Languages and Cultures of the Mediterranean

This is part of our Campus Spotlight on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.


Course description

For thousands of years the Mediterranean Sea has been a place where important civilizations have met and where cultures and languages have intermingled and competed. This course is an introduction to the social and cultural history of languages spoken around the Mediterranean. It is a substantive program of study providing a detailed contemporary and historical survey of over a dozen languages and many dialects, and their communities of speakers. The course will enhance your understanding of languages and cultures contact history, stressing how, through conflict and communication, knowledge has spread and progress has come about. The starting point will be the Mediterranean of today, tracing the historical development of languages as an ongoing process, analyzing historical events and matters of culture, politics, and religion as they have influenced language history.

The course will introduce you to ways language and culture interact, including the nature of language change, the relationships between dialects and national languages, issues and outcomes of language contact, and the importance and consequences of official language policies. Our goal is that the course enhance your ability to think in a more analytical and critical way about languages and cultures in general, and not just be a descriptive representation of the matter.

The course will also enhance your knowledge of current events. The Mediterranean remains one of the most challenging immigration barriers between Europe and the developing world today. Once again, the history of linguistic encounters rewrites itself in every Mediterranean port, large city, and frontier, posing linguistic challenges that have to do with, among other things, the fate of languages and ethnic communities in the area, double standards in the treatment of immigrants and their languages, cultural and linguistic regulations in the EU, and the commitment to human rights and democracy.

The course will be team taught, with a series of lectures and discussions (discussions incorporated during the normal sessions and not as separate hours) led by diverse experts in the languages and cultures of the Mediterranean. The intended audience is primarily freshmen and sophomores, but more advanced students are certainly welcome. No prior knowledge of linguistics or the Mediterranean area will be required. Your grade in the course will depend on the results of four written assignments (details below) and on an evaluation of your participation in class and online.



Three writing assignments or essay papers

  • Three take-home papers (1000-2000 words each as above; longer papers are acceptable, but not shorter.)
  • Grading: based on valid and complete set of arguments; clear and coherent presentation of the content – more detailed instructions will be given on the Moodle website (see the evaluation guidelines)
  • No late papers accepted.
  • Paper topics will be posted on the course website one week – 10 days before each paper’s deadline. You will select one topic/question among 2 or more topics/questions.
  • Preparation for the papers is based on readings, class notes, posted power points of lectures, visual materials and all class discussions. In case you miss a class, make sure you recover the notes on all these aspects from your classmates. All readings and lecture Power Points will be available on Moodle.
  • Plagiarism, which is the uncredited use (both intentional and unintentional) of somebody else’s words or ideas, will have severe consequences.
  • See appendix page at the end of the syllabus (and on your Moodle page) with special instructions on how to write your essay and the guidelines for its evaluation.


Attendance and participation

  1. Presence of students in class: during the semester each student will be allowed a total of 2 absences with no penalty. Unexcused absences after the second will result in reduction of the participation score. To receive full credit for the participation grade, the students must be present in class in at least 12 sessions (out of 14). No doctor’s notes are necessary. Do not use your 2 allowed absences unless you really need them.
  2. Given that there is no textbook for the course, all students must take notes during classes and use them to complete the requirements for this class. It is your responsibility to have the notes from every lecture and class discussion. Make sure that if you miss a class, you get the notes from another student.


The Project: “Mediterranean cities and their languages in history”

All students will complete a final project. The title of the project is “Mediterranean cities and their languages in history”. You will complete the project in groups of 4-5 students, and you will present it as a group to the class during the last three sessions. Each group will explore the linguistic and cultural history of ONE Mediterranean city (you will have a list from which you can choose); the presentation is 15-20 minutes long. You need to have a large set of sources and make a good use of academic and journalistic literature for your project, present them during your presentation, and refer to them in your final paper. (Wikipedia should count for less than 20% of your sources)

The project will be directly connected to your final (third) paper. The final essay paper will be based on a question that makes a historical comparison of the linguistic and cultural state of affairs in your city with that of some of the cities presented by other groups. A guide to lead you towards choosing the cities of your projects, conducting the research, analyzing the data and building the presentation, will follow. We will discuss as a class (and in two brief meetings as a group with prof. Derhemi) the state of your individual work and the main questions that will lead the comparison of your Mediterranean city with others for your final paper. Participation in the last three sessions is obligatory. After each presentation, you will have ten minutes to reflect as a group on the comparison/connections of the presented city with yours, and ask questions to the group that is presenting.


List of 18 cities (or small regions or islands) to choose from for the group projects

Alexandria – Egypt

Alghero – Sardinia (Italy)

Barcelona – Spain

Corfu (as an island) – Greece

Cyprus (as an island)

Dubrovnik – Croatia

Genova – Italy

Haifa – Israel

Izmir – Turkey

Kabylia (region) – Algeria

Marseille – France

Pula (Istria) – Croatia

Salonica – Greece

Tripoli – Lebanon

Tripoli – Lybia

Tunis – Tunisia

Valencia – Spain

Valletta – Malta


Some useful readings

Daily selections of readings will be posted on your Moodle page on a weekly basis. The reading materials (chapters or papers) will be posted in scanned versions on the course’s website. All the required readings posted in a section are to be completed before the classes. You also will use the relevant readings in the preparation of your 3 papers and project.

