Saturday, December 03, 2005

BOOK: Philippe Wolff, "Western Languages"

Philippe Wolff: Western Languages, AD 100–1500. Translated by Frances Partridge. London: George Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971; Phoenix, 2003. 1842122762. vi + 201 pp.

This is a book about the evolution of Romance and Germanic languages in western Europe during the late antiquity and the middle ages.

There is an interesting observation on dialects on pp. 18–19. Each innovation in language occurs in some particular region; these regions partly overlap, and it turns out that in almost no two places is the set of innovations that occurred there exactly the same. So if you wanted to be really precise, you would need to say that each village has a dialect of its own. But to make things manageable, we take only some of the characteristics into account when defining the dialects, and therefore “the limits traced [between dialects] correspond to no dialectal reality” (p. 19).

As we know, the Romance languages evolved from the spoken or ‘vulgar’ form of the Latin language. This had slowly diverged from the formal, classical, written language, and this divergence went in separate directions in different parts of the (former) Roman empire, until the dialects eventually became separate languages. Interestingly, the differences between vulgar and formal language didn't appear only in late antiquity but were already quite large in the classical times; this can be seen e.g. from graffiti in the ruins of Pompeii, which show us the state of the colloqual language in the 1st century AD: it already had many of the characteristics which appear in writing only several centuries later, during the decline or decadence of Latin in the late antiquity and early middle ages, and which later became the standard characteristics of the Romance languages (pp. 26–30). Christianity also had an influence here: already in the late antiquity was it adopting many characteristics of the spoken language into its written texts, in the effort to bring them closer to their intended audience (p. 50).

“[P]roto-Germanic, like Latin, seems to have used neither subjective personal pronouns nor articles.” (P. 39.) I can understand why the personal pronouns came to be used later — because they abandoned the inflections on verbs, they had to use the personal pronoun to distinguish between e.g. ‘I walk’ and ‘you walk’. But why the need to introduce articles? What is gained by them? If I compare my native language, which like most Slavic languages lacks articles, with e.g. English, which does have articles, I don't have the feeling that articles are of much use. Only rarely does a situation occur where you can really choose between ‘a’ and ‘the’, i.e. when both are correct but they mean something different. Most of the time, only one of them is correct anyway, so that it conveys no extra information.

On the divergence of spoken and written Latin in the early middle ages: “As late as the fifth century, and probably later, one can detect the passage of written to oral language as a change of style. In about 800 it became a change of language.” (P. 43.)

The Franks had adopted the Latin language, but pronounced it in their own way. “[T]he Merovingian king Chilperic (561–84) was so conscious of the inadequacy of the Latin alphabet to translate the sounds of Latin he heard spoken abouthim, that he suggested adding some characters, corresponding in particular with the spirant th.” (P. 58.)

There are a few interesting etymologies: the German Kaufmann, O.H.G. kaufo, comes from Latin caupo, tavern-keeper: “surely very typical of frontier relations, where the tavern-keeper sold a little of everything and must have seemed the incarnation of commerce to the neighbouring ‘Barbarians’.” (P. 75.) The same caupo is also the source of the English cheap (ibid.). From the old German, it also entered the Slavic languages (kupiti = to buy). I'm somewhat impressed by all this — I would have imagined that even the most backward of the barbarians must have been familiar with concepts such as trade, buying, and selling; why then the need to borrow a Latin word for these things? Or if these concepts were really new to them, does this mean that they lived in a kind of communistic bliss before their first contacts with the Roman empire?

Christianity also had an influence on the development of Germanic languages; it required them to coin or borrow words for many abstract concepts which they previously lacked (the words currently used often emerged slowly, after much “trial and error”: pp. 76–7).

Charlemagne “learned enough Latin to speak it fluently”, but, according to Einhard, he didn't despise his native Frankish either: “He also had copies made [. . .] of very ancient Barbarian poems [. . .] he outlined the grammar of the national language.” (P. 90.) Unfortunately most of this material has been lost.

