When Last Words Become First Words: Transgressive Literacies and the Birth of Romance Textuality

Anthony P. Espòsito
University of Pennsylvania

I. Last words Balkan style: Philology and the Bosnia Syndrome (1898).

Last words, the theme for this series of articles that comes out of last spring’s graduate conference of the same name, are somewhat disconcerting for a philologist. Philology’s traditional obsession has usually been with first words — those first and originary scribblings which initialize a culture’s, and a nation’s, textual history. Last words from a linguistic-philological perspective usually imply language death. In comparative Romance philology there is a famous instance of last words that all graduate students learn about; it is invariably told as a cautionary tale, and is meant to remind us of two things: (1) that we always must play the hand we are dealt, that is, often we have less than perfect data; and (2) that we must temper our conclusions in light of this less than ideal data. The setting is the Istrian peninsula at the end of the 19th century. The two characters are the Italian linguist, Matteo Giulio Bartoli, and his informant, Antuone Udaine. Bartoli was born in 1876 in Albona d’Istria and raised within the cultural and linguistic mosaic of pre-World War I Austria-Hungary in present day Croatia. He studied historical linguistics at the University of Vienna in a rigidly neogrammarian program and in 1907 assumed the chair of linguistics at the University of Turin, a position which he held until his death in 1946. Bartoli’s early scholarly interest was the Romance language known as Dalmatian, a bridge language between the north-eastern Italian and Istro-romance dialects to its west and the Romanian dialect group in the east. At the time of Bartoli’s writing, Dalmatian was thought to be extinct, having been replaced through several waves of immigration and subsequent language contact by the more Italian-like dialects of neighboring Venezia-Friuli-Giulia in the north and west and Croatian in the south.

Read the rest of the article at pennworkingpapers.org.

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