in Northern Macedonia.

Why is Romanian important?

There are multiple answers. One is academic. An understanding of the modern structure and historical development of the Romance languages — and, beyond that, understanding of what the Romance languages can tell us about the nature of language change generally—is not really possible unless we take Romanian into account alongside other Romance languages such as Italian, French, etc. In a memorable metaphor, the Swedish Romanianist Alf Lombard wrote (Le Verbe roumain 1954:1) [our translation]:

Any comparative enquiry that does not take Eastern Latinity into account is more or less pointless, or at any rate incomplete. Actually, it rather brings to mind a table for which the carpenter has been content to make just three legs rather than four—think of the three principal sister languages: French, Spanish, and Italian—leaving the fourth corner unsupported and worryingly unstable.

The study of Romanian is simply essential to doing Romance linguistics: otherwise, our ‘table’ is forever destined to be rickety and unreliable. Actually, Romanian already possesses a most impressive body of detailed descriptive linguistic studies assembled over the past 70 years, largely under the aegis of the Romanian Academy, by Romanian scholars. These are mainly written in Romanian and therefore not easily accessible internationally. The quality of the scholarship is extraordinarily high, yet too few linguistic scholars have appreciated it or made use of it.

Another reason why Romanian is important is ‘social’. The recent Census for England and Wales revealed that Romanian is now the third most widely spoken language after English and Polish. We can ill afford not to be curious about the language spoken by one of our most significant communities. Romanian is being spoken all around us, as a stroll through central Oxford with one’s ears open will confirm!

The top ten main languages spoken in England and Wales, excluding English (English or Welsh in Wales)

The top ten main languages spoken in England and Wales, excluding English (English or Welsh in Wales). Total usual resident population, aged three years and over, who speak each language as their main language, 2011 and 2021, England and Wales.

Total usual resident population, aged three years and over, who speak each language as their main language, 2011 and 2021, England and Wales.

Of course there are many other reasons why Romanian is important. Not least the fact that it is the language of a major European culture, with a literary tradition dating back to the sixteenth century but which is still little known outside Romania. Ignorance of Romania and Romanian is no longer excusable as a result of the historical isolation of the country and its culture.

How long has Romanian been studied in Oxford?

It’s hard to say how long Romanian has been of interest to Oxford scholars. Romanian is a Romance language, and the history of the Romance languages has been studied in Oxford since at least the late nineteenth century. By 1877, the University had realized the international importance of the historical and comparative study of the Romance languages (a subject already flourishing in the German-speaking world), and the proposal was made to establish a Professorship of the Romance Languages, although the Chair was not established until 1909.  It is fair to say that the main focus of interest of the first eight Professors of the Romance Languages throughout the 20th century was French, with other Romance languages receiving less attention and Romanian being neglected.

However, this does not mean that no attention was paid to Romanian. Several Oxford scholars took a lively academic interest in the language. One of these was Frank Barnett, Fellow in French at Trinity College from 1952 to 1986, who visited Romania, knew the language well, and encouraged his students to learn  the language and visit Romania. Among these students was John Charles Smith, later to become Fellow and Tutor in French Linguistics at St Catherine’s College and now Emeritus Fellow of the College, whose work displays a constant awareness of the importance of Romanian. For example, a forthcoming paper by Smith addresses the vexed question of why ‘Moldovan’ has historically been considered a different language from Romanian (they are not different languages, in fact!).

Another Oxford scholar who contributed to Romanian studies was Graham Mallinson, Lecturer in Linguistics in Oxford in the 1970s, who was the author of one of the first descriptions of the Romanian language in English (e.g., 1979 The History and Structure of Romanian and 1986 Rumanian. Mallinson was also the author of the article on Romanian in The World’s Major Languages (ed. B. Comrie), recently revised and updated (2018) by our lector in Romanian, Dr Oana Uță Bărbulescu.

The other  Oxford scholar to explore Romanian was Dr Tony Hurren, who in the late 1970s taught Linguistics at Wadham College. Hurren’s Oxford doctoral thesis focused not on standard Romanian (although he knew the language very well) but on one of the four major branches of Romanian, ‘Istro-Romanian’ spoken in modern Croatia. Hurren’s fieldwork, thesis, and publications have formed the basis of a major research project in Oxford in the past few years, the ISTROX project. Others, too, have published on Romanian, for example Margaret Renwick, a postdoctoral research associate and later postdoctoral researcher in Oxford, author of a work on Romanian phonology.

The current, and ninth, Professor of the Romance Languages, Martin Maiden, arrived in Oxford in 1996. He is the first holder of the Chair to develop a major research interest in the Romanian language and its history. Before he came to Oxford Romanian was not, however, a particular theme of his research. His interest in the language developed slowly, over many years, but began with an attempt to learn Romanian from a grammar book in his teens, at the height of the Cold War, when Romania was a distant, inaccessible, country. It seemed to Maiden that he was so unlikely ever to meet a native speaker of the language or even hear it spoken, and that Romanian was anyway so dauntingly difficult (he was quite wrong), that he decided that he might as well give up trying to learn it!  Many years later, however, in 1987, he took an opportunity to attend the month-long Curs de Vară (Summer Course) in Romanian language and culture organized annually by the Romanian authorities in Bucharest. (By the way, Oxford now sends students from Oxford almost every year on the continuant of this course).

In 2003 Maiden spent part of a sabbatical year in Romania exploring dialectological materials held by the Romanian Academy. This renewed acquaintance with the language encouraged him to take more account of it in his work on the comparative history of the Romance languages, and after his arrival in Oxford he published a number of articles focusing on aspects of the history of Romanian morphology (word structure), notably the highly complex systems of plural formation and nouns and of diminutive derivation.