Below you can also find a list of some primary books and materials used by your instructors, as well as some suggested readings. You can consult those or other scientific sources, as you prepare your essay papers. Selected journal articles and book chapters might change according to the changes in the team of instructors.

  • Abulafia, David. 2011. The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean. Oxford University Press.
  • Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II. Wm. Collins Sons Ltd. and Harper & Row Publishers Inc.
  • Coluzzi, Paolo. 2007. In Minority language planning and micro-nationalism in Italy. (Italo-Romance minorities) “The protection of Linguistic minorities within Europe, with special reference to Italy and Spain”. Peter Lang. 29-5.
  • Dursteler, Eric. 2010. “Fernand Braudel (1902-1985)” In Philip Daileader and Philip Whalen (eds.) French Historians 1900-2000: New Historical Writing in Twentieth-Century France. Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Gambetti, Z. & Jongerden, J. 2011. The spatial (re)production of the Kurdish issue: multiple and contradicting trajectories introduction. Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies, 13:4, 375-388.
  • Greenberg, Robert. 2007. Language and identity in the Balkans: Serbo-Croatian disintegration. Oxford University Press.
  • Helman, A. 2002. “Even the dogs in the streets bark in Hebrew”: National ideology and every day culture in Tel Aviv. Jewish Quarterly Review, 92 359-382.
  • Horden, Peregrin and N. Purcell. 2013. The corrupting sea: a study of Mediterranean History. Blackwell.
  • Hourani, Albert. 1991. A History of the Arab People. Cambridge: Harvard U Press. The Arab Muslim World, chapter 5.
  • Lee, J. S. & Anderson, K. T. 2009. Negotiating Linguistic and Cultural Identities: Theorizing and Constructing Opportunities and Risks in Education. Review of Research in Education March 2009 vol. 33 no. 1, 181-211.
  • Mackridge, Peter. 2009. Language and national identity in Greece. 1766-1976. Oxford University Press.
  • Mallette, Carla. 2010. European Modernity and the Arab Mediterranean: Toward a New Philology and a Counter-Orientalism 2010 University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Ostler, Nicholas. 2006. Empires of the World: A Language History of the World. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Harper Perennial Publishing.
  • Ostler, Nicholas. 2007. Ad Infinitum: a biography of Latin. New York, Walker Publishing Co.
  • Said, Edward. 1978. 1994. Orientalism. “Orientalizing the oriental”. Random House Inc.
  • Spolsky, Bernard. 2014. The Languages of the Jews: A Sociolinguistic History. Cambridge University Press.
  • Todorova, Maria. 1997. Imagining the Balkans. Oxford University Press.
  • Tziovas, Dimitris (ed.). 2003. Greece and the Balkans: identities, perceptions and cultural encounters since the Enlightenment. Ashgate.
  • Versteegh, Kees. 2001. The Arabic Language. Edinburgh University press. Chapters 2 & 3, pp. 9-36


Further academic and fictional readings on the local languages and cultures of the Mediterranean

  • Pamuk, O.: Istanbul: Memories and the City
  • Mackridge, Peter. 2004. Diglossia and the separation of discourses in Greek culture.
  • Turgut, P. (2007) Behind Turkey’s Kurdish Problem. Time. Retrieved from:,8599,1675165,00.html
  • Hill, J. (2012). Turkey: The Powerful and the Paranoid. The Global Mail. Retrieved from:
  • Selim, Mohammad El-Sayed. (1997). Egypt and the Euro-Mediterranean partnership: Strategic choice or adaptive mechanisms. In Richard Gillespie (ed.), The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership: Political and Economic Perspectives. Frank Cass Publishers.
  • “Kurds in the History of Displacement in Izmir”
  • Jean-Claude Izzo: Chourmo (2007), volume 2 of Izzo’s Marseille Trilogy
  • Tahar, Ben Jelloun. 2006. The last friend Penguin Books.
  • Selected Poetry from Cavafy, Seferis and Elytis
  • Marcato, Carla. 2001. Dialetto, dialetti e Italiano. Il Mulino.
  • Clash of civilizations over an elevator in Piazza Vittorio” and “Divorce Islamic style” by Italo-Algerian writer Amara Lakhous
  • Mark Mazower Salonica,City of ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950
  • Andric, Ivo. The bridge over Drina
  • Patrick Leigh Fermor Mani – Travels in the Southern Peloponnese(1958) & Roumeli (1966)
  • Kazantzakis, Nikos (1975) Journeying: travels in Italy, Egypt, Sinai, Jerusalem and Cyprus; translated by Themi Vasils and Theodora Vasils. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1975; San Francisco: Creative Arts Books Co., 1984.


