Vernacular Languages vs. Latin: The Fall of the Babel

Abstract

Throughout the centuries, Latin has been the language of the educated. Only knowing Latin, people could read and take part in the scientific, cultural and religious life of the country. As a result, Latin turned into the language of the nobility.

The access to the literature was thus restricted by the cultural border. Unless one learned Latin, there was no other way to read the literature that interested the given person.

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At some point people started arguing about this state of affairs. Mostly because of the idea that books might reveal for them something new that they had never been told before, people started taking interest in their mother tongue crawling into the field of literature and science, making the issues of those more understood for the population.

Vernacular Languages vs. Latin: The Fall of the Babel

Because of the fact that most Middle Age literature was presented in Latin, while education was something that not all people could afford in those times, more and more people became preoccupied with the idea that there must be some way to present the literature in the language that they speak and understand. The problem grew bigger as rime passed, and the people grew weary of the Latin sermons that they could not understand and the books in Latin that watched them with mocking secrecy.

Indeed, as Disraeli (1841) put it, “The performance of the Latin language, during many centuries, retarded the cultivation of the vernacular dialects of Europe.” (106). The situation became complicated as people started expressing their protests against the foreign language as the main one in the state. Finally, the time of the great change came.

It began not with a revolt, but with a subtle change that was almost impossible to detect. The phenomenon was called later the Vulgar Latin. Watered with the Celtic words stylized as the Latin ones, with the specific endings and conjugations, these words became the basis of the future vernacular languages to develop.

The process was rather long and complicated, but the results were most fruitful and convincing. people have started winning the small areas of the language and they could finally hear something recognizable.

The day of triumph came when even the names of the geographic objects were transformed into the national languages of the people (Wellesley 2000, 14). This was something that no one could believe in several decades before. The idea that the books will be available to every single literate person was close to the revolution, and the first to protest such course of affairs was the clergy.

However, there was a long way to go before this triumph would come.

The first steps were made as the tenth century came. The overall atmosphere of being captured by writing and speaking in the native language had to find its place in the literature as well, both the scientific and the spiritual. As Le Goff (2006) marks it,

Medieval Europe spoke and wrote Latin, and when Latin retreated in the face of the vernacular languages in the tenth century, the so-called Romance tongues (French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese) perpetuated that linguistic heritage. (10)

As it can be seen from the abovementioned, it was not that the new languages simply took the place of the Latin language and started reigning in the sphere of literature and science. On the contrary, the new languages took the best of their mother tongue and represented a kind of pidgin – the language that was a mixture of the Celtic and the Latin taken together.

The structure was foreign, but the word stock was taken from the Latin language, its idea preserved together with the words that came into the newly created languages.

It would be reasonable to emphasize the impact of the vernacular poetry that has done its job on pushing the Latin language off its throne and taking the place of the leading language. As the new languages grew and became fuller and fuller with the lexis, the new poets started trying their luck in making verses and creating the literature of the new epoch.

That was the thing that made the Latin language completely out of fashion even among the creme of society. That is what Mantello (1996) says on the topic:

Old English writing also developed early. Vernacular poetry written by Aldhelm (d. 704/10) is attested but lost. Nonetheless an extensive Latin-Old-English glossary dating from the seventh century can be reconstructed from the evidence of the glossaries found I the libraries of Epinal and Erfurt. Old High German followed next. (123)

The importance of these languages developing was immense. Indeed, they helped the nations to be recognized further on as the peoples of their own culture and traditions, with a solid literature and art basis in addition.

In fact, the church was arguing a lot in opposition to the new languages appearing, claiming that Bible as the Holy Word cannot be translated into any other languages – which was further on proved wrong y Martin Luther – and did its best to hold Latin as the main language of the state and religion as long as it could.

The reasons were quite easy to understand, with all the power that the church beheld over the people with help of the language under their control and the sphere of arts staying still in its development, while the church dogmas and rules were piling up.

To sum up, the influence that the new languages development had on the people, the states and the cultures of the world was indescribable.

It was only after Latin was left for good when the states started developing their fundament for the cultural heritage to pass to the descendants.

In spite of the fact that the importance of the Latin culture is beyond any reasonable doubt and that even now the dead language has found some use in the spheres of medicine, pharmacy and jurisprudence, it is still clear that the new languages formed after the fall of the Latin “reign” are the very essence of the modern civilization in general and its every state in particular.

Without the vernacular languages, the world would have stayed in the stage of the Medieval times. Meanwhile, people must not forget that they owe their culture to the language of the Ancient Rome.

References

Disraeli I. (1841) Amenities of Literature: Consisting of Sketches and Characters of English Literature. New York, NY: J. & H. G. Langley.

Le Goff J., Lloyd, J. (2006) The Birth of Europe: 400-1500. New york, NY: Wiley-Blackwell.

Mantello F. A. C., Rigg A. G. (1996) Medieval Latin: an Introduction and Bibliographical Guide. Cambridge: CUA Press.

Wellesley K. (2000) The Year of the Four Emperors. Oxford: Routledge.

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