The creation of the Lectorate in Romanian in Oxford: a revolution

A crucial moment in the study of Romanian in Oxford occurred in late 2010, when Maiden was contacted by the then Romanian Ambassador to London, H.E. Ion Jinga, who wanted to discuss ‘a proposal’. This turned out to be nothing less than an extraordinarily generous offer by the Romanian government to fund a lectorate in Romanian at Oxford, administered via Institutul Limbii Române (the Institute of the Romanian Language). The Lectorate, situated within Oxford’s Faculty of Linguistics, Philology, and Phonetics, commenced in October 2012, and the Lector sent to us from the University of Bucharest, Dr Oana Uță Bărbulescu, has had her mandate renewed ever since. Dr Uță is a specialist in Romanian language and linguistics and a member of Institutul de Studii Sud-Est Europene of the Romanian Academy.

The creation of the Lectorate was also marked in 2013 by a one-day conference Romanian in Oxford: language, culture, and history, supported by the Ertegün Foundation, and attended by scholars from Britain, the US, and Romania, including the late Prof. Marius Sala, one of the world’s foremost experts on Romanian and its dialects.

It is no exaggeration that the creation of the Lectorate revolutionized the study of Romanian in Oxford. First, it made it possible to provide weekly courses, open to any member of the University (students, postdoctoral researchers, lecturers, professors), in Romanian language, at beginners’, intermediate, and advanced levels. These courses have been enthusiastically attended, and they have also provided the basis for a specialist examination subject in Romanian language and linguistics, taught by the Lector in Romanian and Professor Maiden. This subject covers the Romanian language in its historical and cultural context, and major aspects of the structure and evolution of the Romanian language and dialects. We are pleased to report that half of the students who have taken the special option to date have achieved a First Class result.

Not only has the creation of the Lectorate enabled our students (and others) to learn Romanian and about Romania, but it has given a major impetus to research into the Romanian language and its structure and history. This work, mainly led by Professor Maiden, has yielded numerous results in the past ten years: we have produced over 40 publications on Romanian linguistics in refereed journals and volumes over the past 10 years. We have also published various studies designed to introduce general readers to Romanian, such as Maiden’s general introduction to Romanian grammar, an article which came out of a course on the Romanian language and its history held by Maiden in France in 2014.

In all this, we are immensely grateful for the presence of the Lector in Romanian, who has repeatedly been a major stimulus and source of advice, and has herself been very academically productive. These publications have also been the basis for over thirty lectures and presentations at international conferences. Romanian also occupies a prominent place in our research and publications on general Romance linguistics (e.g., the chapter on Romanian and related dialects in the Cambridge History of the Romance Languages (2016), or the OUP volume The Romance Verb (2018). This is one case where you can judge a book by its cover: the cover is an image from one of the earliest Romanian linguistic atlases, and it reflects the importance accorded to Romanian in the book, which is a comparative-historical study of Romance verb morphology.

Maiden, Martin. The Romance Verb : Morphomic Structure and Diachrony. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Taylor Institution Library Shelfmark PC145.M35 MAI 2018

Maiden, Martin. The Romance Verb : Morphomic Structure and Diachrony. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Taylor Institution Library Shelfmark PC145.M35 MAI 2018

The Bodleian Libraries support research into Romanian through their very good collection of works on the Romanian language, and their willingness to acquire new works in the subject. A major element in the research into Romanian linguistics conducted in Oxford has been the study of Romanian dialects, and a major source of information is the remarkably detailed collection of Romanian linguistic atlases. They have all been vital research tools and without them many of our recent publications would have been impossible.

Some of these atlases are displayed in the exhibition, ranging from Gustav Weigand’s Linguistischer Atlas de dacoromunischen Sprachgebietes (1909), the earliest Romanian linguistic atlas, through Atlasul lingvistic român: this was produced in the 1960s under the aegis of the Romanian Academy – which has also overseen the production of a major series of regional linguistic atlases. Atlasul lingvistic român pe regiuni: sinteza is a synoptic synthesis of many of the valuable data contained in those regional atlases. We also show Atlasul lingvistik moldovenesk, the linguistic atlas of (what was then) the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. The atlas is published in Romanian but, as was normal at that period in Moldova, it is written in a variant of the Cyrillic alphabet, based on that used for Russian. All of the maps on display from these atlases show aspects of Romanian dialect verb morphology, a topic on which we have published a great deal of research in Oxford.

Equally important is our collection of dictionaries and grammars of the language, some going back to the mid nineteenth century, and an extensive range of works describing Romanian dialects. A magnificent example from the Bodleian’s collections of old manuscripts and books from Romanian is presented by Dr Cristina Neagu (Christ Church) on Digital.Bodleian.[1]

Fol. 006v from the Bodleian Library's MS. Canon. Gr. 122, 'Gospels of Gavril'. Image from Digital.Bodleian.

Fol. 006v from the Bodleian Library’s MS. Canon. Gr. 122, ‘Gospels of Gavril’. Image from Digital.Bodleian.

A recently completed doctoral dissertation (2022) by Constanța Burlacu (Medieval and Modern Languages, supervised by Martin Maiden and Ralph Cleminson) breaks new ground: Translation and Circulation of Romanian and Slavonic of Romanian and Slavonic biblical books in the Romanian lands: a textual analysis of the sixteenth century Apostolos and Psalter texts.[2]

Romanian linguistics and Oxford University Press

Our strong links with Romanian linguistic scholars are reflected in a number of recent publications with Oxford University Press. These works, subject to OUP’s extremely rigorous processes of peer-review and quality control, are giving a much greater international prominence to knowledge of the Romanian language and its history than has ever been possible before. They include:

The Grammar of Romanian. 2013 (G. Pană Dindelegan, ed.; consultant ed. M. Maiden)
Verb Movement and Clause Structure in Old Romanian. 2016 (V. Hill, G. Alboiu)
The Syntax of Old Romanian. 2016 (G. Pană Dindelegan, ed.; consultant editor M. Maiden)
Word Order and Parameter Change in Romanian. 2019 (A. Nicolae)
The Diachrony of Differential Object Marking in Romanian. 2021 (V. Hill, A. Mardale)
The Oxford History of Romanian Morphology. 2021 (jointly by M. Maiden, A. Dragomirescu, G. Pană Dindelegan, O, Uță Bărbulescu, R. Zafiu)

Several of these items are displayed in the exhibition.

