How much did medieval Europeans understand about the origin and relation of their languages?


The modern study of historical philology and the discovery of the family tree of Indo-European languages started in the late 18th century. The fuel that took fire from the spark of insight in William Jones's astonishing paragraph had been gathered over generations, since about 1500, by scattered minds in Europe and South Asia.

But before that? What did medieval Europeans know or think about their own language map? Latin still was spoken and written in the Church. And the tongues we know as Spanish, Italian, and French were in the air, obviously related to Latin and obviously brethren to one another.

Dante, in exile about 1300, began a book meant to guide the development of Italian poetics. A language without a literature is a body without a head, and he meant to free his native people from the artistic dominance of Provençal troubadours and Parisian romance-spinners. He sought to winnow the dialects of Italy and discover the ideal medium for a true native Italian literature. (No prize for guessing he would find that ideal in his own Florentine.)

He dropped it after a few chapters, but what he finished of "De vulgari eloquentia" contains an explanation in medieval terms of the linguistic map of Europe. It is in the introduction, setting the stage for the argument Dante intends to make.

Dante begins by stating something obvious to him, and no doubt to his peers, that might seem strange to us. In most of the world around him, he says, there are two languages in the same place. Call them "low" and "high," or "vulgar" and "classical," or "common" and "learned." Dante calls the first "vulgar" or "vernacular."

I call 'vernacular language' that which infants acquire from those around them when they first begin to distinguish sounds; or, to put it more succinctly, I declare that vernacular language is that which we learn without any formal instruction, by imitating our nurses. [all passages as translated by Steven Botterill]

The Hellenistic Greeks had a common language of the streets and markets and a higher one for the plays and laws, just as the ancient Latin of Cicero and Caesar differed from the speech of the Roman war-camps and whore-houses. Still in Dante's day, there was the formal Latin of the Church and the scholars, and the common dialects of what we call France, Italy, and Spain. Still in Dante's day there was the Greek of the Byzantine court and the Eastern Church, and the Greek of the olive markets and trade ships. Had he lived later or known wider, he might have added Hebrew and Yiddish or the Arabic of the Quran and Modern Standard Arabic.

There also exists another kind of language, at one remove from us, which the Romans called gramatica [grammar]. The Greeks and some — but not all — other peoples also have this secondary kind of language. Few, however, achieve complete fluency in it, since knowledge of its rules and theory can only be developed through dedication to a lengthy course of study.

We moderns can miss something obvious to Dante: We study the language of Cicero and Caesar, and then assume French, Italian, and Spanish descended from that. They didn't. They descend from the common speech of the people going about their lives in the Empire, the "Vulgar Latin," which always was a separate thing from the artificial literary Latin. It did not descend from Latin; it was coeval with it, out of the same prehistoric stock, and if anything it was older, the literary Latin being an artificial construction of the learned Romans to match Greek. Caesar and Cicero were bilingual; they would have been at home in both forms.

Our English masks this because anciently it seems never to have had such a high-low division (which almost requires a written form). The French that flowed into it after 1066 was the vocabulary of administration and theology, which hewed much more closely to classical Latin than the French of the alleys of Paris. There never was a mass migration of French people to England; the language arrived in the pens and minds of the scribal class that crossed the Channel to help run William's new conquest, and they brought a limited and refined sort of French. I suspect the French that flowed into English looked and sounded more like Latin than did the French that stayed home in France.

Dante goes on to make a radical, revolutionary statement, by the way, but a necessary one for his purpose: He identifies the common speech as the more valuable, because the more human.

Of these two kinds of language, the more noble is the vernacular: first, because it was the language originally used by the human race; second, because the whole world employs it, though with different pronunciations and using different words; and third because it is natural to us, while the other is, in contrast, artificial.

Dante's explanation of the language map is based on the Bible, of course, and the story of the Tower of Babel. To a modern mind, that is a just-so story to explain the diversity of languages among the human species within the short time-frame then assumed for the history of the world. As it was a tale told to fit the facts as they were, it presented no impediment to Dante's understanding.

The Genesis story is a few simple sentences. "Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city." [KJV]

Ever since Josephus, the Babel story has been embellished. Dante adds a few details not in the Bible. He describes the human race as specializing the tasks of raising the mighty tower. "Some gave orders, some drew up designs; some built walls, some measured them with plumb-lines, some smeared mortar on them with trowels; some were intent on breaking stones, some on carrying them by sea, some by land; and other groups still were engaged in other activities ...."

When the Lord struck, the linguistic unity shattered along the lines of the work: "Only among those who were engaged in a particular activity did their language remain unchanged; so, for instance, there was one for all the architects, one for all the carriers of stones, one for all the stone-breakers, and so on for all the different operations. As many as were the types of work involved in the enterprise, so many were the languages by which the human race was fragmented; and the more skill required for the type of work, the more rudimentary and barbaric the language they now spoke."

