I want to give students the excitement to go see something else in the world. Language can be a tool for that.

Hélène Martin

It’s no surprise that language transcends culture and space, but Professor Hélène Martin, French & Francophone studies, is especially interested in how language transcends time.

“You can spend your life in a different country and experience it, but you can’t do that with the past,” she says.

In language, there are telling clues that can bring us closer to people who lived long before us. Martin offers a simple, nonverbal example of this phenomenon: the ancient cave drawings of hands and horses in southwest France.

“Hand shapes were found in many caves all around the world — even in Borneo,” she says. “That’s a sign that the shapes were essential to humanity, and seeing them made me feel very close to these humans. With written language, it’s even more so. That’s what I want to bring to students — the ability to relate to other people through what we share.”

Martin’s specialty is Renaissance literature. In her research, she delves into 16th-century texts about the French Wars of Religion — specifically, how the battles raged in her home region of Brittany.

By comparing texts by little-known Breton writers to texts by famous historians tied into the power structure of the era, Martin analyzes how the chosen language achieved different ends even while chronicling the same events.

“The mainstream historians of that time had a very power-driven look at things, so it influenced the way they talked about it,” she explains. “But the local historians were defending their values. There’s a lot of emotion in their writing about how their community was affected by the war. There are similar semantics used today when writers talk about civil war and brothers and sisters killing each other.”

In the classroom, Martin presents the tools needed not only to speak another language, but also to analyze language to discover the unknown world of our own cultures.

“Language is not just about communication; it also shapes the way we think and see the world,” she says. “I want students to be able to relate to other people and to see what we share. I want to give students the excitement to go see something else in the world. Language can be a tool for that.”

Posted October 2018