Middle English Word of the Moment

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Lingua latina in bucca... libri?

Latin isn't a real language. No, really. No language is a real language unless babies can pick it up. If it has to be consciously learned it's a code, no matter how sophisticated.

And this was surely even more true in the Middle Ages. We have a country that is, overall, tri-lingual: Middle English, Anglo-Norman and Latin. Out of these, the concept of spelling only seems to apply to Latin. And I just don't understand that. Having consistent spelling, with maybe a few errors, irregularities or regional variants, I understand. Considering spelling irrelevant and variable, I also understand. I do not understand how you manage to speak and write two or three different languages, and yet consider consistency in spelling important only for one of them. Granted, Latin isn't entirely consistent - one might contract 'occupaverunt' to 'occuparunt', or waver in how one wants to notate -oe- - and the vernaculars weren't entirely inconsistent, but overall it still bemuses me how the human brain can preserve such a distinction in their attitude to language.

This post was mostly prompted by a certain entry in the Anglo-Norman Online Dictionary, which is, if a little excessive, not atypical. I think this would be a good moment to quote it:
iluec, iluc, ilucs, ilueches, ilueckes, iluek, ilueke, iluekes, ilueks, ilueques, iluesques, iluk, iluke, ilukes, iluks, ilunqes, iluoc, iluoqes, iluque, iluques, ilux; elec, eleckes, elekes, eleuc, elluc, eloc, eloec, eloques, eloek, eluec, elukes; ilec, ileches, ilecqes, ilecques, ilek, ileke, ilekes, ileks, ileoc, ileoches, ileok, ileoke, ileokes, ileoks, ileoqe, ileoqes, ileoqs, ileoques, ileoskes, ileosques, ileqe, ileqes, ileqs, ileque, ileques, ilesqes, ilesques, ileuc, ileuk, ileuke, ileukes, ileuks, ileuqe, ileuqes, ileuques, ilex; illaoques; illec, illecqe, illecqes, illecques, illecqz, illecs, illecus, illeekes, illek, illekes, illeocqes, illeocques, illeoke, illeokes, illeoq, illeoqe, illeoqes, illeoqez, illeoqs, illeoque, illeoques, illeoquez, illeosqe, illeosqes, illeosqs, illeosque, illeosques, illeouqes, illeouqs, illeq, illeqe, illeqes, illeqoes, illeqs, illeque, illeques, illequez, illesqes, illesques, illeuc, illeucques, illeucus, illeuke, illeukes, illeuqes, illeuqs, illeuque, illeuques, illeuquez, illeusqe, illeusqes, illeusqs, illoc, illock, illocqes, illocques, illoec, illoek, illoeke, illoekes, illoeks, illoeq, illoeqe, illoeqes, illoeqez, illoeqies, illoeqs, illoeque, illoeques, illoequs, illoeqz, illoesks, illoesqes, illoesques, illok, illoke, illokes, illoks, illoq, illoqe, illoqes, illoqs, illoque, illoques, illoqus, illosqes, illosques, illouke, illoukes, illouqes, illouqs, illouque, illouques, illouquez, illousques, illuc, illucque, illucs, illuec, illuecqes, illuecques, illuekes, illueq, illeuqe, illueqes, illueques, illuesqes, illuesqs, illuesques, illuk, illuke, illukes, illukis, illuks, illuoqes, illuoqs, illuqe, illuqes, illuqs, illuques, illuqes, illusques, illux; iloc, iloces, iloche, iloches, ilocq, ilocqes, ilocs, iloec, iloeces, iloeches, iloecques, iloek, iloeke, ilokes, iloeqe, iloeqes, iloeqs, iloeque, iloeques, iloesqes, ilok, iloke, ilokes, ilokis, iloks, iloqe, iloqes, iloqs, iloque, iloques, ilouc, ilouke, ilouqes; ylec, ylecques, ylekes, yleok, yleokes, yleoqe, yleoqes, yleoque, yleqe, yleque, ylesques, yleuk, yllecques, yllekes, ylleoqes, ylloqs, yloc, yloec, yloeques, yloques, yloucus, yloukes, ylueqes, ylueques (hiluk Rot Parl1 i 389; ieluec S Audree 1512; ileu Anc Test (E) 7359; iley Durham i 174; ilioqe Rot Parl1 ii 87; illence (l. illeuce) Negotiations 102; illoik BOZ Cont 100; ilokis ROUGH 1; illoiques Edw Ring 66; illonqes (l. illouqes) Stats i 197 (var.); illonquez (l. illouquez) Readings 215; illovecques (l. illouecqes) Foedera iii 488; illus Rot Parl1 iii 91; iluekas Becket 4621 (var.); iluch Anecdota 13; ylooques Art 852)
adv. 1 (local) there, in that place; (local) (motion) there, to that place 2 (temporal) then; then, in that case;

Honestly. Did court scribes hold inter-county tournaments to see who could come up with the most obscure new ways to spell it? All that copying work must have got pretty boring, after all.

