> Yearbook 2021 > Research Profile

Universality & Diversity


How can we understand diversity, how can we protect it? And what do we gain if we relate diversity to the universal? The profile area Universality & Diversity is dedicated to religious, cultural and linguistic diversity. In this context, linguistics, religious studies, history and philosophy work together with literature, languages and cultural studies as well as political and social science in an interdisciplinary way. Research foci are: Dynamics of Religion; Multilingualism, Agency, Minorities; Aesthetics: Materiality, Mediality, Potentiality; and The Blueprint of the Human Language Faculty.

The research network “Dynamics of Religion” explores processes of comprehension, misapprehension and mutual understanding in religious contexts. A discussion about markets in the Caucasus and tendencies to hush up what is divisive.

When people think of the relationship between the three monotheistic religions, they tend to think of enmity, conflict and exclusion rather than comprehension and mutual understanding. Is that precisely why you chose comprehension or understanding as your entry point?

Birgit Emich: In my research group “Polycentricity and Plurality of Pre-Modern Christianities”, which is part of the network, we have been dealing for a long time with plurality, which in turn has a lot to do with comprehension and misapprehension. We are looking, for example, at confessional conflicts up to the wars of religion after the Reformation. And there we can see that research is becoming increasingly uncertain regarding how much people knew about each other and really understood about the confessional frontlines. For example, in the mid-16th century, midwives in Alsace were asked what they understood by the Holy Trinity referred to in the emergency baptisms they often had to perform. One of them replied: ‘Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar’. You can see from this that the level of knowledge among ordinary people was very low. Against this background, the question of why the confessional differences then played such a major role poses itself all the more.

But we can add the following: If there are already such problems within Christianity, then we can assume that between the religions there are quite different ones yet again. Why was the “Turkish scare” in the 16th century so enormous? Where did the fear of Islam come from if nobody had any precise idea of who they themselves were? Would more knowledge have helped to bring about comprehension? And vice versa: are misapprehensions always conflict-laden, do they always lead to violence? Obviously not.

Christian Wiese: Among others, we approached these questions of interreligious comprehension and misapprehension from the perspective of our LOEWE project “Religious Positioning”. This project was about the mutual perception of religions and dealt with the question of how people, based on their own religious position, encounter, confront and dialogue with other claims to validity and truth. In this context, we also came across phenomena of creative “misapprehensions”, such as the fact that Jewish scholars in the modern era adopted Protestant interpretations of biblical prophecy, but in the course of this appropriation reinterpreted them along the lines of their own self-understanding and used them to justify the continuing existence and to even claim the superiority of Judaism.

What triggers these processes: Is it the intention to define one’s own identity in order to distinguish oneself from other religions? Or is it about exercising power?

Wiese: That depends on who is in the minority or the majority. With regard to its own existence, European Jewry in the 19th century always argued from the perspective of a discriminated minority in the Christian majority society. But other processes were taking place simultaneously: Jewish intellectuals also looked for good examples and role models with which to modernise Judaism itself, and then found elements in Protestant concepts or forms that seemed culturally attractive. It was also about changing and strengthening one’s own identity.

Your network focuses on five main research areas. One is translation processes between religions.

Wiese: Bernhard Jussen, Ömer Oszoy, Rebekka Voß and several other colleagues are working on this topic in medieval and early modern contexts. They are asking: What happens when the Holy Scripture is translated into another language, for instance when Christian authors translate texts from the Koran into Latin, when terms and concepts are transferred into their own world of ideas? What forms of reinterpretation or appropriation are occurring in such a context?

Emich: We also understand “translation” in the broader sense of the word. You can express the same religious practice in images, describe it in texts and act it out. This form of translation, for example the textualisation of a religious custom or the pictorial representation of a liturgical law, are also translation processes that interest us. You could call them a change of medium.

Your colleague, the historian Hartmut Leppin, is working on a glossary in this context.

Emich: The “glossary” takes into account that certain phenomena are called different names both in different scientific disciplines as well as by historical actors. And that we must first of all be clear about who actually means what. By God, truth, religion – not everyone always means the same thing.

So you want to find a common language in your project?

Emich: Our original idea was to create a common research language. However, this would not do justice to the diversity of our empirical inventory. Our goal must be to use the glossary to develop a set of instruments to process this diversity. I would therefore rather speak of a thesaurus, a kind of historically comparative dictionary, than of a glossary. This step seems to us to be ambitious enough.

