Language in the Middle Ages

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the May 1981, A.S. XVI issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

As the Middle ages began, the language of Europe was Latin. As it closed, there were five major national languages and a host other languages and dialects. The path between these two points was a long tortuous maze of conflicting trends and influences; I will try to chart the broad outlines of them for you here.

Dominating the scene was Latin, which, as the language of the Roman Empire, was the foundation of the Romance languages of French, Italian and Spanish. As the language of the Holy Roman Church, it continued to influence the development of all national languages throughout the Middle Ages. The Latin influences on the English language do not date from the time of roman Britain, but from 600 with the reintroduction of Christianity by St. Augustine.

A fact often forgotten by many is that languages have a life of their own and are in a constant state of change. One merely has to read Shakespeare to appreciate this fact. Latin was no different. Even in the time of Christ, there were two forms of Lain: classical Latin, which is taught in Latin classes and was the language of rhetoric and literature, and vulgar Latin which was the everyday language spoken by the common people.

During the classical period, little was written in vulgar Latin, so much of its nature is a mystery, but it is from vulgar Latin that all else derives. Latin started merely as the dialect of the city of Rome in Latium, and was only one of several languages of the Italian peninsula. When Rome conquered the rest of the peninsula and imposed Latin upon the inhabitants, these other languages did no simply cease to exist, but were absorbed and generated regional dialects. As the Roman Empire expanded, this continued to be true. In Britain, the native language never did die away but remained the language of the lower classes and, when the Romans withdrew, once again became the dominant language of the island.

As the Germanic tribes crossed over the old Roman borders in the fifth and sixth centuries, they added a new element in the lingual picture. These Germanic languages were another branch of the Indo-European language from which nearly all European languages, including Latin, are ultimately derived. The impact of these languages ranged from negligible to total dominance. The Ostrogoths contributed only about 70 words to the Italian language. The Angles and the Saxons, on the other hand, pushed to the peripheries the native Celtic languages of England. Welsh is a remnant of such a language. French occupies a middle position, being the Germanic language of Frankish that had been Latinized.

There is no clear point when Latin ceased to be spoken by the general populace. Nor can a precise date be given to such an event, as the change was slow and continuous. The best that could be said is that around 500 the spoken language could still be identified as Latin, and by 800 even contemporaries had noticed that the language they spoke was distinct from Latin. For the rest of the period, the literary society of Europe was bilingual, and in the case of England, even trilingual. Latin remained the premier language of the Church and administration and, until the 12th century, of poetry and literature. This was particularly true of the regions associated with the Carolingian Empire, for it was the Carolinian Renaissance that revived classical style Latin. Outside the region of the Romance languages, Latinís grip on the literary scene was not so tight. In England, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Codes of Laws were written in Old English, and in Germany the pagan epic Hildebrandslied was written in High German.

For most of the Middle Ages, France had two languages: langue díoc and langue díoil, oc and oil being the words for yes. Since southern France was only lightly populated by the invading Germanic tribes, its language, langue díoc, retained close ties to its Latin origins and was very similar to Spanish and Italian. In the north, however, a large Frankish infusion coupled with a strong central state, first the Merovingianís and later the Carolingianís resulted in a fusion of Frankish and Latin, creating langue díoil, the romance language furthest from Latin.

Langue díoc was the original language of the troubadours. But despite the influence on other aspects of medieval life the troubadour had, langue díoc was doomed to fall to langue díoil as the national language of France. It was the political and society disunity of southern France that allowed it to be dominated by northern France, a situation rendered permanent by the Albigensian Crusade. Langue díoc, sometimes known as Occton, did not disappear quickly and still could be found in 1500. But the growing influence of the royal administration and the prestige of the University of Paris had reduced its importance. The introduction of the printing press sounded its death knell.

English has a highly complicated history of its own. After the Anglo-Saxons had driven out the native Celts, the island was broken into several small kingdoms, each with its own dialect. Then around 800 the Danish raids began, Danes being the catchall name for raiders form Scandinavia. These raids had two effects on the language. The first was the rise of Wessex as the predominate dialect. The second was that the northeastern section of the island came under Danish control. But just as the fusion of Anglo-Saxon and Danish had begun, in 1066 England was conquered by the French -speaking Normans. The court was French, and the popular language was Middle English. This is turn resulted in all but the most ordinary of Old English words being replaced by their equivalent French words.

This trilingualism ended with the Hundred Years War and in 1413 English was once again the language of the court. As in France, the dominating dialect was that associated with the court, which sat in London. Standardization was achieved with the introduction of printing by Caxton in 1476, and thus gave birth to Modern English.

The path to modern German is no less tortuous. In the political and social instability of the Holy Roman Empire, numerous dialects held sway in the various regions of Germany. Broadly speaking, these dialects could be placed into three classes: High German, centered around Bavaria; Low German, found along the coast; and Middle High German, which was sort of a combination of the two. It was on of the Middle German dialects, in particular the Meissen dialect, from which modern German sprang. This dialect was one of the so-called colonial languages, necessitated by the mixing of Germans from the various regions as they colonized their eastern frontier. It was Martin Luther who gave prominence to this dialect by his preaching during the Protestant Reformation.

Italy was no less diverse in its dialects. While Lombard and Tuscan were predominant, there was also Sicilian to the south a Predmontese to the north, among others. Italian was the last of the Romance languages to establish itself as a separate language from Latin. It was by the way of French literature that Italian came into its own. French troubadours were very popular in 12th century Italy and in the 13th as the troubadours fled from the Albigensian Crusade. These troubadours inspired the Sicilian school of poets who, centered around Frederick II, produced the first examples Italian poetry. But it was Dante who set the course of the Italian language. After producing a linguistic study of all the Italian dialects, he produced a literary fusion that, with the help of Boccaccio and Petrarch, became the common literary language of Italy and the basis of modern Italian.

Spanish followed a slightly different route. On the Iberian Peninsula, the influencing language was not Germanic, as elsewhere, but Arabic. The driving force was the Reconquiesta. At the end of the Moorish invasions, the Christian kingdoms on the peninsula were squeezed against the northern coast. These kingdoms were Galicia, Leon, Navarre, Aragon and Catatonia, each with their own dialect. Of these kingdoms, Galicia went on to from Portugal, while Aragon and Catatonia united. Out of this union came the Catalan language, which still exists as the native language of the region around Barcelona. But it was the section of Leon known as Castile that proved to be the dominating power. Castile was the leader in the Reconquiesta and the language spread throughout the peninsula, stopped only by Portugal to the west and Aragon to the east. The marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand in 1469 united Castile and Aragon and assured the prominence of Castilian.



Wolf, Phillippe. Western Languages A.D. 100-1500. New York: World University Library/McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1971.


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