The Transmission of Knowledge



AS the Church had preserved in some measure that political unity of western Europe that the Roman Empire had achieved, so her ritual, her sermons, and her schools maintained a Roman heritage now lost—an international language intelligible to all the literate population of Italy, Spain, France, England, Scandinavia, the Lowlands, Germany, Poland, Hungary, and the western Balkans. Educated men in these countries used Latin for correspondence, business records, diplomacy, law, government, science, philosophy, and nearly all literature before the thirteenth century. They spoke Latin as a living language, which almost daily developed a new word or phrase to denote the new or changing realities or ideas of their lives. They wrote their love letters in Latin, from the simplest billets-doux to the classic epistles of Héloïse and Abélard. A book was written not for a nation but for the continent; it needed no translation, and passed from country to country with a speed and freedom unknown today. Students went from one university to another with no thought of linguistic embarrassments; scholars could lecture in the same language at Bologna, Salamanca, Paris, Oxford, Uppsala, and Cologne. They did not hesitate to import new words into Latin, sometimes to the horror of the Petrarcan-Ciceronian ear; so Magna Carta ruled that no freeman should be dissaisiatus or imprisonatus. Such words make us wince, but they kept Latin alive. Many modern English terms—for instance instance, substantive, essence, entity—descended from medieval additions to the Latin tongue.

Nevertheless the disruption of international intercourse by the collapse of Rome, the introverting poverty of the Dark Ages, the decay of roads and the decline of commerce, developed in speech those variations which segregation soon expands. Even in its heyday Latin had suffered national modifications from diversities of climate and oral physiology. In its very homeland the old language had been changed. The abdication of literature had left the field to the vocabulary and sentence structure of the common man, which had always been different from those of the poets and orators. The influx of Germans, Gauls, Greeks, and Asiatics into Italy brought a multiformity of pronunciation; and the natural laziness of tongue and mind sloughed off the precise inflections and terminations of careful speech. H became silent in late Latin; V, classically pronounced like the English W, acquired the sound of the English V; N before S dropped away—mensa (table) was pronounced mesa-, the diphthongs Æ and Œ, classically pronounced like the English I andOI, were now like long English A or French E. As final consonants were slurred and forgotten (portus, porto, porte; rex, re, roi; coelum, cielo, ciel), case endings had to be replaced by prepositions, conjugational endings by auxiliary verbs. The old demonstrative pronouns ille and illa became definite articles—il, el, lo, le, la-, and the Latin unus (one) was shortened to form the indefinite article un. As declensions disappeared, it sometimes became difficult to tell whether a noun was the subject before, or the object after, the predicate. Viewing this continuous process of change over twenty centuries, we may think of Latin as the still living and literary language of Italy, France, and Spain, no more transformed from the speech of Cicero than his from that of Romulus, or ours from Chaucer’s.

Spain had begun to speak Latin as early as 200 B.C.; by Cicero’s time its dialect had diverged so far from the usage of Rome that Cicero was shocked by what seemed to him the barbarisms of Corduba. Contact with Iberian dialects softened the Latin consonants in Spain: T into D, P into B, K into G; totum into todo, operam into obra, ecclesia into iglesia. French also softened the Latin consonants, and while often keeping them in writing, frequently dropped them in speech: tout, oeuvre, église, est. The oath taken at Strasbourg in 842 by Louis the German and Charles the Bald was sworn in two languages—German and French*—a French still so Latin that it was called lingua romana; not till the tenth century was it sufficiently distinct to receive the name lingua gallica. Thelingua romana in turn divided into what France called two languages: the langue d’oc of France south of the Loire, and the langue d’oil of northern France. It was a medieval custom to differentiate dialects by their way of saying yes: South France said it with ocfrom the Latin hoc, this; the North used oil, a fusion of the Latin hoc ille, this-that. Southeastern France had a dialect of the langue d’oc called Provençal; it became a polished literary language in the hands of the troubadours, and was almost snuffed out by the Albigensian Crusades.

Italy formed her vernacular more slowly than Spain or France. Latin was her native speech; the clergy, who spoke Latin, were especially numerous in Italy; and the continuity of her culture and her schools kept the language from changing so freely as in lands with broken traditions. As late as 1230 St. Anthony of Padua preached to the common people in Latin; however, a Latin sermon delivered at Padua in 1189 by a visiting prelate had to be translated by the local bishop into the popular tongue.2 Italian hardly existed as a language at the beginning of the thirteenth century; there were merely some fourteen dialects continued and variously corrupted from the ancient Latin of the market place, each barely intelligible to the rest, and cherishing its differences with passionate atomism; sometimes different quarters of the same city, as at Bologna, had distinct dialects. The predecessors of Dante had to create a language as well as a literature. The poet, in a pleasant fancy, thought that the Tuscan troubadours chose Italian as their medium because they wrote of love, and the ladies they addressed might not understand Latin.3 Even so, about 1300, he hesitated between Latin and the Tuscan dialect as the language of The Divine Comedy. By the narrow margin of this choice he escaped oblivion.

While Latin was dividing reproductively into the Romance languages, Old German was splitting into Middle German, Frisian, Dutch, Flemish, English, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic. “Old German” is merely a convenient phrase to cover the many dialects that exercised their tribal or provincial sovereignty in Germany before 1050: Flemish, Dutch, Westphalian, Eastphalian, Alemannic, Bavarian, Franconian, Thuringian, Saxon, Silesian…. Old German passed into Middle German (1050–1500) partly through the influx of new words with the coming of Christianity. Monks from Ireland, England, France, and Italy labored to invent terms to translate Latin. Sometimes they appropriated Latin words bodily into German—Kaiser, Prinz, Legende. This was legitimate thievery; tragic, however, was the influence of Latin sentence structure—keeping the verb to the end-in changing the once simple syntax of the German people into the stiff, inverted, and breath-taking periods of the later German style.4 Perhaps the finest German was the Middle High German written by the great poets of the thirteenth century—Walter von der Vogelweide, Hartmann von Aue, Gottfried of Strasbourg, Wolfram von Eschenbach. Never again, except in Heine and the young Goethe, was German so simple, flexible, direct, clear.

The Teutonic speech of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes went with them to England in the fifth century, and laid the foundations of the English language—gave it almost all its short and racy words. French flooded the land with the Normans, and ruled the court, the courts, and the aristocracy from 1066 to 1362, while Latin continued to preside over religion and education, and (till 1731) remained de rigueur in official documents. Thousands of French words entered into English, above all in costume, cookery, and law; half the terminology of English law is French.5 For three centuries the literatures of France and England were one; and as late as Chaucer (1340–1400) the spirit and language of English letters were half French. After the loss of her French possessions England was thrown back upon herself, and the Anglo-Saxon elements in English speech triumphed. When the French domination passed, the English language had been immeasurably enriched. By adding French and Latin to its German base, English could triply express any one of a thousand ideas (kingly, royal, regal; twofold, double, duplex; daily, journal, diurnal, …); to this it owes its wealth of discriminating synonyms and verbal nuances. He who should know the history of words would know all history.

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