So, my conclusion is that the initial question rests on a false assumption. Latin and the vernacular(s) did not occupy the same space in most people's minds, and so they need not match in their rules. Perhaps Latin was learned from the page and largely stayed on the page, while written Anglo-Norman and English were considered a transcript of speech, rather than absolutes in themselves. Latin is a set of rules and signs, almost entirely self-referential: the vernaculars grow and change and steal and adapt. Latin was an internationally recognised code and had to remain consistent in order to BE Latin, but the vernaculars belong in the mouth of each speaker.

And, because I am worse than a dog with a bone[1]: see? Not a real language.

[1] I've yet to see a dog pay any attention to a bone for more than an hour tops. Solace buries hers within five minutes then runs around stealing the other dogs' and burying those.

Bonus points to anyone who recognises the phrase mangled in the title.


Vellum said...

Far be it from me to be a Latin apologist, but Latin was still learned organically by a few people. Let us not forget Michel de Montaigne for whom it was his first language. (Yes, I know the 1500s isn't medieval, but cut me some slack here, I just found a guy who learned Latin as his first language for you ^___^ ).

Ceirseach said...

Oh yes, theoretically the odd scattered person could have learned it organically, but I am firmly of the opinion that what Roman babies actually learned was a simplified dialect, probably strongly influenced by the native language that had been overlaid by Roman expansion, and that the language we now know as Latin was an acquired tongue that was used as a symbol of status and power in a culture that placed a heavy emphasis on the arts of formal speech.

That said - yes, thank you! He looks interesting.

Anonymous said...

I managed to crash my computer in the first version of this comment, but I hope I can remember my point. Speaking as someone who works on a Romance area, this question of how written Latin and the vernacular interact doesn't go away when you're in my area and period but rather becomes more nuanced. There is for example a debate about whether, in tenth-century Spain or Southern France, a Latin document being read out would have been understood by untrained Romance speakers. There're obvious Romance symptoms in the documents but when actual Romance turns up in them (1030s onwards) it looks quite different, Old French-like (though oc not oeil of course. And, it doesn't have consistent spelling. But how could it? There are no grammars for Romance: Latin has prescriptive texts that are several centuries old and are the main ways people learn writing of any kind. That's one point; the other is related, that people often learn Latin just by way of learning writing in my period. The thing that differentiates what you're talking about is that there is extensive vernacular writing in your period; but I think that no rules have been agreed for something so relatively new is not surprising. All the same, there is a big difference between a language that you learn in writing and one you learn in speech, as I'm sure you'll realise.

Loads of interesting questions here!

Ceirseach said...

Oh, definitely. And the same applies in Italian - Dante was writing as an avid advocate of the vernacular, but read any manuscript of the Commedia and you see an awful lot of Latinate spellings, as well as Latinisations like using abbreviations for common Latin words ("et" and so on) for their Italian equivalents. Though, of course, they'd sometimes spell the Italian "e" as "et" anyway, so it's a very wobbly line. And come to that, we still use the same Latin abbreviation for our ampersand, even though our "and" doens't sound anything like "et", so who's to say the line even exists?

Lady D. said...

Oh, trying to find something in the Anglo Norman dictionary is sometimes like a perilous quest in itself! I've spent many a happy hour looking at ow many variations a word can have!

Kath said...

Well, not to throw a *big* spanner in the works, as I think the differentiation between the orally- and textually- learned language is really interesting, but I don't think your main 'bone' will stand. Babies can pick up 'English', but that doesn't mean they can structure a sentence with finesse and spell all the words they can say. From this one deduces that language has 'natural' and 'codified' forms... And as has already been observed, the Latin code was well established by this time, whereas the Anglo-Norman code was only just beginning to precipitate out of solution, so to speak. What we see is someone who understands and can manipulate code x trying to apply it to situation y, to which it isn't yet properly adapted.