A number of these are collaborative works between Oxford linguists and Romanian linguists. Among them is what is undoubtedly the most thorough description of Romanian grammar (The Grammar of Romanian) ever published in any language other than Romanian. The most recent publication is The Oxford History of Romanian Morphology a collaborative work led by Maiden and involving our Lector, Dr Uță Bărbulescu, and three other colleagues from the linguistics institute of the Romanian Academy.

The intellectual legacy of Tony Hurren and the ISTROX project

In the late 1960s the Oxford linguist Tony Hurren (1933-2006) studied the already highly endangered language which linguists call ‘Istro-Romanian’. It was spoken by only a few hundred people in the Istrian Peninsula of Croatia and today it is recognized by UNESCO as being severely endangered. The result was Hurren’s Oxford DPhil thesis on the language: A linguistic description of Istro-Rumanian,[3]and his Istro-Rumanian: a functionalist phonology and grammar.[4] Hurren also published an article on a remarkable facet of the Istro-Romanian verb system, its grammatical ‘aspect’ system.

In 2010, Tony Hurren’s widow, Mrs Vera Hurren, generously donated to the University over thirty hours of sound recordings made by her husband in the 1960s together with his field notebooks. She later gave us other material, including photographs from the fieldwork of the 1960s where Tony Hurren interviewed Istro-Romanian speakers, making recordings and taking notes of the language.

Since 2018 the Hurren donation has inspired new research into Istro-Romanian in Oxford, funded hitherto by Oxford’s John Fell Fund, PER Seed fund project, and TORCH Knowledge Exchange Innovation Fund. In particular, we have conducted our own fieldwork on Istro-Romanian (some photos of our fieldwork are displayed). We have been exploring how this language has changed since the 1960s, and also traced how the population of speakers has dwindled over the past half-century, innovatively using online methods and social media to establish contacts with members of the speech community in émigré communities in the US and Australia.

Žejane, 2019. Visit to the ć family. Mrs ć, her older sister Mrs ć, and their families, met with us in their family home in Ž. Just over 50 years earlier, recorded both sisters, as well as their mother, Mrs ć who was 37 at the time.

Žejane, 2019. Visit to the Sanković family. Mrs Vesna Sanković, her older sister Mrs Laura Sanković, and their families, met with us in their family home in Žejane. Just over 50 years earlier, Tony Hurren recorded both sisters, as well as their mother, Mrs Maria Sanković who was 37 at the time.

Click here to listen to Vesna Sanković (‘Kljomina‘), 8 years old, as recorded by Tony Hurren in the 1960s.

You can hear further recordings of Istro-Romanian and read more about current research projects at the following pages:

All the materials associated with this project are preserved in the Oxford Research Archive.[5].

From 26 June to 24 August 2022, the ISTROX project and Hurren’s work was the subject of an exhibition (in English and Croatian) at the Lapidarium Museum in Novigrad, Croatia, entitled ISTROX 50 years of the Istro-Romanian Language: from the Oxford Hurren Collection to the ISTROX project. At the opening of the exhibition, many members of the surviving Istro-Romanian-speaking community attended – photographs below.

The Oxford tradition of research into Istro-Romanian is also now being carried forward by a doctoral student, Fabian Helmrich, who is working on a subject which also fascinated Hurren: the expression of ‘aspect’ in the Istro-Romanian verb system. Helmrich is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Maiden and Uță Bărbulescu are also involved, in collaboration with scholars at Universitatea de Vest in Timișoara, Romania, in editing and preparing for publication the fifth and final volume of P. Neiescu’s dictionary of the Istro-Romanian language, left unfinished when the author died in 2021.

Our work on Istro-Romanian in the diasporic community has earned such appreciation that one of its members, Mr Libero Soldatić, now resident in Australia, has generously endowed the annual Anton Soldatić and Antonija Soldatić (née Skalir) Memorial Prize, in memory of his parents, for the best piece of work by a student on Istro-Romanian or other languages of the Istrian peninsula.

The long-term aim of Oxford research into Istro-Romanian is to publish a comprehensive history of the language and its speakers.

Martin Maiden

Statutory Professor of the Romance Languages
Director, Research Centre for Romance Linguistics
Faculty of Linguistics, Philology, and Phonetics & Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages
Fellow of Trinity College
University of Oxford


[1]Oxford, Bodleian Library MS. Canon. Gr. 122. Four Gospels (‘Gospels of Gavril’): https://digital.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/objects/47dff5d9-d2a0-46a9-b28a-44f974aa1861/

[2] Burlacu, C. Translation and Circulation of Romanian and Slavonic Biblical Books in the Romanian Lands: a Textual Analysis of the Sixteenth Century Apostolos and Psalter Texts. University of Oxford, 2022. http://dx.doi.org/10.5287/ora-erej81xna

[3] Hurren, H.A. A Linguistic Description of Istro-Rumanian. University of Oxford, 1971. https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:bfb29e35-e2b8-4613-97cf-3b62bdb6a1f6

[4]Hurren, H.A. Istro-Rumanian : A Functionalist Phonology and Grammar. Unpublished manuscript. Oxford, 1999.

[5]ISTROX Dataset. The Oxford University Hurren Donation and the Istro-Romanian language, 2021. http://dx.doi.org/10.5287/bodleian:GOrqZkzVJ



Manx in Oxford: Discoveries in the Taylorian Basement

The Taylor Institution Library is well known for its extensive research and teaching collections, which cover many major European languages, including French, Italian, German, Spanish, and Russian. However, if you spend time browsing the Taylor’s shelves, you might be surprised by sections of the collections dedicated to lesser-known languages.

