Berkeley Voices: Medieval song holds clues to lost dialects

student holding a viola
March 5, 2024

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In his research, UC Berkeley Ph.D. candidate Saagar Asnani looks at music manuscripts from between the 12th and 14th centuries in medieval France. He says only recently have scholars begun to use a wider variety of media and artistic expressions as a way to study language. "If we unpack the genre of music, we will find a very precise record of how language was spoken," Saagar says.

To read medieval music, Saagar learned five languages — Latin, German, Italian, Catalan and Occitan — making 10 languages that he knows in total (for now, at least).

In losing the history of pieces of music, Saagar says, we've lost languages and cultures that were present and important to the time period.

And today, at a time when linguistic boundaries are crumbling before our eyes, he says, instead of judging someone who speaks differently from you, realize that "it's actually a way of speaking a language and that we should cherish that because it's beautiful in its own way."

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