The evolution of Latin in the early Middle Ages is a curious thing: as the colloqual speech diverged more and more from the classical language, the writers eventually found themselves less and less capable of adhering to the classical standards; e.g. the writings of the 6th-century author Gregory of Tours show “[a] very large number of errors or distortions [. . .] considered by the standards of the literary Latin that Gregory wished to write” (p. 69). Later authors abandoned any such literary pretensions altogether (p. 70); “classical Latin orthography corresponded less and less with the actual pronunciation of the words, and the scribes consequently departed from it more and more. Confusion increased among the declensions and conjugations [. . .] Many other phenomena could be quoted here, all bearing witness to the increasing disintegration of the link with classical Latin” (p. 70). But then came the renaissance of Charlemagne's period: by then the spoken language was sufficiently different from Latin that the latter was beginning to be studied earnestly as a foreign language; in addition, Charlemagne encouraged its use in schools (probably also hoping to facilitate the administration of his state) (p. 89); with the result that “the language of documents and other manuscripts became more correct, and literary works again began to be produced.” (P. 90.)

In the period 1000–1300, the various dialects were beginning to converge into clear forerunners of the modern languages, and their use in writing and in various formal contexts was increasing. The coalescing of dialects into a modern language was particularly late and difficult in Italy, because of its lack of political unity (p. 140). In France, “Francian [i.e. the speech of Île-de-France and of Paris] was becoming predominant by the end of the thirteenth century [. . .] Froissart was the last writer in the dialect of Picardy” (p. 159). The upper and middle classes were increasingly abandoning Latin in favour of the living languages (pp. 104–5). The less these people knew Latin, the more important the living languages were becoming; in the 15th century, “[t]he Duke [of Ferrara] wrote [in Latin] to a neighbouring podestà at Modena to send him a falcon tied in a sack [. . .] but the recipient failed to understand, and sent the archpriest instead of the bird that had been asked for!” (P. 152.) “Europe was thus in about 1500 moving towards a general agreement between nation and language.” (P. 166.)

There has also often been a period of bilingualism when both Latin and a living language were widely used (or even trilingualism in the case of England, where French was also widely used for some time; p. 122). At the same time, “medieval Latin was probably never written (or even spoken) more fluently and elegantly than in the twelfth century” (p. 108); its final decline began only in the thirteenth century. In the fourteenth century, the humanists began their revival of classical Latin; interestingly, they often criticized not only the poor Latin of the religious authors of the thirteenth century, but also the great writers who used the vulgar tongues, such as Dante (pp. 154–5). In Italy, there were no great writers in Italian during most of the 15th century: “As soon as a writer of literary talent appeared, he tended to express himself in Latin” (p. 155). Still, eventually this excessive admiration of Latin waned, and the vulgar languages came into their own again (p. 156). A touching and patriotic sentence of Spenser is quoted in relation to that: “I love Rome, but London better. I favour Italie, but England more. I honor the Latin, but worship the English.” (Actually the quotation is from p. 254 of The Elementarie, written in 1582 by Richard Mulcaster, who had been Spenser's teacher at the Merchant Taylors' School.)

The introduction of printing encouraged the standardization of language and the marginalization of dialects. E.g. in Provence: “It was not Simon de Montfort, but Gutenberg who gallicised Languedoc.” (P. 173.)

There are also a few sections on the English language. I always understood that standard modern English is based on the dialects of southern England, but it seems that in some aspects, the northern dialects had more influence than I thought; “while Chaucer, who was a southerner, was still writing yive in the fourteenth century, it was the northern pronunciation and orthography give that prevailed.” (P. 120.) And the plural “termination -es, which had triumphed in the north, gradually eliminated the southern -en (although children and oxen remained).” (P. 169.) In writing, the letter ð disappeared in the fourteenth century, and þ soon afterwards (p. 168).