Does it play a role that the content of religion also has to do with the inexpressible, with the untranslatable?

Emich: Yes, it starts with something as fundamental as the concept of God. What is God’s name? That is, of course, a very big problem in interreligious encounters. And if we look at mission history, we see that Christian missionaries use different names for God – depending on the cultural space in which they work. Jesuits working in China in the 16th and 17th centuries formulate things differently to those underway in the Americas.

Wiese: It is also interesting that these processes in turn have repercussions on one’s own language. In the course of her research on the Persian city of Isfahan in the 18th century, our colleague Catherina Wenzel came across an Italian missionary whose work took place in the context of Shiite Islam. His encounter with Islam and other religious groups clearly also had an impact on his own self-understanding, and that is also mirrored in his reports to Rome.

Emich: There is great permeability at the points of contact. Many missionaries say: Even if we don’t believe the same thing, we can all partake of the same Lord’s Supper. That is something that interests us: Does the everyday pragmatism in our interaction with each other perhaps not foster the religious understanding taught, but at least the willingness to interact with each other?

That’s why you are looking at religious practices.

Emich: Yes, but not only that. Take market activities in the Caucasus, for example. In an ethnological project, Susanne Fehlings and Roland Hardenberg ask how people adhering to different religions can do business together. The answer is: by not mentioning their religions at all. At all times and in all religions, people have also always allowed themselves the freedom not to talk about certain things. We assume that if you do business long enough with someone who is said to be doomed to damnation, one day you will think differently about this.

Wiese: Interwovenness and interconnectedness are central concepts for us. The three religions have never been without points of contact, but instead have constantly interacted in their thinking and co-existence since the early Middle Ages. Judaism and Islam were interwoven in many ways, for example in their mystical traditions – the Kabbalah and Sufism. They asked themselves the same question: How do you actually do that, make contact with the divine – by immersing yourself in texts, through dance, ecstasy, through movement in prayer? There were numerous points of contact here.

But your network also examines the misapprehensions, the reasons for conflicts.

Emich: Let us take another look at the example of the Caucasian markets: the fact that you don’t understand each other at all because you don’t know what the other person is thinking doesn’t necessarily lead to conflict. We must move away from thinking that we only have to know as much as possible about each other in order to understand each other.

Wiese: Nowadays, there is a tendency to consciously omit the topic of conflicts in relation to interreligious dialogue. The “Weltethos” project (“Global Ethic Project”), for instance, is partly based on this concept. Here, religions basically agree on the ideas and ethical values they all share. And they consciously play down what divides them. Because the difference is insurmountable.

»Understanding as the point of contact«

What complicates dialogue further is that religions are systems that claim universal validity.

Wiese: In the Jewish context, there has been an interesting solution since the Middle Ages: Jews were never equipped with their own political power and had to deal with the fact that they lived in an environment dominated by other monotheistic religions. Jewish scholars then developed an inclusive understanding of absoluteness: ‘We are actually the true religion, but Christianity and Islam have absorbed essential elements from the Jewish tradition. As powerful entities, they are capable of spreading them throughout the world. At the end of history, however, it will be shown that the Jewish religion has embodied and preserved these values most purely’. This means that the Jewish religion does not need an exclusive claim to truth and would not be able to assert it either.

You also approach the present with your question and ask about the relationship between religion and digitality.

Emich: One interesting aspect, for example, is: How is the right to speak changing as a result of the internet? For the Islamic world, for example, Armina Omerika is looking at how the number of speakers on the internet has increased. Who has authority, whom do I believe – the large number of speakers has created a wider spectrum.

Is there anything about your research topic that is particularly important to you?

Wiese: I’ve always been interested in how we perceive others. And also in the change of perspective this requires and in questions of dialogue: Is mutual understanding actually only possible by playing down conflicts and bringing about consensus? Or can we deal with difference and conflict by recognising the other person in their very different truth? I’m dealing, for example, with Jewish thinking in the American context, which speaks of the polyphony of truths. The question is: Do the three monotheistic religions provide resources for dealing with pluralism that may be significant for the present day?