I discovered one such section as I was procrastinating writing an essay on French literature during the final year of my undergraduate degree. My wanderings through the library took me to the Celtic section, located in the basement stacks. I picked my way through the shelves dedicated to Irish and Welsh for some time, until I landed on a section of works on Manx. This is the native language of the Isle of Man – called Gaelg or Gailck (pronounced “gilk”) by its speakers. As a speaker of this language and a resident of the Isle of Man, it was a joy for me to find this collection in my favourite library.

Unless you are a Celticist, or have an interest in endangered languages, it is likely that you have never heard of Manx. As its aforementioned autonym may suggest, this is a Gaelic language, closely related to Irish and Scottish Gaelic, and less closely related to the other Celtic languages – Welsh, Breton, and Cornish. Although Manx clearly derives from Old or Middle Irish, Manx is its own language, with its own associated history, literature, folklore, and music. Due to the influence of the Vikings, who settled extensively on Mann, a few modern Manx words are of Norse origin, e.g. skeeal (“story”).

Satellite Image of Ellan Vannin (Isle of Man).

Satellite Image of Ellan Vannin (Isle of Man). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As was the case with many smaller languages, the number of Manx speakers slowly declined, especially from the 19th century onwards, in this case in favour of English. Manx is often regarded to have “died” in 1974, with the death of the so-called “last native speaker”, Ned Maddrell. Although the situation was dire for Manx, a small number of enthusiasts kept the language alive by learning and teaching it, which ultimately led to the establishment of the Manx Language pre-school Mooinjer Veggey (“Little People” – a reference to a traditional Manx euphemism for the fairy folk) and the Manx-Language primary school (Bunscoill Ghaelgagh). By the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the Manx language and culture revival movement had enjoyed some measure of success. As a result, according to the Isle of Man Government Census in 2011, around 1,800 people claimed to be able to speak, read, or write Manx, which amounts to around 2% of the Island’s population. This number has likely since increased. The language now has a stronger base amongst young people; Manx is present in the education system from ages 4-18, and it is often heard at cultural events.

The Taylorian’s collections hold a wealth of works on Manx, including books and journal articles on the language, its literature, and music, as well as language-learning materials. Readers can also access CDs, including the Manx Language Archive Recordings, which consist of recordings of elderly native speakers made in the mid-20th century. These recordings, made by researchers from the Irish Folklore Commission, are immensely important for linguists to know what the language sounded like prior to its revival.

If you can brave Manx’s slightly odd spelling, the Taylorian has all the resources you need to learn to speak a little of the language yourself. Harrison’s Manx Words gives examples of frequently-used vocabulary, while Cain’s Manx Phrases will help with the “please”s and “thank you”s. Stowell’s comprehensive Y Coorse Mooar (“The Big Course”) guides the reader through the language and provides learning exercises to test knowledge. For the more linguistically-minded, Draskau’s Practical Manx is an up-to-date guide to the rules of the language, complete with examples of attested and correct usage. Every language-learner will need to use a dictionary at some stage, and the Taylorian’s collection holds both Fargher’s English-Manx Dictionary and Cregeen’s Manx-English Dictionary, as well as Kneen’s English-Manx Pronouncing Dictionary; all essential tools for the solo language-learner.

Caption: Manx learning materials on the Taylorian’s New Books Display

Caption: Manx learning materials on the Taylorian’s New Books Display.     Image Credit: Erin McNulty

Those interested in the academic study of the language may also wish to read the work of early scholars, such as Sir John Rhys, who wrote extensively on the philology of the Celtic languages. Rhys, the first Professor of Celtic at the University of Oxford, was one of the first academics to devote serious study to the Manx language. His 1894 work, The Outlines of the Phonology of Manx Gaelic, remains an incredibly important contribution to the field. In addition, Thomson’s The Study of Manx Gaelic and Outline of Manx Language and Literature are both key texts in Manx studies. As modern speakers and researchers we owe much to the works of these two men.

For a historical overview of Manx, Stowell’s A Short History of the Manx Language is also invaluable. Broderick’s Handbook of Late Spoken Manx is an exhaustive resource focussing on how the language was used by speakers in the 19th and 20th centuries, just prior to its “death”. Broderick’s Language Death in the Isle of Man charts the changes that the language went through during its decline, as well as discussing some of the economic and social factors that led to this decline.

The linguistic study of Manx as it is spoken in the 21st century is a small but growing field. A number of articles have been written on the subject, all of which are well worth a read. For example, Wilson, Johnson, and Sallabank’s I’m not dead yet’: a comparative study of indigenous language revitalization in the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey discusses how the Manx language has been and is being revived in the Isle of Man, and how its situation compares to that of the native Norman French of Jersey and Guernsey. Lewin’s Scholarship and Language Revival: Language Ideologies in Corpus Development for Revived Manx deals with issues of language ideology in modern Manx, and Ó hIfearnáin’s Sociolinguistic Vitality of Manx after Extreme Language Shift focusses on the effects of the sociology of Manx’s environment on the language.

The Taylorian also holds works on the Manx language expressed through the arts. Carswell’s Mannanan’s Cloak: An Anthology of Manx Literature is a good place to start a foray into the literary works in the language. Faragher’s Skeealyn ‘sy Ghailck (“Stories in Manx”), a collection of short traditional stories in the language, is also worth a look. Much of the reading material produced in modern Manx consists of translations of works in Irish or English, such as Kemmyrkagh (“Refugee”), a Manx translation of Pól Ó Muirí’s Irish-language novel, Teifeach. The book tells the story of Marika, a young Bosnian woman living with her daughter in a village in rural Ireland. Manx also has a rich musical history, a sample of which is given in Moore’s Manx Ballads and Music.

