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COVID-19 Crisis Blog: Language and the Pandemic Words for Social Change

1 July 2020 - As we navigate a national and global public health crisis with the spread of Covid-19 Coronavirus, we hear from our research and policy fellows, and members of our research community in a new weekly blog which reflects on these new societal challenges. This week, visiting resesarch fellow Kristina Varade, discusses how the pandemic has impacted on her research, and how recent events in the U.S. have prompted her to think more closely about language, one of the reasons she is in Dublin in the first place.

Kristina Varade, Visiting Research Fellow, Trinity Long Room Hub

“When the human realm seems doomed to heaviness, I feel the need to fly like Perseus into some other space. I am not talking about escaping into dreams or into the irrational. I mean that I feel the need to change my approach, to look at the world from a different angle, with different logic, different methods of knowing and proving.”[1] Italo Calvino’s essay on “Lightness,” included in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium, seems particularly timely given our current reality. In my Dublin apartment, altogether contemplating the more or less total loss of my tangible sabbatical fellowship research and proposed projects, the situation of my aging parents alone and isolated in the U.S., and the degeneration  of my country into preventable mass death and government-provoked anarchy, it is hard not to be weighed down by the gravity of the present. Writing and research seem shallow and self-indulgent at this time of great change, and so instead I find myself instead pausing to contemplate my place in the world and how to make it a more socially just and responsible one. Yet, as Calvino finds, there is a way out of the quagmire of uncertainty, a way to move forward, to change the approach with the intention of improvement and self-growth. One of those ways is through the means of considerate language.

Language was what brought me to Dublin in the first place this past New Year’s. I was ready to fulfil three separate fellowships concerning Irish and Italian comparative literature. Raised by a strict grammarian mother (who is still my best editor), I adore vicious wordplay and the challenge of mastering foreign languages. An ex-boyfriend once reproached me for being virtuosic in old dad joke territory, and several others have accused me of using words in a multitude of languages to an unfair advantage, all evidently in contrast to their dominant masculine proclivities. Words can cut like a knife- this we all know. Language, both the learning and instruction of it, has become fundamental to the last twenty years of my academic career. I have prioritised learning Irish and French for myself; moreover, teaching Italian at an urban community college has informed both my pedagogy and desire to transmit a love of language and literature to my students. Wordplay and multilingualism is in the blood, in a manner of speaking.

It all started out brilliantly. I was immediately welcomed into a very special cohort of faculty, fellows and graduate students at Trinity’s Long Room Hub, and received eager support and helpful feedback for my research. At the same time, I was fostering new relationships with Trinity’s and UCD’s Italian faculty, exchanging ideas and research themes over pints of Guinness and Neapolitan pizza (not at the same time, naturally). It seemed as though these disparate disciplines and languages were finally coalescing and bringing my long, arduous niche academic pursuit to fruition. Words flowed freely; in Irish, English, Italian, and in a patchwork quilt of other languages at the college too.

Then Covid-19 hit. And for better or for worse, as Umberto Eco has been described, so did a ‘fiume di parole/a torrent of words.’[2]      

Words, obviously, became our modus operandi. No longer could we rely upon the physical gaze or touch. Indeed, these human aspects could have instead been physical markers of our demise, due to the gravity and pernicious nature of the pandemic’s spread. So, what to do?   

“Can’t bring back time. Like holding water in your hand,” Bloom laments in Ulysses (8.610). As the days flow into one another under lockdown, time escapes us. And yet, Bloom also escapes these depressing facts of life through memory. Indeed, as we celebrate a very different sort of Bloomsday this year (the terms ‘Zoomsday’ being bantered about), we should be cognizant of time passing and consider alternative methods to foster meaningful connection. For the most part, we are still physically absent in each other’s presence. And yet, in many ways, we are more connected than ever before. These are manifested in both delightfully retro and undeniably futuristic ways.

Thinking about language, we have returned to letter writing, sending care packages and ‘snail mail.’ I can’t tell you how many of An Post’s complimentary “Grá” postcards I’ve sent over the last couple of months, along with birthday cards, thank-you’s, get well and sympathy cards for lives altered or lost by the virus. Opportunities for knowledge building and professional development is at an all-time high, in which platforms like Zoom help to democratise education and exponentially widen opportunities for academic growth. One month ago, a general presentation at a typical conference panel would have had less than a hundred people and would have been strictly located in a fixed place; now, through online videoconferencing platforms, the possibility for participation, as well as the locations from which these participants derive, is seemingly endless. Language programs such as Duolingo are more widespread than ever, as are social media games such as ‘Words with Friends.’ And thinking about the popularity of Sally Rooney’s series ‘Normal People’ during lockdown, it is inevitable that a televised “Conversations with Friends” will be the natural progression. Because that’s what we are presently tuned into. Changing the approach. Virtually perfecting the art of conversation.

Language is the one thing we can rely upon to keep us in touch, and we have a responsibility both to listen and to choose our words wisely, no matter the format. We are challenged to use language for meaningful social change and to listen carefully to the people whose words and voices have been marginalised for far too long. Losing discrete social cues of touch, smell, and subtle aspects of sight via social media and teleconferencing, we increasingly rely upon our words to create connection to our partners, colleagues, students, family members and friends. And while I’ve lost a great deal in the tangible reality of research and critical enquiry, much more has been gained through collegiality and the building of personal and professional relationships. How was this accomplished? In a word, through language.  

[1] Calvino, Italo and Geoffrey Brock. Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Boston:Mariner Books, 2016. Pg. 8.


Dr Kristina Varade joins us from the City University of New York in association with Trinity's School of English. The focus of her research visit is a project entitled ‘From outside in and inside out: historical Anglo-Irish/Italian connections.’ This interdisciplinary project examines historical and literary connections between the Anglo-Irish abroad who looked back toward Ireland and the written and oral narratives of early generations of Italians who made Ireland their home. To watch Dr Varade's recent Fellow in Focus discussion, click here.





Recent posts in the COVID-19 Crisis Blog:

Essential Workers and the Pandemic with Caitriona Lally (24 June 2020)

Joyce and the Pandemic with Professor Sam Slote (17 June 2020)

The Pandemic and Education with Dr Ann Devitt (9 June 2020)

The Pandemic and the Planet with Dr Ruth Brennan (2 June 2020)

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