I see that I am not the only one who thinks that Spanish (i.e. Castilian — I'm not familiar enough with Catalan to be able to have an opinion about it) sounds somewhat pompous. “In about 1150 the Latin Poem of Almeria speaks of Castilian as ‘reverberating like a combination of trumpets and drums’ ” (p. 133).

I'm also glad to see that I'm not the only one who enjoys the sound of Portuguese. “The melancholy character of the race that spoke this language, and its sweet, soft sound, may explain why this thirteenth-century lyric poem in Portuguese [i.e. the Canticles of the Virgin of King Alfonso X] had such a success even outside the national frontiers. It was agreed at the time that Portuguese was more suitable for lyric poetry, and Castilian for epics and history.” I think this last concept is quite charming — the idea that different languages or dialects are particularly suitable for different genres of writing. I think that the ancient Greeks had similar notions; the Doric dialects for lyrical poetry, the Ionic for epic poetry, the Attic for tragedy and philosophy, and later the Hellenistic koine for more pedestrian things. Nowadays this is rare; we (myself included) would think it heresy to suggest that, for some particular genre, one language may be more suitable than another. I'm sure that, as long as enough authors (and sufficiently talented) make an effort in that genre, the language will adapt to accommodate it. After all, didn't the first Roman philosophers write in Greek because they found the Latin language to be too clumsy and unsuitable for philosophy? And yet little by little it evolved until in the middle ages it was the main tool for expressing philosophy in much of Europe. But still, the notion that some languages are peculiarly appropriate for some uses is romantic and charming, and I sometimes cannot entirely help wishing (against my better judgment) it were true.

There is a touching and charming anecdote on p. 147, illustrating how the local priests were often poorly acquainted with Latin. A priest, being asked what was the case of the word te (you) in a sentence from the Mass (“we beg and pray you, oh most merciful Father), was unable to answer; “When asked ‘What word governs it?’ he replied: ‘Pater, because the Father governs all things’.”

It's interesting how one of the main characteristics in the development of Indo-European languages has been the abandonment of all kinds of inflections, the simplification of declensions and conjugations, and the increasing use of prepositions and various other auxiliary words. What surprises me here is this: if a well-developed system of declensions and conjugations is really so hard for people to handle that they have to simplify it from generation to generation (and introduce prepositions and other form-words to make up for the loss of precision caused by the loss of inflections), then how come that these complicated systems of declensions and conjugations have evolved in the first place? How did the Protoindoeuropeans get the idea to encumber themselves with so many inflections if their descendants spent the next four or five millennia doing nothing but trying to get rid of as many of these inflections as possible? I cannot help feeling a bit nostalgic for the good olden days when a single word, with the aid of a fiendishly complex system of inflections, was able to say a lot of things by itself — things for which it now requires the aid a whole bunch of supporting form-words. I despise the incessant clap-trap of these numerous brief monosyllabic words in our modern languages. Sure, convenient they may be; and far easier to learn that a complicated system of inflections (even the comparatively modest German declensions turned out to be an almost insurmountable problem for me); but what are these advantages compared to the loss of the rough, simple and clear lapidary beauty of the fully inflected languages of old?

Another thing I enjoyed about this book is its pleasant chatty style. The author often uses questions (not necessarily rhetorical ones) and phrases like “let us . . .” to establish rapport with the reader and give you the feeling that you are not being merely informed or lectured to, but that you are embarking in the author's company on a journey towards knowledge. I rarely felt anything like this when reading works by English-speaking historians, but I did feel something similar when reading Braudel's History of Civilizations and Memory and the Mediterranean. Braudel and Wolff were both French — is it possible that the prevailing style of writing among historians varies from country to country?

Anyway, this is quite a pleasant book; brief and concise, engagingly written, requiring no particular knowledge of linguistics (or of languages; although I'm sure I'd be able to appreciate some of the examples better if I understood a bit of Latin and French or maybe some of the other Romance languages). I only wish it didn't limit itself to the languages of Western Europe only. I hope I'll eventually find some similar book about the development of the Slavic languages as well.


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