We can also find works on Manx folklore and history in the Taylorian’s collections. Examples of the former include Sir John Rhys’ Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, as well as Moore’s The Folk-Lore of the Isle of Man. For the latter, Kelly’s New Manx Worthies contains biographies of notable historical Manxmen and -women. MacQuarrie and Nagy’s The Medieval cultures of the Irish Sea and the North Sea: Manannán and his neighbors also looks at the interconnected history of the Isle of Man and surrounding areas in the Middle Ages. Finally, Broderick’s A Dictionary of Manx Place-Names and Kneen’s The Personal Names of the Isle of Man are useful for anyone interested in the onomastics of Manx.

Caption: Kelly’s New Manx Worthies on display at the Taylor

Caption: Kelly’s New Manx Worthies on display at the Taylor.
Image Credit: Erin McNulty

Anyone who is interested in learning more about the resources on Manx available in the Bodleian Libraries and wider Oxford collections should consult the LibGuide page for Celtic, maintained by the Celtic Subject Librarian, Janet Foot. Here you can also find links to language-learning websites and online dictionaries, as well as further resources on many aspects of Manx Studies.

Gura mie eu as shiu lhiah! Thanks for reading!

Erin McNulty, Graduate Library Trainee (2019-20)

Ancient Scripts and language

In a packed lecture room in the Taylor Institution Library, John Coleman, Professor of Phonetics at Oxford, gave a fascinating seminar on the connection between Ancient Scripts and language. He focused on the following questions; “What might writing systems reveal about how people think (or thought) about their languages? How are differences between writing systems relate to differences between languages?”

He pointed out that script is relatively young, as the earliest examples of writing date back only 6000 years (to 4000 BC), whereas 200,000 years ago homo sapiens already had speech. The importance of writing language down was illustrated by the request to the University from a non-literate speaker of Nipode Uitoto, an oral South American language, to invent a writing system for his language. The request reached Oxford via a linguistics student when he did fieldwork in the area. In the recorded message the speaker said “…We truly want to know about our language so that we can teach our word to our children. […] if it is truly possible to write down our language, I want to know how this can be done.”

In the Middle East, script developed from ideographs (characters representing concepts) to syllabic script (characters representing sounds). The oldest texts were either written on stone or on clay tablets, some of which have survived. In Oxford, we don’t have far to go to see examples: the Ashmolean Museum holds clay tablets as well as engraved stones. The stone monument pictured below is engraved with Hieroglyphic Luwian, where some symbols represent a whole word but most represent syllables.

Stone monument from Carchemish (modern Jarablus, Syria) written in Hieroglyphic Luwian.

Stone monument, Ashmolean Museum.

Syllabic scripts were regarded as systems of sounds that could be listed in syllabaries; lists of symbols that represent syllables with a consonant and a vowel in one symbol or element. There are examples of such syllabaries in various languages, including the Native American language Cherokee, Japanese, Amharic (Ethiopic) and the Linear B writing system used to write Mycenean Greek. Since the symbols consist of just one element representing sounds like ‘da’ or ‘ja’, these symbols show no understanding of the distinction between consonants and vowels.

Mycenaean Greek (Linear B)

Bilingual texts can help us to decipher scripts and translate unknown languages. For example, the extract below from an Old Babylonian grammar with Sumerian translation gives us an insight into both languages. We can see in the chart below that Sumerian has more inflections than Babylonian.  Members of the Babylonian elite were keen to learn the Sumerian language as it was seen as more prestigious.

Extract from Old Babylonian Grammatical Text I (c.1600 BC)

Ancient Chinese writing, which is entirely separate from the Middle Eastern tradition, also shows some awareness of sound structure. The majority of Chinese characters are picto-phonetic, so every character has a meaning in itself, but can also be used for its phonetic value as a sound.  Even in the case of pictograms that do not have an internal structure, there are some examples indicating that scholars analysed the syllable in two parts as in the rhyme tables below.

Ancient Chinese (700 AD)

In conclusion, the earliest writing is based on both meaning and sounds, so even the oldest symbols could already represent sounds. “Sounds” usually means syllables or parts of syllables. Moving to writing based on sounds makes literacy easier to acquire and makes it possible to read and write almost anything, including intangible meanings and foreign names. Almost as soon as scribal education started, we have documents about language: sign-lists, lists of vocabulary, lists of translations, grammatical paradigms … in other words, what we once called Grammar and now call Linguistics.

Many thanks to Prof. Coleman for the content of this blog. You can listen to the full lecture and see the slides here.


Johanneke Sytsema, Linguistics Librarian


Further reading

Senner, W. M. ed. 1991. The Origins of Writing. University of Nebraska Press.

Naveh, Joseph. 1982. Early history of the alphabet : an introduction to West Semitic epigraphy and palaeography. Jerusalem : Magnes Press, Hebrew University ; Leiden : E.J. Brill.

Powell, Barry B. 2012. Writing : theory and history of the technology of civilization. Chichester : Wiley-Blackwell.

Robinson, Andrew. 2009. Writing and script : a very short introduction Oxford : Oxford University Press

Jean, Georges. 1992. Writing : the story of alphabets and scripts. London : Thames & Hudson.

Harris, Roy. 1986. The origin of writing.  La Salle, Ill : Open Court.

Daniels, Peter T. and William Bright, eds. 1996. The World’s Writing Systems. OUP.

Coulmas, Florian. 1989. The Writing Systems of the World. Blackwell.

Sampson, Geoffrey.1985. Writing Systems, a Linguistic Introduction. London: Hutchinson.

Cohen, Marcel. 1958. La grande invention de l’écriture et son evolution. Paris : Impr. Nationale.

Baines, John. J.Bennet and S.D.Houston. 2008. The disappearance of writing systems : perspectives on literacy and communication. London : Equinox.

Asher, R. E. and E. J. A. Henderson, eds. 1981. Towards a History of Phonetics. Edinburgh University Press.