Emich: Overcoming the “containerisation” of religions – that is also important to me. The reality of life was often such that people did not perceive themselves as if they were sitting in closed religious containers. It’s therefore very worthwhile looking back again at the internal religious problems from the perspective of these interreligious questions and findings. Against this background, religious demarcations of a general nature can be better understood in all epochs and in all constellations. With the concept of comprehension or understanding, we move something centre stage that both underpins conflicts and makes living together possible. Understanding is the point of contact from which social processes can develop in different directions.

Birgit Emich, Professor for Early Modern History, and Christian Wiese, Professor for Jewish Philosophy of Religion, are the spokespersons for the research network Dynamics of Religion.

Dynamics of Religion. Processes of Comprehension, Misapprehension and Mutual Understanding.

Goethe University Frankfurt

Participating partner institutions:

Forschungskolleg Humanwissenschaften (Bad Homburg); Buber-Rosenzweig Institute for Modern and Contemporary Jewish Intellectual and Cultural History; Institute for Research on the Philosophy of Religion; Frobenius Institute for Research in Cultural Anthropology; Frankfurt-Tel Aviv Center for the Study of Religious and Interreligious Dynamics; “Political Philosophy and Legal Philosophy of the Medieval and Modern Era” working group at the Institute of Philosophy (Faculty of Philosophy and History); Institut Franco-Allemand des Sciences Historiques et Sociales (IFRA).

Alongside African linguistics, the new Bachelor’s degree programme “African Languages, Media and Communication” deals with modern Africa. The high demand endorses the concept.

Sometimes things fall into place at the right time and in the right place – as is the case, for example, with the new Bachelor’s degree programme “African Languages, Media and Communication”. It was a meeting with peers outside academia that inspired Africanist Axel Fanego Palat for this years ago. The message: We lack knowledge about today’s Africa. For example, how do Africans, who are by nature multilingual, communicate in the European diaspora? What role do social media play on a continent with an oral tradition? And how formative are postcolonialism and migration?

Interest in today’s Africa might not just open up career prospects for young people, Fanego Palat commented at the time; it also challenges his own “small discipline”. He is convinced: African Linguistics as a “discipline devoted purely to language description is no longer enough.” It was opportune that Nico Nassenstein, an Africanist from Mainz, was also thinking about refocusing his subject and that the research priorities at the two professorships complement each other. They are stronger as a team – and have enough expertise for a degree programme unique in Germany. The collaboration between the universities of Frankfurt and Mainz (and TU Darmstadt) within the strategic alliance of the Rhine-Main Universities (RMU) is giving the project a further boost: the alliance systematically fosters cooperation through its two initiative funds for research and teaching. The two professors are thus tackling this major task together and developing a concept across federal state borders and bureaucratic hurdles.

The new Bachelor’s programme, in which a stay abroad is recommended, is interdisciplinary. Students study two African languages, Africanist linguistic practice with content from sociolinguistics as well as digital and intercultural communication. Thanks to digital teaching formats, commuting is kept within limits and also makes it possible to include teachers from Africa.

The new programme docks onto a new research project funded by the federal government, which is also being jointly implemented by the universities of Frankfurt and Mainz: the interdisciplinary, international research project Cultural Entrepreneurship and Digital Transformation in Africa and Asia (CEDITRAA).

How was the start? Demand seems to endorse the concept: almost 40 young people started the programme in the autumn. “They come from very diverse backgrounds and are very well-informed and critical,” says Fanego Palat, clearly impressed. Like Joel Amine, for example, who was looking for an alternative to his law degree. African Linguistics was out of the question for the son of Eritrean parents – to him the programme seemed too language-laden, and he was looking for more content on modern Africa. When Amine heard about the new degree programme, he knew immediately: “That’s the one for me. I can relate to that.” Joel is certain that people are needed who can build bridges to Europe’s neighbouring continent through their familiarity with colonial and postcolonial history and the continent’s potential, with refugees’ fates and the social media boom. And who also master African languages, even if there is a lot of vocabulary to learn right now, as Amine admits: the first semester has fully lived up to his expectations.

“I can relate to that”

CEDITRAA research project: How digitalisation is shaping cultural production in Africa and Asia

The universities of Frankfurt and Mainz have been implementing the research project Cultural Entrepreneurship and Digital Transformation in Africa and Asia (CEDITRAA) together with Pan-Atlantic University, their cooperation partner in Lagos, Nigeria, and partners in South Korea since 2021. Together, they are studying the consequences of digitalisation for cultural production in Africa and Asia, with a focus on music and film. The working hypothesis is that digitalisation in cities such as Lagos, Istanbul, Mumbai or Seoul has created new centres of cultural production beyond the classic ones such as Paris, London, New York or Los Angeles.