Films and documentaries, fragments of which will be shown/discussed in this course (open list)


Course calendar and general topics based on a central regional language or country in the area: A linguistic and cultural Mediterranean journey

The course outline represents a journey among languages and cultures of the Mediterranean, generally oriented geographically as a circle starting from the East and following the coastline towards the West. Each region is intensely inhabited linguistically and culturally and will be approached from the perspective of a main theoretical topic and historical and linguistic events of particular significance. The Mediterranean will be discussed, and main issues and terminology in the field of linguistics and cultural theories will be underlined.

A detailed description of each session, readings, and other useful links will be posted by each instructor on the course website (Moodle) before their sessions.


Teaching calendar and instructors for Fall 2018

Day 1: Wayne Pitard – Early alphabets in the Mediterranean (2.5 hrs.)

Day 2: Eda Derhemi – I-E family of languages; connections in Mediterranean

Day 3: Anna Tsiola – Greek (2.5 hrs.)

Day 4: Eda Derhemi – Latin and Romance languages in Mediterranean

Day 5: Eda Derhemi – Italian and its dialects (Mediterranean linguistic reflections in the peninsula)

Day 6: Eman Saadah and Eda Derhemi – Arabic (2 hrs.)

Day 7: Eric Calderwood – Spain (2.5 hrs.), relations with the Arabic language and cultures

Day 8: Mahir Saul – Ottoman; Turkish; Sephardic (2.5 hrs.)

Day 9: Eda Derhemi – The Balkans: Forced linguistic planning/ purism/ linguistic proliferation

Day 10: Zsuzsanna Fagyal – Occitan continuum etc. (2.5 hrs.)

Day 11: Eda Derhemi and Zsuzsanna Fagyal- Islands (1 hr Eda – 1.5 hrs. Zsuzsanna)

Day 12: Eda Derhemi – Discussion and work on the projects

Day 13: Eda Derhemi – Discussion and work on the projects

Day 14: Eda Derhemi – Discussion and work on the projects


Appendix: General instructions for the essay

You are given a set of questions from every section of this class; select ONE of the questions and answer it in about 1500 words. Some advice: Read the questions that you choose to answer very carefully. Answer that question precisely, giving the most relevant facts and arguments you can think of. Do not discuss other issues that are not relevant to the question, simply because they are related to the particular language or to the historical period that you are discussing. When possible, make a good use of all the materials (readings, powerpoints, and lecture notes) and reference them briefly in the paper. You are free to use other sources as well. Your views and opinions are welcome, as long as they are well-informed by the class materials.


Checklist before submitting

  • Have I fully answered the question by focusing on the most relevant facts and arguments?
  • Does my paper show the knowledge I have gained through this course?
  • Is my answer logically coherent and does it form a cohesive whole?
  • Are expression and formatting clear?
  • Have I proofread my draft?


Essay evaluation

You will receive a letter grade based on the criteria described below. The instructors might also give evaluations between letter grades (i.e. A+, A-).


The A essay:

  • has a strong central idea (thesis) that is related to the assignment or question asked;
  • makes excellent use of all lectures, discussions and class literature (without missing any relevant point);
  • has a clear, logical organization with well-developed major arguments that are supported by concrete and specific evidence;
  • uses effective transitions between ideas;
  • uses appropriate vocabulary composing sophisticated sentences;
  • expresses ideas freshly and vividly;
  • is free of errors.

The B essay:

  • has a strong central idea that is related to the assignment;
  • makes good use of all lectures, discussions and class literature;
  • has a clear, logical organization with major points developed, but the supporting evidence may not be especially convincing or thoughtful;
  • uses appropriate words accurately, but seldom exhibits an admirable style while the sentences tend to be less sophisticated than the A paper;
  • has few errors that do not distract from the overall message.

The C essay:

  • has a central idea that is presented in such a way that the reader understands the writer’s purpose;
  • has an organization that reveals a plan, but the evidence tends to be general rather than specific or concrete;
  • uses common words accurately, but sentences tend to be simplistic and unsophisticated;
  • has one or two significant errors.

Less than C essay will exhibit one or more of the following problems:

  • lacks a central idea (or lacks a thesis);
  • lacks clear organization;
  • is not related to the assignment;
  • fails to develop main points, or develops them in a repetitious or illogical way;
  • fails to use common words accurately;
  • uses a limited vocabulary in that chosen words fail to serve the writer’s purpose;
  • or has three or more significant errors.


Eda Derhemi is teaching associate professor of French and Italian at the University of Illinois. Her research interests include language and minorities in Europe, linguistic endangerment in the Mediterranean area, and the sociolinguistic situation in Italy and the Balkans. Derhemi is also active as a journalist and translator in Albanian.


Published on August 4, 2020.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email