Posted by: sternenfeeinflorida | 21 October 2011

The Impact of Vernacular Language during the Middle Ages

By Sünje Schwarz

Abstract

There were several factors responsible for the rise of vernacular language. A subsequent standardization of vernacular language is a logical consequence.

The French were among the first to spread their literary works in the vernacular language and by the fourteenth century, vernacular works spread throughout Europe. This shift from Latin to vernacular language presents an important shift in the interest of courtly literature. The role of women in the rise of vernacular language should also not be underestimated, as it was noble women who commissioned works to be written in or translated to vernacular language, thus preserving history. By the fifteenth century, vernacular language was well established as the language of literature, historical record and personal expression. In the end, however, vernacular language was often subject to standardization. Vernacular language was possible to rise and spread because many people did not speak Latin, not even noble men. Since vernacular language made it easier to convert people to Christianity, it was eventually used over Latin. Technological advances, which helped spread vernacular language and lead to increased literacy rates were essential.

There were several factors responsible for the rise of vernacular language. The desire to spread Christianity, the women’s desire to take part in cultural debates and technological advances are only three factors that made it possible for vernacular language to surpass Latin in importance of the everyday lives of people. A subsequent standardization of vernacular language is a logical consequence.

One important factor for the rise of vernacular language was the desire to make Christianity available for the broad population. Because they were most versed in studies of the bible and science, as well as vernacular language, it was usually monks who created an alphabet to translate the Latin bible into vernacular language. Once Christian readings and teachings were available in the vernacular language, it became easier to convert people to Christianity (Bouchard, 2004).

Nevertheless, there was a debate about whether or not religious service should be held in Latin or in vernacular language. This debate was one of the focal points of the Reformation in the sixteenth century (Slavitt, 1999).

Although the translation of the bible into vernacular language began in the tenth century among the Slavic Orthodox Christian community (Bouchard, 2004), in the rest of Europe Latin was still most common among educated people until the twelfth century (Sayre, 2010). However, the shift to vernacular language was not limited to Christians. Byzantine Jews also used their vernacular Greek language in religious texts, albeit using the Hebrew alphabet (De Lange, 2006).

This suggests that, although a standard language united religious communities, what communities together was ultimately the use of vernacular language. This can especially be seen in the development of nations when the religious impact on individual communities subsided (Bouchard, 2004). Vernacular language is, therefore, an important way to stabilize the identity of a culture, which not only binds a culture together but also emphasizes the difference to different cultures (Vincze, 2009).

The French were among the first to spread their literary works in the vernacular language and by the fourteenth century, vernacular works spread throughout Europe. This shift from Latin to vernacular language presents an important shift in the interest of courtly literature. It gave people greater freedom of expression, as can be seen in the poems of troubadours about courtly love (Sayre, 2010).

The role of women in the rise of vernacular language should also not be underestimated, as it was noble women who commissioned works to be written in or translated to vernacular language, thus preserving history (McCash, 2008). Although schools were on the rise, at least for wealthy boys, the main subject was still Latin and although girls of the same social class learned to read and identify Latin, they did not learn its grammar and with it its true meaning (Orme, 2006).  Therefore, when women wanted to participate in cultural debates, it had to be in vernacular language (McCash, 2008).

As a result, vernacular language empowered women and lead towards greater freedom of expression and by the fifteenth century, writings by women were no longer oddities (McCash, 2008).

Additionally, advances in technology and the import of papermaking techniques were important for the rise of vernacular language (Slavitt, 1999). Gutenberg’s invention of movable letters and a printing process that allowed for mass production was important for the spread of vernacular language. The printing process made it easier and faster to reproduce literary works (Chappell, 2011). Not surprisingly, the first book Gutenberg printed, the Bible, was written in vernacular.

These technological advances also generated greater rates of literacy since anyone who could speak a vernacular language could learn how to read and write in it as well  (Slavitt, 1999).

By the fifteenth century, vernacular language was well established as the language of literature, historical record and personal expression (McCash, 2008). Latin, however, remained an important language for official proceedings and science as it was considered safe from change (Vincze, 2009).

In the end, however, vernacular language was often subject to standardization. This is a widespread phenomenon in Europe where many countries have one standard language, which is by no means shared by all of the country’s inhabitants. Examples include, but are not limited to, Welsh, Gaelic, or Cornish in the United Kingdom, which were overtaken by English, Catalan, Galician, or Basque in Spain, where Spanish is the official language or North Friesian, Low German, or Bavarian in Germany, which has a form of High German as its official language. The standardization in these countries is not the result of superiority of one language over the others, but is a result of comprehensibility (Deumert & Vandenbusche, 2003). It is sometimes much easier to settle on a common standard for a language that can be understood by all and lead to the building of a common identity (Reershemius, 2009).

Vernacular language was possible to rise and spread because many people did not speak Latin, not even noble men. One of the main points that lead to the Reformation was the debate about whether or not religious services should be held in vernacular over Latin. Since vernacular language made it easier to convert people to Christianity, it was eventually used over Latin. Technological advances, which helped spread vernacular language and lead to increased literacy rates were essential. However, the women, who wanted to take part in cultural debates, but who were limited in their educational aspirations, also played an important part in the rise of vernacular language.

Because of regional differences, however, a standardization of vernacular language became necessary to increase comprehensive communication and a stronger national identity.

References

Bouchard, M. (2004). A critical reappraisal of the concept of the ‘Imagined Community’ and the presumed sacred languages of the medieval period. National Identities, 6(1), 3-24. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Chappell, P. (2011). Gutenberg’s Press Revisited: Invention and Renaissance in the Modern World. Agora, 46(2), 26-30. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

De Lange, N. (2006). Jewish Use of Greek in the Middle Ages: Evidence from Passover Haggadoth from the Cairo Genizah. Jewish Quarterly Review, 96(4), 490-497. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Deumert, A., & Vandenbussche, W. (2003). Germanic standardizations: past to present (Impact: studies in language and society. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: John Benjamins Pub Co.Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books/feeds/volumes?q=9027218560

McCash, J. (2008). The Role of Women in the Rise of the Vernacular. Comparative Literature, 60(1), 45-57. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Orme, N. (2006). What did Medieval Schools do for us?. History Today, 56(6), 10-17. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Reershemius, G. (2009). Post-Vernacular Language Use in a Low German Linguistic Community. Journal of Germanic Linguistics, 21 , pp 131-147 doi:10.1017/S1470542709000221

Sayre, H. (2010). Discovering the humanities. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Slavitt, D. R. (1999). The Decline and Fall of Latin (and the Rise of English). World & I, 14(10), 18. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Vincze, H. (2009). The stakes of translation and vernacularisation in early modern Hungary. European Review of History, 16(1), 63-78. doi:10.1080/13507480802655402

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