The groups then dispersed across the habitable world, "finally reaching the furthest limits of the West."

Dante, and presumably his peers in Italy, saw three dominant language groups in their Europe: One centered on Greek, one on Latin, and one on the northern nations.

The Northern group "was split up into many vernaculars by the Slavs, the Hungarians, the Teutons, the Saxons, the English, and several other nations. Only one sign of their common origin remains in almost all of them, namely that nearly all the nations listed above, when they answer in the affirmative, say .

All the rest of Europe that was not dominated by these two vernaculars [Northern, Greek] was held by a third, although nowadays this itself seems to be divided in three: for some now say oc, some oïl, and some , when they answer in the affirmative; and these are the Hispanic, the French, and the Italians.

It is the familiar medieval division of what we now consider one language, French, into the langue d'oc (Languedoc) and the langue d'oïl, with the Italians (si) thrown in. By "Hispanic" he means Provence and the south of France and probably Catalonia, the turf of the troubadours. His concern is with literature, and that of Paris and Provence were most influential in northern Italy. 

Of these peoples, those who say oc live in the western part of southern Europe, beginning from the boundaries of the Genoese. Those who say , however, live to the east of those boundaries, all the way to that outcrop of Italy from which the gulf of the Adriatic begins, and in Sicily. But those who say oïl live somewhat to the north of these others, for to the east they have the Germans, on the west and north they are hemmed in by the English sea and by the mountains of Aragon, and to the south they are enclosed by the people of Provence and the slopes of the Apennines.

That they all descend from the same linguistic stock Dante finds easy to believe, using the same sort of comparative method later linguists would use to tie Sanskrit to Celtic.

Yet the sign that the vernaculars of these three peoples derive from one and the same language is plainly apparent: for they can be seen to use the same words to signify many things, such as 'God', 'heaven', 'love', 'sea,' 'earth', 'is', 'lives', 'dies', 'loves', and almost all others.

The process of differentiation over time he also finds easily explicable, even without authorities to back him.

 Now I must undertake to risk whatever intelligence I possess, since I intend to enquire into matters in which I can be supported by no authority — that is, into the process of change by which one and the same language became many. And since it is quicker and safer to travel along better-known routes, I shall set out only along that of our own language, leaving the others aside; for what can be seen to be a reason in one case can be assumed to be the cause in others.
The language with which I shall be concerned, then, has three parts, as I said above: for some say oc, some say , and others, indeed, say oïl. And the fact — which must first of all be proved — that this language was once unitary, at the time of the primal confusion, is clear, because the three parts agree on so many words, as masters of eloquence and learning show.

And here he gives examples of parallel passages from poetry.

But now we must investigate why the original language should first have split into three, and why each of the three different forms exhibits variations of its own, so that, for instance, the speech of the right side of Italy differs from that of the left (for the people of Padua speak one way and those of Pisa another). We must also ask why people who live close together still differ in their speech (such as the Milanese and the Veronese, or the Romans and the Florentines); why the same is true of people who originally belonged to the same tribe (such as those of Naples and Gaeta, or Ravenna and Faenza); and, what is still more remarkable, why it is true of people living in the same city (such as the Bolognese of Borgo San Felice and those of Strada Maggiore).

He explains that all language since Babel has been haphazard and confused, "and since human beings are highly unstable and variable animals, our language can be neither durable nor consistent with itself; but, like everything else that belongs to us (such as manners and customs), it must vary according to distances of space and time."

He finds no difficulty, either, in extending his observation about language over place to language through time.

For, if we thoroughly examine other works of humanity, we can see that we differ much more from ancient inhabitants of our own city than from our contemporaries who live far off. On this account, therefore, I make so bold as to declare that if the ancient citizens of Pavia were to rise from the grave, they would speak a language distinct and different from that of the Pavians of today. Nor should what I have just said seem more strange than to see a young man grown to maturity when we have not witnessed his growing. For, when things happen little by little, we scarcely register their progress; and the longer the time that the changes in a thing take to be detected, the more stable we consider that thing to be.

When he comes to the work of sifting out the Italian vernacular dialects to find the "most respectable and illustrious," he gives no preference to the Latin originals. In fact, he goes for the (contemporary) Romans first:

Accordingly, since the Romans believe that they should always receive preferential treatment, I shall begin this work of pruning or uprooting, as is only right, with them; and I do so by declaring that they should not be taken into account in any didactic work about effective use of the vernacular. For what the Romans speak is not so much a vernacular as a vile jargon, the ugliest of all the languages spoken in Italy; and this should come as no surprise, for they also stand out among all Italians for the ugliness of their manners and their outward appearance.

Nor does he find the conservative speech of the Sardinians a good model:

As for the Sardinians, who are not Italian but may be associated with Italians for our purposes, out they must go, because they alone seem to lack a vernacular of their own, instead imitating gramatica as apes do humans: for they say 'domus nova' [my house] and 'dominus meus' [my master].

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