Language Study for Medievalists

This seems like a fine time to study languages, and so in this post I would like to see whether I can help organize our little community in this way. If any of what’s below interests you, please send me an email and I’ll include you in future organizational efforts.

As I have mentioned in other contexts, I have come to think that for scholars coming into the field of medieval philosophy today, both Latin and Arabic should be thought of as obligatory. Add to that English, and we have the three essential languages for aspiring medievalists.  Let me take them in turn:


  • Tobias Hoffmann — who in fact inspired me to start thinking about this whole topic — reports that he has done some research on programs offering beginning online courses in modern standard Arabic, and is enthusiastic about The Moroccan Center for Arabic Studies, which is offering one-on-one online courses for $20 per class. Perhaps it would be possible, also, to join a group and save money (and make online friends)? No doubt there are other online opportunities of this sort, and if anyone can recommend something, please let me know.
  • MCAS teaches modern standard Arabic. That is not a bad starting point for classical Arabic philosophy, but one might instead prefer to begin (as I did back in 2010) with the study of classical Arabic itself. I found Thackston’s Introduction to be an excellent guide, but most people would want a tutor as well as just a textbook. MCAS says they are “not prepared” at the moment to offer such a course. Does anyone know of any such online opportunity? Is there anyone out there who would be interested in serving as a paid tutor for a group of medievalists interested in learning classical philosophical Arabic? Anyone interested in participating in such a group?
  • The difference between the two previous bulletpoints, to my mind, is not so much a difference in the language itself (Arabic has not changed so much), but rather a question of whether one wants to study Arabic as a living language, with a focus (at least in part) on conversation, or study it as a scholarly language, as one would study Latin or Greek. If readers have an opinion about this pedagogical question, I would be glad if they contributed a comment to this post.
  • The previous remarks have focused on those who have not yet studied Arabic. But what about those who have already acquired the fundamentals and need to improve? Given the specialized nature of what we do, the only way forward at this stage is probably informal reading groups. Is there anyone out there who would be interested in leading such a group? Or perhaps such a group already exists online? Anyone interested in participating?


  • I cannot see that there is much point in a specifically medieval introduction to Latin. So, if one is looking simply for an introduction to classical Latin, there are presumably many online opportunities. I happened to see, recently, an affordable online program based in Romania. Does anyone know of any other affordable options?
  • Again, for those who have had a first course in Latin and are looking to improve, the most sensible approach is simply to start reading the texts themselves, in a reading group. Is there anyone who would be interested in leading a medieval Latin reading group? Anyone interested in participating? Perhaps such a group already exists online?


  • Perhaps there won’t be any readers of this blog looking for an introductory course in English. But, just in case, does anyone know of any affordable programs?
  • There may well be readers who would like to improve their English. If you are interested in joining an online conversational group for non-fluent English speakers, let me know.

In sum, if any of these opportunities are of interest, send me an email. Let me know your name, where you live/work, what language you are interested in, and what your language level is. And if you have thoughts about language programs, or pedagogical matters, add a comment below.


4 comments on “Language Study for Medievalists

  1. Therese Scarpelli Cory says:

    Notre Dame’s Medieval Institute has a summer language institute with courses online in medieval Latin, Syriac, and Greek: . In addition, our Classics Dept just announced an “Introduction to Classical/Qur’anic Arabic,” also to be taught online this summer: I believe this course will also be coordinated through the Medieval Institute’s summer language institute courses.

    I’m not sure what the fees would be for students outside ND, but the respective instructors for the courses would be able to provide more info.

  2. Ismail Kurun says:

    A comment on the pedagogical aspect of learning Arabic for medievalists: Depending on my experience with common Arabic textbooks, standard ways of teaching Arabic, and lastly reading medieval philosophical and theological Arabic works, I would recommend that if the main aim of the learner is to understand classical medieval Arabic texts, it will be much better to clarify this point in the beginning because the vocabulary and style of classical Arabic are quite different from the modern.

    The good news is that Arabic grammar has hardly changed since the Middle Ages and if you happen to start by modern Arabic and once you have learned its grammar, all you need to do to read classical Arabic is to learn medieval vocabulary and get used to its style by reading texts.

    So, in short, the best method for a medievalist to learn classical Arabic seems to me to be learning very basic Arabic grammar first and then passing to reading basic medieval Arabic texts to delve into medieval vocabulary and style. If the learner then also wants to learn modern Arabic, s/he can do it any time s/he likes as s/he will have learned the grammar. (But note that there are many Arabic dialects which are very different from the standard modern Arabic which is not the spoken language anywhere, though educated people understand it everywhere.)

  3. Rudavsky, Tamar says:

    What a great idea, and well thought-out list of places to start. Brought back memories though – I learned Arabic from the man himself W. Thackston, when he was still in the Boston area and I still have copies of the book. I may have to go back to it and brush up. Arabic is one of those ‘use it or lose it’ languages unfortunately, much worse in that regard than Latin, Greek or my native Hebrew (for me at least!). Now to carve out some time for Arabic again! Thanks.

  4. RP says:

    Mary Sirridge writes:
    We have a small group working our way through various Greek texts. Probably most people know the series, but for self-study or groups, I recommend the Dickinson College Commentaries . There are both Greek and Latin classical and some medieval Latin texts with introductions, notes on content and technicalities of grammar and morphology, vocabulary (very useful when an author insists on using future perfect middle voice with imperative force) and English translation and links to dictionaries and grammar books–good for either individual or group study. We are currently doing Epictetus, the Encheiridion

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