Saagar Asnani: How does medieval French music help reconstruct languages of the past?

Photo by Jen Siska; Banner design by Neil Freese

September 27, 2023

What languages do you speak? 

speak English, Hindi, French, Korean, Catalan, German, and Italian, and I can read Latin and Old French. Out of these, the languages I have studied at Berkeley are Latin, Old French, Catalan, German, and Italian. I highly recommend all of these classes. 

Can you tell us about your language journey? 

I grew up in a bilingual household. We spoke English and Hindi all the time. My parents also speak a dialect called Sindhi, which they speak every once in a while, but I'm not comfortable enough to say I can actually speak it, though I can make out what they're saying. 

Having grown up around many languages, I found I was able to pick them up pretty easily because I learned from a very young age. When I went to school, we had to pick a foreign language. The options were French, German, and Spanish, so I chose French. Once I attended college, I went to UPenn where I studied biology, French, and music as a triple major. I really fell in love with medieval French literature in one of my courses, and from there, I found myself interested in medieval French music, which is now my focus as a Ph.D. student in Musicology. 

Between research interests and wanting to communicate more deeply with my extended family members, I continued to learn more languages, such as German and Korean. 

What are your research interests? 

My research focuses on music and language in the 12th—14th centuries in medieval France. In my research, I ask questions such as, how can musical sources tell us more about the history of the language and vice versa? How can the language of these sources tell us whether a particular manuscript was written and compiled in a certain place —  things like spelling and word choice can tell us more about regional differences and also change over time, which linguists call diachronic variation. 

Research like this allows us to understand how a language changes over time — you can eventually spot the evidence of these changes in different sources. It's a way for scholars to reconstruct languages of the past in order to understand the written sources our predecessors have left behind. Music has been a relatively underused source in linguistic study and I hope to make it a source that is viable and usable — not just by musicologists, but also by linguists with vested interests in music. There's a lot that we can learn from putting these two disciplines into dialogue with each other.

What advice do you have for students who are interested in taking language classes or are considering taking their first language class? 

Pick something that you're interested in — do you love K-drama? Do you wish you could watch your favorite shows without subtitles? Read a popular book? While taking a language class can be a commitment, you’ll learn quickly, you’ll make close friends and it provides a lifelong community of people that you have a kinship with. Within a semester, you'll feel so much more comfortable with the language, not least because all of the instructors here are so great. I've never had a bad experience. I've already learned four languages here at Berkeley. So I think it's worth it. Just pick your favorite language and go for it!