The term “Weltliteratur,” or world literature, was coined by German novelist and poet Johan Wolfgang von Goethe in 1827. He used it to describe what at that time appeared to be a rise in the availability of literature from other countries around the world. The access to such diverse works eventually gave rise to comparative literature departments in universities throughout the US and Europe. World literature includes works of literature from any country with a written language. It also includes publications of ancient texts from cultures as diverse as those of the Aztecs and Sumerians.
Comparative literature scholarship involves the study of the literature of at least two distinct linguistic cultural or national groups. Most comparative literature scholars, sometime called comparatists, are fluent in several languages. Generally, comparative literature departments require that students become fluent in at least two languages other than their own.
Initially, the study of comparative literature focused on US and western European works. It later expanded to include the Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic literature, as well as that of other world languages. World literature is now studied along with world film and compared with other genres such as music and painting. Comparatists still debate what the scope and direction of the study of comparative literature should be.
Many publishers now print and update anthologies of world literature. Folk epics from around the world, some previously thought lost, are now available for reading and study. Texts include Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic from India; Liyana, from Africa; and Epic of Gilgamesh, from Mesopotamia, which is the oldest known epic in the world.
World literature continues to arouse excitement in the academic world as well as among general reading population. Some scholars believe that the availability of properly presented global literature creates a new arena of insight, knowledge and learning. It has the possibility of engendering exciting ideas and knowledge between the creating and receiving cultures. It may also lead to innovative and cross-cultural literature with shared themes.
Some think that Goethe’s appraisal of the concept of world literature was partly right. It may have sprung from sudden availability of new books from other parts of the world. That the concept was sustained and continues to grow, however, is also attributed to the many universities and scholars around the world interested in the concept, as well as to the many lovers of literature.