Jacobsen, T. ‘Very Ancient Linguistics’, in: Hymes, D.ed., Studies in the History of Linguistics: Traditions and Paradigms. Indiana University Press. pp.41-62.

Veldhuis, Niek. 2014. History of the Cuneiform Lexical Tradition. Münster : Ugarit-Verlag.

Glassner, Jean-Jacques. 2003. The Invention of Cuneiform. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Melchert, H. Craig, ed. 2003. The Luwians. Brill.

Han, Jiantang. 2012. Chinese characters. Cambridge University Press

Tsien, Tsuen-hsuin. 2013. Written on bamboo and silk : the beginnings of Chinese books and inscriptions. Chicago ; London : University of Chicago Press.

Drucker, Johanna. 1995. The alphabetic labyrinth : the letters in history and imagination. London : Thames & Hudson.

Endangered Languages and language documentation

The Taylorian is known for its collections on Modern European Languages, be it East- or West-European. Apart from the main collections including German, French, Russian, Polish to  mention a few, the Taylorian also houses less well known collections on minority languages, such as Welsh and Breton within the Celtic section or Occitan and Yiddish. To familiarise a wider audience with these ‘hidden treasures’ of the Taylorian, the seminar series ‘Introducing Endangered Languages’ was organised in Michaelmas Term 2015. The seminars were kindly given by Oxford specialists.

Prof. Mary Dalrymple gave an introduction to language endangerment in the first seminar and paid special attention to a critically endangered language Dusner in West Papua with only three speakers left. Some of the questions she discussed were :

How many Languages are there? What constitutes a language?

The total number of languages in the world can only be estimated at around 7000. It is difficult to be certain, and it depends on what counts as a language. E.g. is Chinese one language or are Mandarin, Cantonese and other dialects regarded as separate languages?  And is Arabic one language or does Egyptian Arabic count as a separate language? Assuming Chinese is one language, than it is the most spoken language in the world with more than a billion speakers. Second comes Spanish, followed by English.  Here is a list of most spoken languages from the Ethnologue.



When is a language endangered?

Interestingly, 94% of the world population speaks only 6% of the world languages, so most people speak a main stream language as their first language. This also means that 6% of the world population speaks 94% of the world languages, so each of these languages have relatively small numbers of speakers. Numbers of speakers may vary: 10.000, 1000, 100 or even just 10 first language speakers. Over 300 languages have no first language speakers at all, all speakers are bilingual and use the minority language only in certain ‘domains’ e.g. home and family, whereas the major language may be used at school, work etc. Many of these languages without first language speakers are at risk to be ‘overtaken’ by the mainstream language.

ethnologue 2

Most users of the Taylorian will have heard of European minority languages, such as Breton or Frisian, although languages like Friulian or Istro-Romanian are less well known. Most countries in Europe can be proud of having one or a few minority languages spoken within their borders. In terms of ‘language density’ however Europe is fairly ‘poor’, other regions in the world may have many more languages within one country. One of the most densely ‘languaged’ regions is South-East Asia. It is assumed that there are at least 1000 minority languages in Papua New Guinea alone, many of which have not even been documented. In the language-rich province of West-Papua in Indonesia there is a language on the brink of dying out: Dusner, an Austronesian language, only spoken by three people over 60. Fortunately, Prof. Dalrymple was just in time to meet them in April 2011. Flying out in a hurry to West-Papua after Dr Mofu had discovered Dusner, she then travelled to the idyllic village of Dusner that can only be reached by boat.


Atlas of the world's languages in danger Moseley, Christopher & Nicolas, Alexandre. Paris: Unesco, 2010. Taylor Library Linguistics Collection P40.5.L33 ATL 2010.

Atlas of the world’s languages in danger Moseley, Christopher & Nicolas, Alexandre. Paris: Unesco, 2010. Taylor Library Linguistics Collection P40.5.L33 ATL 2010.

Together with Dr Mofu who holds a D.Phil. from Oxford, she interviewed these last speakers  to record their language. The Dusner speakers are featured below (from the project website http://dusner.clp.ox.ac.uk/). For those interested in the sound of Dusner, the website holds audio recordings of the interviews.

These interviews were the basis of a language documentation project which resulted in the publication of the first grammar of Dusner  (by Mary Dalrymple & Suriel Mofu).


Small languages like Dusner are really valuable from a linguistic point of view, since they often maintain the more complex linguistic constructions, whereas major languages will have been simplified to make them easier to acquire by adults. English is an example of a language that simplified over time. For example In Anglosaxon there were different verbal endings as in helpe, hilpst, hilpƥ, helpaƥ, helpe, helpen (present tense of helpan ‘to help’) whereas in Modern English there are only two forms in the present: help, helps.



A remarkable feature of Dusner is the number system: it is a base five system, this means that there are separate words for one, two, three, four and five but six is expressed as ‘five one’ and seven as ‘five two’. Ten is a new word, eleven is ‘ten one’ and sixteen is expressed as ‘ten five one’.

Dusner numbers

The grammar is the only one book on Dusner ever published and this is held in the Bodleian. The Taylorian holds a good collection on endangered languages more in general, the list of recommended resources can be found below.

I’m grateful to Prof. Dalrymple for letting me use her slides and for giving me permission to use the table of  Dusner numbers and the two tables on numbers of speakers, both based on information from Ethnologue.

Johanneke Sytsema, Linguistics Librarian

Further Reading


Dalrymple, Mary and Suriel Mofu  (2012) Dusner. Muenchen : Lincom Europa
Closed Stack  M12.F01716

 Florey, Margaret J (2010) Endangered languages of Austronesia. Oxford : Oxford University Press.
Closed Stack  M09.E12948

Language Endangerment
De Dominicis, Amedeo (2006). Undescribed and endangered languages : the preservation of linguistic diversity. Newcastle-upon-Tyne : Cambridge Scholars.
Closed Stack. Also online through SOLO.