For this purpose, film studies is collaborating with economics, cultural anthropology, linguistics, and African and Asian studies. The variety of methods practised is correspondingly broad, ranging from field research and participant observation to business studies and digital research.

What unites all participants: their interest in broadening the perspective of the European media and cultural industries. What lessons do the African and Asian film industries hold in store? How are cultural spaces changing in the course of the digitalisation of film and music production? And what is global film culture anyway?

To communicate, we need not only our mouth, vocal cords and breath. Our hands and our face muscles also make a major contribution to making ourselves understood or giving what we say a certain focus. But how does the interaction between spoken language and hand motions actually work? A new Priority Programme aims to investigate the semantics of facial and manual gestures in spoken and sign languages.

“Turn right at the next crossroads (points to the right), then take the third left (points to the left) until you come to a roundabout (draws a circle in the air). On the right-hand side you’ll see an entrance (draws an archway in the air) that leads to the museum.” Imagine these directions with and without the gestures. It soon becomes apparent that gestures are part of everyday communication, they make it easier to transmit information by adding a visual channel to the acoustic element. The person getting the directions can visualise more in their mind’s eye and will probably reach their destination more easily.

Yet how does the communication level of gestures work? Where and when did we learn this “language”? How do we decide whether, when and how to gesticulate? And how can the semantics of gestures be arranged in a general system? Until recently, visual contributions to meaning were mainly treated in communication studies rather than in formal branches of linguistics. Gestures have also long been a part of rhetoric, semiotics and psychology. Not to mention the many years of research on sign language.

Theoretical linguistics, however, has so far scarcely explored the form and function of gestures. All that is about to change: a Priority Programme of the German Research Foundation, headed by Goethe University, wants to bring together existing findings from various disciplines and link them with linguistics – although it is concerned not only with gestures but also other visual forms of conveying meaning. “I’m pleased to say that the topic is now gathering pace in my subject area too,” says Cornelia Ebert, semantics professor at Goethe University, who applied for the Priority Programme together with Professor Markus Steinbach, sign language researcher from the University of Göttingen, and is responsible for its coordination.

The forms of visual communication on which the priority programme will focus are gestures, sign languages, animal communication, didactic and clinical aspects, human-machine interaction and visual studies, that is, communication via images and films. Fascinating projects have been proposed for each subtopic – and three will be funded at Goethe University Frankfurt, having been approved in April 2021. Linguist Professor Frank Kügler, for example, is looking at the interplay of intonation and gestures together with a colleague in Barcelona. And the computer scientists Dr Andy Lücking and Professor Alexander Mehler want to capture the meaning of gestures with the help of artificial intelligence. Duration of funding is six years (two periods each lasting three years) and €12 million are available.

As a semanticist coming from computer linguistics, Cornelia Ebert is above all interested in how the meaning of gesture and of speech combine and work together and how this interplay can be formally modelled. With the help of already existing expertise, which the Priority Programme brings together, theoretical linguistics is to “take a big step forwards”. The goal is a toolkit for theoretical linguistics that helps to better capture the gesture phenomenon and to derive a theory from it. To date, there simply hasn’t been any “formal instrument”.

At the Institute of Cognitive Science in Osnabrück, Ebert studied how the temporal sequence of gestures and speech – Ebert calls it alignment – affects meaning. “We’ve known since the 1960s that gestures and speech are temporally aligned,” says Ebert. She by no means sees gestures in the first instance as an expression of emotions, as they often transport “hard facts” – like in the above-mentioned example of giving directions.

