This project explores the role played by multilingualism and linguae francae in the historical propagation of concepts and knowledge in antiquity.


Encounters between diverse cultures in the Mediterranean region and the Near East often triggered innovative developments whose results reached other, more distant cultural spaces. Thus, knowledge exchange took place across cultural borders and was explicitly perceived as such, even in antiquity. Moreover, spoken language has always played a crucial role in knowledge transfer. Of particular interest in this regard are two types of linguistic situations which were as frequently encountered in antiquity as they are today: multilingualism and linguae francae. Multilingualism and language contact lead to such phenomena as, e.g., linguistic borrowing, in which the adoption of a loan word from a foreign language often indicates the adoption of a foreign concept, and translation, in which a text (oral or written) is transferred from one language to another, inevitably changing as a result (in form as well as content). Linguae francae represent a strategic solution to the problem of linguistic pluralism: the parties involved agree to use a single language as a “common currency”. This project explored the role played by multilingualism and linguae francae in the historical propagation of concepts and knowledge in antiquity.


During the course of Topoi, much progress has been made on understanding the role and functions of multilingualism and lingua franca, as well as lingua sacra, as necessary tools for Wissenstransfer. The Open Access volume on Crossing Boundaries, Multilingualism, Lingua Franca and Lingua Sacra (Mark J. Geller and Jens Braarvig 2018), represents intense collaboration between Topoi (research project D-5-2), based in the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, the Austrian Academy of Sciences and University of Oslo. This volume of essays resulted from a number of regular meetings, some of which initially pre-dated Topoi but were then continued as working cooperation within Topoi. The culmination of the work on multilingualism and lingua franca in this project demonstrates how knowledge diffuses globally through the dynamics of a lingua franca as a vehicle of knowledge spreading over great geographical areas, for the purpose of sharing technical knowledge. A second category of language related to lingua franca can be classified as lingua sacra, characterised by the formal adoption of a language for the dissemination of sacred texts, either as the primary language of holy scriptures or as a translation of religious texts. The mechanisms governing the complex relationships between a lingua franca, lingua sacra, and minor or dependent languages are now much more clearly understood than previously, and work is continuing in this important research area.

One of the major puzzles of knowledge transfer through lingua franca and lingua sacra concerns the actual routes or means by which technical information is passed between languages and regions, and these problems were addressed by the 2016 Topoi conference “Weg des Wissens”. The subjects discussed in this important conference pertained to the awareness in antiquity of technical information found in other languages, e.g. Babylonian astronomy / astrology as recognised in Greek, or Greek medical knowledge cited in medieval Hebrew, or similar borrowings which can be identified in Iranian or Slavonic writings. In some cases, the rather remarkable results of this kind of collaboration has fundamentally changed some basic perceptions of antiquity and how societies related to each other on the level of technical knowledge.

Finally, many important insights into these questions were contributed by visiting scholars invited by Topoi, such as Frans Wiggermann and Henry Stadhouders, who participated in weekly seminars and contributed their own work in the form of lectures and seminar papers.