Crystal, David (2014). Language Death. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.
Taylor Institution Library Linguistics Collection P40.5.L33 CRY 2014

Harris, K.D. (2007) When Languages Die. The extinction of the World’s Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. Oxford: OUP.
Taylor Institution Library Teaching Collection P.40.5.L33 HAR 2007

Evans, Nicholas (2010). Dying words : endangered languages and what they have to tell us. Chichester, U.K. ; Malden, MA : Wiley-Blackwell.
Taylor Institution Library Linguistics Collection P40.5.E53 EVA 2009.

Fishman, Joshua A. (1991). Reversing language shift : theoretical and empirical foundations of assistance to threatened languages. Clevedon : Multilingual Matters.
Taylor Institution Library Linguistics Collection ALN.8000.A.45

Fishman, Joshua A (2001). Can threatened languages be saved? : reversing language shift, revisited : a 21st century perspective. Clevedon : Multilingual Matters.
Bodleian Library Lower Gladstone Link Open Shelves (UBHU) M01.F01417.

Gordon, Raymond G. (2005). Ethnologue : languages of the world. Dallas, SIL International.
Closed Stack M05.D01883.

Miyaoka, Osahito, Osamu Sakiyama and Michael E. Krauss (2007) The vanishing languages of the Pacific rim. Oxford : Oxford University.
Taylor Institution Library Linguistics Collection P381.P3 VAN 2007

Nettle, Daniel & Suzanne Romaine (2000) Vanishing Voices: the extinction of the world’s languages.Oxford: OUP.
Taylor Institution Library Teaching Collection P40.5.L33 NET 2000

Thomason, Sarah Grey & Verónica María (2015)Endangered languages : an introduction
Taylor Institution Library Teaching Collection  P40.5.E53 THO 2015

Tsunoda, Tasaku (2006). Language endangerment and language revitalization : an introduction. Berlin : Mouton de Gruyter.
Taylor Institution Library Teaching Collection P40.5 L28 TSU 2004


Wurm, S. A.& Theo Baumann (1996). Atlas of the world’s languages in danger of disappearing. Paris : Unesco ; Canberra : Pacific Linguistics.
Bodleian Library Weston RBMSS Open Shelves G1.B1.53 Maps.

Moseley, Christopher & R.E. Asher (1994). Atlas of the world’s languages. London : Routledge.
Taylor Institution Library (Graduate Studies Room) L.ATL.B.AA.4
(See also the online interactive version http://www.unesco.org/languages-atlas/index.php)

Moseley, Christopher & Alexandre Nicolas (2010) Atlas of the world’s languages in danger. 3rd ed. Paris : United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
Taylor Institution Library Linguistics Collection P40.5.L33 ATL 2010

Moseley, Christopher (2012). The UNESCO atlas of the world’s languages in danger : context and process. Cambridge : World Oral Literature Project.
Closed Stack

Personal accounts
Everett, Daniel Leonard (2009). Don’t sleep, there are snakes : life and language in the Amazonian jungle. London : Profile.
Closed Stack M09.G01855

Abley, Mark (2005).Spoken here : travels among threatened languages. London : Arrow Books.
Taylor Institution Library Teaching Collection P40.5.L33 ABL 2005

Drysdale, Helena.(2002). Mother tongues : travels through tribal Europe. London : Picador.
Closed Stack M02.G02997

Web Resources

Foundation for Endangered Languages http://www.ogmios.org/bibliography/index.php

Ethnologue http://www.ethnologue.com/

The Endangered Languages Project. A project to support language preservation and documentation around the world by the Alliance for Linguistic Diversity.The catalogue contains information on 3228 languages. Includes interactive map. http://www.endangeredlanguages.com

SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) http://www.sil.org/about/endangered-languages (includes interactive map and list of publications)

Breton at the Taylorian

Following on from her popular lecture in the ‘Introducing Endangered Languages’ seminar organised by the Taylor Institution Library in Michaelmas 2015, Dr Holly Kennard gives an overview of the library’s Breton collection from the perspective of a linguistics researcher.


Breton is a Celtic language, part of the Brythonic branch of languages, closely related to Welsh and Cornish. It is spoken by about 200 000 people in western Brittany, in northwest France. It has a long history of folktales and traditional music, much of which has been passed down orally through the generations.

There are no longer any monolingual speakers, and Breton is considered to be an endangered language, with most of its speakers now quite elderly. However, language activists have been campaigning for the future of Breton, and this has seen a resurgence of interest in the language, with the establishment of Breton-medium education, broadcasting, as well as an increase in material published in Breton.

Breton linguistics

I have had an interest in Breton for a number of years, beginning first as an undergraduate studying French and Linguistics, and continuing through to my DPhil, where I focused on Breton morphosyntax in contrasting groups of older and younger speakers. Breton presents an opportunity to study an endangered minority language as well as language revival, which I find fascinating, but I am also interested in aspects of its grammar – for my thesis I examined word order patterns and initial consonant mutation, and I am about to embark upon a project looking at grammatical gender and metrical stress.


The particular strengths of the collection at the Taylor are its breadth – it has a wide range of both books and periodicals – and its combination of classic texts (like early descriptions and dictionaries) and very up-to-date publications. I often use the ‘classic’ linguistics texts such as Kenneth Jackson’s Historical Phonology of Breton and Roparz Hémon’s Historical Morphology and Syntax of Breton.



Although written from a historical standpoint, these seminal works provide detailed and valuable descriptions of Breton, as well as explaining a range of regional variation. The collection houses a number of dictionaries from different periods, and with different foci: early dictionaries such as Grand dictionnaire franҫais-breton, as well as more modern editions such as the Elementary Breton-English & English-Breton dictionary, which is likely to be more accessible to a beginner. There is a large monolingual Breton dictionary, Geriadur brezhoneg gant skouerioù ha troiennoù, and then there are the more specialist works such as Per Denez’s dictionary of the Breton of Douarnenez, a dictionary of Old Breton, and even a dictionary of Breton place-names, Albert Deshayes, Dictionnaire des noms de lieux bretons and family names, Albert Deshayes, Dictionnaire des noms de famille bretons.