Giving directions is also a good example of how gestures can be of very different types: some are deictic, that is, pointing; this category evolves very early in children’s language learning. “As soon as a child points to something and says ‘There!’, things really take off,” says Ebert. Adults also use this type of gesture in an abstract sense and point to an object or in a direction that is still unspecific at that particular moment. Gestures, by contrast, that are firmly anchored in their meaning like a lexeme are known as conventionalised gestures. This category includes insulting gestures such as the “middle finger” or the rubbing together of index and middle fingers and thumb to mean “money”. When we speak of “iconic gestures”, on the other hand, these are ones that mimic an action or an object – in the above-mentioned example of giving directions, these are the roundabout and the archway. And finally, there are gestures with metaphorical meaning and ones intended to rhythmise spoken language or highlight certain elements. All types of gesture have in common that they can accentuate, modify and structure spoken utterances; some also add new information. They direct our attention to certain parts of the utterance and can sometimes make it more precise – as in the example of giving directions, where we learn that the entrance is evidently an archway. It is, however, impossible to negate an utterance purely by means of a gesture. The structuring function of gestures can probably best be compared to the prosodic possibilities of spoken language, such as speed, duration or voice pitch.

Cornelia Ebert’s own Priority Programme project, which she applied for together with Dr Stefan Hinterwimmer from the University of Wuppertal, is concerned with the narrative perspective that introduces gestures into communication: How do gestures make it clear whether the person speaking occupies the observer viewpoint or the character viewpoint? If a person tells of an event without their own participation, the space in front of their body becomes the stage, their hands are the actors. If the narrator themself is the actor, their hands play their hands, and the narrator slips pantomimically into the role of the actor. “The gestural perspective does not always coincide with that of the linguistic narrative. We want to find out how this affects the listener and why it doesn’t necessarily have to be congruent,” says Ebert, describing her project. In one experiment, an actress performed various alternatives. “What was surprising was the fact that the test subjects were not bothered when linguistic and gestural perspectives deviated from each other,” reports Ebert. The project aims to answer why this is.

The Priority Programmes of the German Research Foundation are designed to explore the scientific foundations of particularly topical or emerging fields of research, whereby interdisciplinarity plays an important role. In the “Visual Communication” Priority Programme, disciplines as wide and varied as neurology, education, computer science and, of course, linguistics have joined forces. This facilitates the exchange and use of existing findings – such as knowledge about how speech and gestures change after brain damage: some people whose speech is impaired can nonetheless master iconic gestures like they did before – and vice versa. As a rule, however, our perception of speech and gestures occurs via similar mechanisms, which means that people often cannot remember whether they received the information via gestures or via the spoken word. Interestingly, blind children also communicate via certain gestures, regardless of whether their counterpart can see or not.

It is often said that above all southerners speak “with their hands and feet”, but this is in any case quite clearly a stereotype. Although there are indeed differences between language communities as to what certain gestures mean, and sometimes even families have an intra-family repertoire. A dissertation evidenced this scientifically as long ago as 1998: southerners do not communicate more with their hands than people from the North. Their gestures are, however, more flamboyant.


Speaking with our hands

We asked...

Cornelia Ebert

Which problem would you like to understand better through the ViCom Priority Programme?

What gestures, facial expressions and other visually based phenomena contribute to the meaning of spoken language and how purely “visual languages”, that is, sign languages, work and what distinguishes them from spoken languages.

What is important about it for you personally?

For linguistics, I hope that it will be able to expand its theories and repertoire of methods by treating a new range of phenomena – the formal analysis of other means of communication outside written and spoken language – and thus be able to capture linguistic communication in all its complexity. In addition, it is important to me that all scientific disciplines currently working on these phenomena (including linguistics, semiotics, visual and film studies, didactics, computer science, psychology, neuroscience, primate research) come together and exchange ideas. I am convinced that not only our field, theoretical linguistics, will profit enormously from this exchange.

What is your milestone?

To establish a common repertoire of data and methods for all disciplines involved and to create a foundation for scientific exchange that establishes common standards for collecting and analysing data and developing new theories.

What is the biggest obstacle?

There is not yet a unified linguistic theory or even adequate formal tools to describe and model visual phenomena in the same precise way as other linguistic phenomena. Developing such a formal apparatus is an enormous challenge.

Is there anything that has particularly influenced you?

The insight that gestures can contribute to meaning just as language can, and that the meaning of gestures can connect with the meaning of language in a very special way.

Professor Cornelia Ebert is professor at the Institute of Linguistics at the Faculty of Modern Languages.

Unser Forschungsprofil: Raum für gute Antworten

Mit sechs Profilbereichen will die Goethe-Universität ihre Kompetenzen stärker bündeln.

© 2022 Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main

Imprint | Privacy Policy

Order the print version