Geriadur brezhoneg gant skouerioù ha troiennoù ( An Here, 1995)

Geriadur brezhoneg gant skouerioù ha troiennoù (An Here, 1995)

I find the selection of Breton grammars particularly useful. The classic is Kervella’s Yezhadur bras ar brezhoneg, but as it is written in Breton, it is perhaps less accessible to a general audience. My default choice for a reference grammar is Favereau’s Grammaire du breton contemporain, as well as Press’s book, A grammar of modern Breton, which is written in English.


Atlas 2

Of course, the collection goes far beyond reference works such as the above. From my perspective as a linguistics researcher, the descriptions of dialects are very valuable – often, researchers have published detailed doctoral research into an individual dialect, which is really interesting. Le breton de Léchiagat, by André Sinou is one such example. Of course there are also the Linguistic atlases, which deal specifically with regional variation – compiled over the twentieth century, they also allow a glimpse of language change in progress, and are a valuable reference point for linguistics researchers. This is particularly important for an endangered language like Breton, since documentation of regional forms while they are still being spoken is vital.


The collection also contains Middle and Early Modern Breton texts, as well as dictionaries of Old and Middle Breton, and etymological works, allowing researchers to document longer-term language change, and study how Breton differs from its closest neighbours, Cornish and Welsh.

Léon Fleuriot, A Dictionary of old Breton : historical and comparative = Dictionnaire du vieux Breton (Toronto, 1985), pp. 242-43

Léon Fleuriot, A Dictionary of old Breton : historical and comparative = Dictionnaire du vieux Breton (Toronto, 1985), pp. 242-43

The Catholicon is a particularly famous work – first published in 1464, it was not only the first Breton dictionary, but also the first French dictionary, and gives words in Breton, French and Latin.

Le Catholicon de Jehan Lagadeuc : dictionnaire breton, français et latin (Lorient : E. Corfmat, [1868?]

Le Catholicon de Jehan Lagadeuc : dictionnaire breton, français et latin (Lorient : E. Corfmat, [1868?])

In my own work, I am obviously interested in the above, along with other linguistics works. I also frequently refer to the Breton journals that the library holds; in addition to the Journal of Celtic Linguistics, which is a more general journal, I use La Bretagne linguistique and Klask, which is the Celtic journal produced in Rennes. However, there is also a wide range of Breton-language literature available in the Taylor. LiteratureIn addition to books written entirely in Breton, there are also bilingual (French-Breton) texts, and a range of translations, which are helpful for language learners.

Danevelloù divyezhek, An Here-Al Liamm, 2002

Danevelloù divyezhek, (An Here-Al Liamm, 2002)


Not only is this interesting as a mark of how much publishing in Breton (at one time very rare!) has increased, it also constitutes in itself a valuable corpus. I hope to draw on this as I begin my next project, when I will be looking at the Breton of younger speakers/writers.




Dr Holly Kennard,  Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics, University of Oxford

Breton –  Book Display for Endangered Languages Seminar 4th November 2015

All shelfmarks relate to the Taylor Institution Library

Language history and bilingualism

Abalain, Hervé. 1995. Histoire de la langue bretonne (Paris: Editions Jean-Paul Gisserot) C.6501.112

Broudic, Fañch. 1995. La Pratique du Breton de l’Ancien Régime à nos jours (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes) C.9400.91

Gwennig, Youenn et al. 2002. Danevelloù Divyezhek / Nouvelles Bilingues (An Here – Al Liamm) C.6640.63

Linguistic Atlases

Le Dû, Jean. 2001. Nouvel atlas linguistique de la Basse-Bretagne (Brest: CRBC, Université de Bretagne Occidentale) X.OUT.C.27

Le Roux, Pierre. 1924-1963. Atlas linguistique de la Basse-Bretagne (Paris: Champion) L.ATL.A.FR.7

Dictionaries and Grammars

Croix, Alain and Jean-Yves Veillard. 2013. Dictionnaire du patrimoine breton 3rd edition. (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes) DC611B847 DIC 2013

Favereau, Frañses. 1993. Dictionnaire du breton contemporain (Morlaix: Skol Vreizh) REF.M.21.BRE.2 (BT)

Favereau, Francis. 1997. Grammaire du breton contemporain (Morlaix: Skol Vreizh) C.6501.111

Press, J. Ian. 1986. A Grammar of Modern Breton (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter) C.6501.90

Hemon, Roparz. 1975. A historical morphology and syntax of Breton (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies) C.6501.41

Humphrey Lloyd Humphreys. 1995. Phonologie et morphosyntaxe du parler breton de Bothoa en Saint-Nicolas-du-Pélem (Côtes-d’Armor) (Brest: Ar Skol Vrezoneg) C.6501.105

Jackson, Kenneth Hurlstone. 1967. A historical phonology of Breton (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies) C.6501.24


Favereau, Frañses and Hervé Le Bihan. 2006. Littératures de Bretagne: mélanges offerts à Yann-Ber Piriou (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes) PB2858.L48 LIT 2006

La Villemarqué, Théodore Hersart, Vicomte de and Kemener, Yann-Fañch. 1999. Barzaz Breiz: Chants populaires de la Bretagne (Paris: Editions du Layeur) C.9400.107

Madeg, Mikael. 2011. Nan heb e dad (Brest: Emgleo Breizh) PB2905.M28 N36 MAD 2011

Gibson, Jacqueline and Gwyn Griffiths. 2006. The turn of the ermine: an anthology of Breton literature (London: Francis Boutle) PB2873 TUR 2006